It’s well established that high gas prices are causing many day-trippers, weekenders, and vacationers to travel less and choose destinations closer to home. Travel experts have assumed (but not conclusively proven) that national parks in more distant locations may experience significant long term declines in attendance.
Now there’s evidence to suggest that tourists visiting national parks might be driving less inside the parks as well. At North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, fewer early summer motorists elected to drive to the park’s most remote unit.
As the Memorial Day to Labor Day summer season got underway at Roosevelt, there was a big drop in visitation at the park’s north unit, a 19,410-acre natural area that features a 13.7-mile scenic loop with access to excellent camping, backpacking, birding, hiking, and horseback riding. June visitor numbers at the north unit dropped 30% compared to same month last year.
This attendance drop was very unusual. The north unit typically gets about 10% of the park’s visitation, and the park’s total visitation was actually higher than the year before (up 5.7% through July to a total of nearly 264,000). Why should the north unit have gotten significantly fewer visitors when more visitors were coming to the park?
For a map of the park, visit this site. Be sure to select higher resolution ("+").
Tom Cox, the chief ranger at Roosevelt, believes that high fuel prices were probably the main reason for the conspicuous attendance decline at the north unit. The north unit is relatively isolated, being situated on U.S. 85 (a two-lane highway) about 16 miles south of Watford City. Only some of the motorists who visit the more popular south unit, which is close to Interstate 94 and the tourist-historic town of Medora, elect to drive 65 miles to visit the north unit. Most do not. It is, after all, a 65-mile trip to an isolated place. It seems reasonable to assume that the high fuel costs made it easier for many more motorists to “just say no” to that north unit visit last June.
What we are to make of all this? Can we assume that motorists will be traveling less and avoiding more distant attractions within other national parks as well? Surely not. We can’t even make valid conclusion about the situation at Roosevelt. This is just an observation, not a systematic study. We’re only talking about one short-term event at a single unit of one park.
About the only thing we can say for sure is that there’s an interesting line of inquiry to follow – perhaps with a more systematic study of a representative sample of parks over a period of at least several months. Meanwhile, anecdotal information from various other national parks suggests that people have been traveling shorter distances this summer.
Many people believe that American motorists will rapidly get used to higher fuel prices and resume traveling pretty much the way they did when gas was cheaper. Time will tell. Over at Roosevelt, Ranger Cox reports that north unit visitation has leveled out in recent weeks. This might mean that motorists visiting Roosevelt are getting used to the higher fuel prices. One might also argue that only increasing attendance at the north unit would be a true signal of that.
The fact that total attendance at Roosevelt was up for the year through July is downright intriguing. If high fuel prices have deterred travel to distant national parks, why has this North Dakota park, which lies far beyond the day-tripping range of major population centers, attracted more visitors this year than it did during the same period last year? This fuel price thing sure is complicated.