Visitation to the National Park System in 2008 was, essentially, flat from the year before. There were spikes in some areas, and deep drops in others, but overall the 275 million visitors who were counted represented just 800,000 fewer than in 2007, according to preliminary data from the National Park Service.
Among the quirks that stand out in the visitation report (attached below):
* Yosemite National Park recorded an increase of nearly 61,000 backcountry travelers.
* Lake Mead National Recreation Area reported 66,300 more concessioner campground overnight stays and 40,100 more tent and RV overnight stays, but 22,900 fewer backcountry stays.
* Yellowstone National Park's concessioner-run campgrounds saw a 102,000 drop in overnight stays.
* Sixty-three percent of all 391 park units reported declines in RV overnight stays.
* Great Smoky Mountains National Park reported 15,100 fewer RV overnight stays.
* Channel Islands National Park reported 69,100 fewer group and boat overnight stays.
In general, there was no notable decline in concessionaire lodging numbers (3.59 million in 2007 vs 3.58 million in 2008), a 6 percent decline in concessionaire campground use (1.3 million vs. 1.22 million), a 5 percent decline in RV stays (2.1 million vs. 2 million), and a 5 percent increase in backcountry camping (1.7 million vs. 1.78 million).
(Editor's note: The preliminary report did not contain year-end visitation totals for individual parks. Additionally, the latest numbers have not yet been integrated into the Park Service's public use statistics web site.)
Dr. Jim Gramann, a professor in recreation, parks and tourism at Texas A&M University who since 2002 has also served as visiting chief social scientist for the National Park Service, was a bit surprised by the relatively level overall visitation trend.
"We thought that high fuel prices during the summer would lead to a more significant decline in visitation than has occurred in 2008," Dr. Gramann said from his College Station, Texas, office on Friday. "The visitation was relatively flat compared to last year (2007). Why that occurred, why there was not a greater decline in visitation, is something that we would have to look at in greater detail.
“One possible explanation is that people traveled shorter distances and so visitation to parks that were within a day’s travel to a major population center" might have gone up, he said.
And yet, that wasn't always the case, as evidenced by the decline in RV travel to Great Smoky, which normally has the largest visitation of any national park. Indeed, according to the NPS numbers Great Smoky saw a 238,000 overall decline in 2008 visitation, to 9,044,010.
Also down, by more than 1 million visitors, was traffic to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As for the various drops in campground stays, Dr. Gramann suggested that “it’s possible that as the population ages that people who used to tent camp are now looking for more comfortable amenities when they stay overnight.”
Park units reporting the greatest increases in traffic for 2008 were:
* Gateway National Recreation Area, up 618,000 over 2007 levels;
* Vietnam Veterans Memorial, up 610,000;
* Lincoln Memorial, up 465,000;
* Independence National Historical Park, up 371,000;
* Cuyahoga Valley National Park, up 342,000, and;
* Cape Cod National Seashore, up 293,000.
Dr. Gramann also pointed out that visitation to individual park units sometimes spikes due to special events, like a centennial, or drop due to weather, which was the case at the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway had weather-related road closures most notably in November, when traffic was down 102,000 over November 2007.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways saw two major storms in November that contributed to a 78,000 drop in visitation, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore saw November storms as well that contributed to a 40,000 drop in visitation.
Conversely, Biscayne National Park saw 34,000 more visitors in November 2008 than a year earlier, according to the report. Yosemite, in addition to its bullish backcountry numbers, also saw an increase of 13,500 in concessionaire lodging, 20,800 in campground tents, and 8,400 more RV visits.
Looking ahead to the 2009 travel season, the professor said it will be interesting to watch visitation. If fuel prices remain relatively low and there's a drop in visitation, it likely would be tied to the country's economic conditions, he said.
Dr. Gramann also will be watching international traffic, which has been somewhat strong in recent years due to favorable exchange rates. Economics could have a strong impact on that segment of park visitors, he said.