Have national parks become old hat with the traveling public? Not when you look at 2009 visitation, which fell just 1.8 million visits shy of setting a record for the National Park System.
Whether it was the economy that persuaded folks to vacation close to home, the strong Euro vs. the weak dollar, Ken Burns' take on the national parks, or simply folks deciding they wanted to explore national parks, visitation to the National Park System in 2009 jumped to 285.4 million, an increase of more than 10 million over 2008 levels and within sight of the record 1987 turnout, when 287.2 million headed into the parks.
“We were huge (in 2009)," said Butch Street, who tracks visitation data for the National Park Service. "It was the biggest increase we’ve had in 15 years.”
Yellowstone National Park saw record visitation in 2009, Great Smoky Mountains saw its highest visitation in a decade, and elsewhere throughout the park system there were many increases in visitation noted. Yellowstone, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park all reported increases of 3 percent over 2008 levels, said Mr. Street.
Of course, it didn't hurt that there was a presidential inauguration in 2009, an event a year ago that saw a turnout of 1.6 million on the National Mall, a Park Service property, noted Mr. Street. Also contributing to the jump was greater access to Gulf Islands National Seashore, which reported 2.5 million visitors after cleaning up after hurricanes, he added.
And then there were the Europeans, who seemed to come en masse throughout the year, said Mr. Street, who visited Fort Laramie National National Historic Site in August and struggled to find an America.
“I understand from the Germans that they are absolutely fascinated with the Old West," he said.
And the Europeans -- whether Germans, Swedes, Italians, French, even the British -- don't seem satisfied with visiting just one or two national parks. When they come to the United States with parks on their mind, they make a wide swing through the system, according to Mr. Street.
"They come over for a month and plan to visit 40 parks," he said. “If you think about it, one family of three that goes to 40 parks, that’s 120 visitors. The impact they have ... the multiple visits they make has an incredible impact on the system.”
Despite the strong visitation in 2009, Mr. Street doubts the numbers are sustainable.
"We’re just not going to be able to keep that number up. There’s just no way," he said. "I think when you start looking at the word that we’re not ever allowed to use -- 'carrying capacity' -- how many more are you going to get into Yellowstone, how many more are you going to get into Grand Canyon?”
The only way the numbers will grow, said Mr. Street, is if more folks start exploring parks during the shoulder and off-seasons.
Snowcoach Traffic Up In Yellowstone
In Yellowstone, the winter of 2009-2010 started fairly well in December. While park officials initially erred with their counting, saying snowcoach traffic was down, it actually fared better than snowmobile traffic. The number of people entering Yellowstone via snowcoach in December increased 9.4 percent over 2008 levels, to 4,786 visitors, while snowmobile traffic dipped ever so slightly, by 0.3 percent, to 4,512. Counting all modes of transportation -- snowcoach, snowmobile, cars, trucks, skiers and cyclists -- Yellowstone's December recreational visitation reached 18,107, an increase of nearly 11 percent from 2008, when the park counted 16,343 recreational visits in December.