Odds and Ends From Visitor Surveys at National Parks: You'd Be Surprised At Some of the Answers

Park staff, please don't let the roll run out! Photo courtesy of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Pay attention, national park managers and staff. If there's nothing else you do well, be sure to keep the restrooms clean and stocked.

That little nugget of advice -- which park staffers are probably well aware of -- was gleaned from a review of some recent demographic surveys conducted for the National Park Service by the Park Studies Unit at the University of Idaho.

For instance, restrooms apparently see more traffic than the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or perhaps they're just more memorable. Strange, but true, according to the visitor survey taken in early October 2008. Of the 781 questionnaires returned (of 1,143 handed out), 90 percent of the respondents indicated that the "most used visitor services/facilities were the restrooms."

The gorgeous hiking trails? They merited mention by just 64 percent of the respondents. A similar survey taken a few months earlier, from June 22-28, 2008, boosted the restroom crowd to 92 percent of respondents, and the trail crowd, too, to 66 percent. Cause and effect, perhaps?

Some other minutiae from a random bunch of surveys:

* Between May 25, 2009, and June 17, 2009, every single visitor who filled out a survey (254 of 340 were handed in) at Homestead National Monument was a U.S. citizen. Ninety-seven percent of those visitors were Caucasian.

* While 81 percent of the visitor groups who toured Homestead during that time period visited the monument's bookstore, just 14 percent "were able to find the sales items in which they were interested."

* From June 15-23, 2009, of the 249 surveys turned in, 97 percent of the visitors to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota were from the United States and ... 98 percent reported that English was "the most commonly used language for communication..."!

* South Dakotans seem to care little about Minuteman Missile NHS, as only 3 percent of the visitors surveyed during that period were from South Dakota.

* At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, only park brochures/maps (83 percent) trumped restrooms (82 percent) when survey takers were asked to name the visitor services and facilities most commonly used.

* Plan ahead for parking if you're going to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park unit in Seattle. According to 220 surveys completed July 5-11, 2009, 12 percent of those folks had parking problems. Once inside, though, things got better. "The service receiving the highest importance rating was restrooms (85 percent)," the study points out. "The services receiving the highest quality rating were restrooms (96 percent) and assistance from park staff (96 percent)."

* Surveys taken February 26-March 3, 2008, and April 29-May 5, 2008, showed that 98 percent of the visitors to Everglades National Park were Caucasian.

* Do smarter park visitors visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in summer rather than fall? Of the 748 parties who responded to a visitor survey in the park June 22-28, 2008, 28 percent had a bachelor's degree and 22 percent had a graduate degree. That fall, of the 781 who filled out a survey between Oct. 5-11, 28 percent reported they had attended some college, and 25 percent had a high school diploma or GED.

* The average length of a visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in early August 2009 was 2.8 days. For comparison's sake, the average length of a visit to Everglades National Park between February 26-March 3, 2008, was 1.2 days.

* Between August 2-8, 2009, just 19 percent of the 854 visitors who filled out a survey in Acadia National Park said they attended a ranger-led program.

* At Bryce Canyon National Park during the time period of July 26-August 1, 2009, 84 percent of the 626 survey respondents stated that the facility they used most was .... the restroom! Parking areas stood second, cited by 74 percent of the respondents

* The average length of stay at James A. Garfield National Historic Site was ... 1.9 hours. Perhaps, in light of that short stay, the restrooms weren't that important, as the top two services and facilities most commonly used by the 241 groups that took surveys were the visitor center (93 percent) and the visitor center exhibits (89 percent).

* Restrooms were mentioned by 81 percent of the visitors to Acadia when they were asked to name the most commonly used facilities.

* Pennsylvania must be rough to handle in winter, as the Keystone State finished second only to Florida in terms of visitors to Everglades National Park with 7 percent of the 370 respondents vs. 32 percent between February 26-March 3, 2008.

Comments

Although it's rather sad, I've always said visitors will remember a dirty restroom before they'll remember a good Ranger talk. Why do they come anyway?

Wow, I think it's pretty amazing that very close to 1 out of 5 visitors to Acadia National Park attend a ranger-led program. They certainly warrant that level of participation because they are very interesting. I've attended "Stars Over Sand Beach" and "Birds of Prey". I've met people on trails who stop and chat about what they've learned from ranger-led hikes. But considering that visitors to Acadia are also tempted with very entertaining boat cruises, lots of eager-to-access sights (Thunderhole, Cadillac Mountain, Park Loop Road) and terrific restaurants and lobster pounds, I think it's extremely positive that 19% participate in this wonderful offering from the National Park Service.

Lynn
http://www.ouracadia.com

Perhaps you're right, Lynn. My initial thought was that there are so many ranger-led programs that one could fill their entire Acadia visit bopping from one to another. Here's a glimpse at what they offered in August alone:

* Beech Mountain Hike (3 hours; moderate to strenuous 4-mile hike) Sun, Tue, Fri. Uncover the wilds of the island’s west side while hiking through lush forests and steep, rocky outcrops. Beech Mountain parking area - Southern end of Beech Hill Road off Route 102.

*Cadillac Summit Talk (1/2 hour; talk) Daily Enjoy views from atop the highest point on the eastern seaboard and gain a new perspective on Acadia’s beauty. Cadillac Summit parking area – Top of Cadillac Mountain.

* Carroll Homestead Open House (10am – 1pm; drop-in anytime) Tue. Visit an 1800s farm home, play historic games, and walk the grounds. Imagine what life was like for the families that lived here. A ranger will be available to answer questions. Carroll Homestead–Route 102 south of Somesville.

* Carriage Road Walk (2 hours; easy 1½-mile walk) Sun, Wed. Follow tree-lined carriage roads to beautiful stone bridges as you explore the tangible legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Parkman Mountain parking area - Route 3/198 north of Northeast Harbor.

* Great Head Hike (3 hours; moderate, rocky 2-mile hike) Mon, Thu, Sat. Learn how to read the geologic and cultural story of Acadia’s past, written within the park’s dramatic landscape. Sand Beach parking area - Park Loop Road south of Entrance Station.

* Green Kingdom (1½ hours; easy 1-mile walk) Tue, Sat. Investigate Acadia’s wildflowers, trees, and other plant life along a historic carriage road. Eagle Lake parking area (north lot—not boat ramp) – Route 233 west of Bar Harbor.

* Otter Point Walk (2 hours; easy to moderate 2-mile hike) Daily. Discover stories of history and nature along the strikingly scenic Ocean Path. Gorham Mountain parking area - Park Loop Road south of Thunder Hole.

* Peregrine Watch (9-noon, drop-in anytime) Daily, (weather permitting) a ranger or volunteer will be available with viewing scopes to observe a peregrine falcon nest on the cliffs of Champlain Mountain. Precipice Trail parking area – Park Loop Road north of Entrance Station. HawkWatch on Cadillac Mountain begins August 22, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., daily.

* Secrets of the Summit (½ hour; easy walk) Daily Explore and discover fascinating stories about the park’s highest peak. Cadillac Summit parking area.

* Stars Over Sand Beach (1 hour; talk) Tue, Thu Sit back and gaze at Acadia’s amazing night sky, weather permitting. Dress warmly and please minimize flashlight use to preserve night vision. Meet on Sand Beach – Park Loop Road south of Entrance Station.

Evening Campground Programs

* Check campground bulletin boards or the visitor center for a complete listing of times and topics for these 1-hour amphitheater talks. Parking areas near the amphitheaters accommodate non-campers. Blackwoods Campground – Route 3 south of Otter Creek. Seawall Campground – Route 102A south of Southwest Harbor.

Free Kid’s Programs

* It’s a Small World (1½ hours; easy walk) Mon, Wed. Explore nature with a hand lens and see Acadia from a different perspective. For ages 4-10. Sieur de Monts Nature Center – Intersection of Route 3 and Park Loop Road south of Bar Harbor.

* Meet Max, the Park Horse (10 – 10:30 a.m.) Th Did you know Acadia has a horse patrol? Meet Max at Hulls Cove Visitor Center and find out what it means to be a horse in a national park. Look for him and his ranger friends by the split-rail fence at the carriage road entrance (north end of the parking lot).

* Super Sand Sleuths (1 hour; talk and walk) Sun, Wed, Fri Watch the surf and wiggle your toes in the sand while exploring all of the things that make this sandy beach so unique. For all ages. Meet on Sand Beach – Park Loop Road south of Entrance Station.

* Wild Things (¾ hour; talk or easy walk) Daily

* Keep your eyes in the sky and your nose in the bushes while learning about the things that make Acadia such a wild place. For all ages. Sieur de Monts Nature Center – Intersection of Route 3 and Park Loop Road south of Bar Harbor.

Reservation Programs

Make reservations no more than three days before the program date in person at Hulls Cove Visitor Center or by calling 207-288-8832.

Free Walks, Talks and Hikes by Reservation

* Acadia’s Birds (3 hours; easy walk) Sun and Fri Beginners (2 hours; easy walk) Mon Join a birding caravan to find, identify, and discuss some of Acadia’s most fascinating migrants and residents. Bring binoculars. Ask about accessibility.

* Focus on Acadia (3 hours, easy walk and drive) Fri Bring your camera—digital or film—and take away valuable tips and techniques that will improve your ability to capture Acadia’s unique beauty. Expect motor travel to various points in the park.

* Sketching by the Sea (1½ hours; workshop) Tue Join an Artist-in-Residence to explore why this landscape has inspired generations of artists. Art supplies provided.

Free Kid’s Programs by Reservation

* Amazing Acadia (½ hour; talk) Daily Join a ranger for some interactive fun. Topics vary by day. Perfect for Junior Rangers! For ages 12 and younger.

* Stream Team (2 hours; easy walk) Tu, Th There is more to a stream than meets the eye! Using simple equipment, we’ll look for stream invertebrates and learn how these animals are related to the water quality. For ages 9 and older.

* Waypoint Acadia (1½ hours; easy) Mon, Sat. Embark on a search for “hidden” park resources using GPS technology. GPS units are provided but bring your own if you have one. For ages 10 and older.

It isn't just Klondike visitors who have problems parking. EVERYone in downtown Seattle have problems parking.

Kurt,

Thanks for making some of the information contained in this U of ID survey available outside of the NPS. I wonder what other items of interest might be squirrled away in these files? What is the NPS doing with this informaiton? I'm glad to learn that Acadia has such a strong, in-depth interpretive program. I believe that strong, interesting, high quality educational interpretive programs conducted by uniformed rangers are essential for building a lasting public constituency for our parks.


There is no trivializing the visiting public's appreciation for clean and available restrooms. If it seems silly or ignoble.

Taking all tourism into consideration, not only National Parks, the restroom is often the major issue.

Clean and well-designed restrooms can have a decisive effect on the public's assessment of the professionalism of any site for visitors.

A huge part of Italy's remaking of its image for visitors was the national effort to upgrade the quality of its restrooms; what had been a horror to visitors in the late 1940s and 1950s has resulted in most sites with far nicer restrooms than you can find in the USA.

In New York City, by contrast, the city fathers and visitor bureaus for years have been "trying" unsuccessfully to develop clean, modern restrooms. This is typical of the chaos of the way we greet visitors to the USA.

My experience is that as NPS operations budgets are cut, park restrooms are deteriorating. Not everywhere, but too often.

Like many other people, I am more interested in the value of outstanding interpretive programs most of all, and -- when it comes to facilities -- to environmentally friendly design, "design-with-nature." But for the same reason, bathrooms and plumbing do not attract congressional funding support the way charismatic projects do. Speaking of Acadia, I remember once when it took extra effort to restore appropriations for a high-priority sewage system, that had been cut. I also remember when the Massachusetts delegation looked past the top priority for Salem National Historical Park -- you again guessed it: restrooms ! -- in favor of dropping down to the park's FOURTH priority, the construction of the sailing ship "Friendship."

@ Rick B

I had no trouble finding parking during my visit to Klondike. The main problem I had was the walking tour led by ranger Tim, he didn't seem to want to be there. He complained about his feet hurting from a long hike the day before. His tour was bad and irrelevant to the Klondike story.

With tours like this, I'd prefer a clean bathroom, too. Better only one stinks than both.

The trick to dealing with the parking issues at Klondike in Seattle is to use the express bus from Tacoma [g]. Or any one of the other busses that run to Pioneer Square. It's much easier than trying to take a car down there. Even if you're from out of town, park at a park n ride and take the bus in. Really.

D-2, you are correct. For well traveled tourists, the image of a country is highly influenced by the cleanliness of its public restrooms, more so than anything else. That having been said, I can only remember park restrooms, especially those in or near park visitor centers, being of very high quality. I can't say the same for some concessioner facilities, however, or those operated by whoever runs the private campground near Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.

Perhaps teh problem with the surveys is that they do not consider that the trails are facilities. Whe I think of facilities I think of buildings and perhaps parking lots first. I appreciate the trails and talks, but they do not fit immediately into the category of facilities.

That's a really good point Edward. I also think of buildings when I hear "facilities." With that thought process, when I'm in a park I certainlly use the bathrooms more than anything. I go into the VC only once, get my stamp, purchase some items, and look at all the displays befor hitting the trails. But you better believe that I'm going to be hitting every restroom I can find!

Maybe parks could start posting info about the interp programs in the restooms.

During the 1960's, posting information about the evening programs and guided day-walks near or inside park "comfort stations" was common practice. We'd frequently rove the campgrounds in the hour or so before the evening programs to inform campers about the upcoming events.

Today, most such announcements are made via VC bulletin boards and in the pages of the park newspaper distributed at entrance stations and the VC.

By the way, the "idea" of a park newspaper to inform visitors of interpretative activities through a park newspaper was spawned in Yosemite National Park during the early 1970's.

It ain't glamorous, but the bathrooms are a universal experience and need. Most people have to drive quite a ways to get to their parks. What is the FIRST thing, before the burro rides or the exhibits or the buffalo? "Wait for me, Madge - I gotta hit the can". And no one expects a liveried manservant passing out linen towels in a park but the opposite experience - a third world squat over a hole, or a smell-o-rama, or suchlike, can definitely leave a regrettable memory.

I really think people have to get over whatever false squeamishness they may have just acknowledging the realities of this. It is an ordinary part of life in parks or not. It doesn't take that much to make it a clean and ordinary experience at the parks, and let people save their memory space in the brain for the truly memorable wonders that abound in our parks.

As long as I can remember, one of the principle tenets of interpretive training has been that you have to satisfy people's basic needs before they will be truly receptive to discovering the values in a park. I've often seen Maslow's hierarchy of needs used as a training device to help interpreters think about approaches to their craft. So I don't think it's sad that people will remember a dirty restroom before a good ranger talk, it is to be expected. If someone has been on the road for several hours before arriving at your park, their first need will be to use the bathroom. Good customer service in this country starts with clean bathrooms.

If you really want to experience the best restrooms in the NPS, bar none, head to the Rob Hill campsite at San Francisco's Presidio in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Made possible by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund (founders of The Gap retail outlets), the campsite is used for the "Camping at the Presidio" program that targets city kids.

The restrooms there are not only clean and bright, but are also very stylish with a modern design and feature the Dyson airblade jet hand dryers. I've stayed at four star hotels that don't have bathrooms as nice.