The most popular national parks get visitors galore. But what about the other end of the attendance spectrum, the end that is anchored by the system's least-visited parks? From the attendance point of view, you might say that these are lonely parks dwelling in the deep shadows cast by their more celebrated brethren. Let's shed some light on them.
The National Park Service's attendance data for 2010 reveal that 69 National Park System units attracted a million or more visitors. After allowing for some double counting (the Park Service has a very quirky way of counting NPS units), it remains that more than 60 NPS units cracked the million-visitor threshold last year.
Against this background, it's hard to believe that each of 23 NPS units -- nearly 6 percent of the National Park System's 394 units -- attracted fewer than 10,000 visitors last year. The total attendance of this bottom tier was 77,825. That's less than 0.3 percent of last year's system-wide visitation of 281.3 million, or about the number of people who visited Death Valley National Park during the month of February last year.
Here is the roster of the 2010 cellar-dwellers (2010 attendance in parentheses):
* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (1,103)
* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (2,445)
* Cape Krusenstern National Monument (2,521)
* Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (2,642)
* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (2,888)
* National Park of American Samoa (3,006)
* Kobuk Valley National Park (3,164)
* Noatak National Preserve (3,257)
* Nicodemus National Historic Site (3,448)
* Thomas Stone National Historic Site (6,004)
* Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (6,211)
* First Ladies National Historic Site (8,766)
* Lake Clark National Park & Preserve (9,931)
* Fort Bowie National Historic Site (9,491)
Attendance data are aggregated for Aniakchak National Monument and Aniakchak National Preserve, even though the National Park Service counts them as two separate units of the National Park System. The same is true for Lake Clark National Park and Lake Clark National Preserve.
Although a strong geographical bias is apparent (two-thirds of these units are west of the Mississippi River, fully one-third are in Alaska, and one is in the South Pacific), the loneliest parks are actually quite a mixed bag. There's room here for legitimate differences of interpretation, but I can see two "special case" units, one group of remote units, and one group of low-interest urban units.
The first special case is Hamilton Grange National Memorial in New York City. The visitation reported for Hamilton Grange shows zero recreational visits for the years 1980-1982, 1993-1997, 2007, and 2010. However, this NPS unit attracted 40,000 annual visitors as recently as 2000 and counted 15,287 visitors in 2005. The wildly fluctuating numbers reflect periodic closings, the most recent of which was made necessary when the historic building that is this park's reason for being was closed for a time and then moved to a new site. Hamilton Grange is scheduled to reopen at its new location in Harlem this year, and visitation can be expected to return to normal levels in due course.
The second special case is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, a recently-established park located on US Navy property near Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area. The Port Chicago site, a former Affiliated Area, was redesignated as a National Memorial under National Park Service administration and established in 2009 as America's 392nd national park. The Navy severely restricts public access, making it available only by prior arrangement well in advance.
At least 14 of the reporting units in the bottom tier are in relatively remote locations, being hard to get to or situated outside the day-tripping zones of large population centers. The remote parks are:
* All seven of the Alaska units on the list (none of which has road access)
* National Park of American Samoa
* Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve (Virgin Islands)
* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (Big Bend National Park, Texas; no federal facilities)
* Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Chihuahuan Desert, southeastern Arizona)
* Nicodemus National Historic Site (Great Plains, northwestern Kansas)
* Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Great Plains, east-central Colorado)
* Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Great Plains, Texas panhandle)
Five NPS units on the "lonely list" are cultural-historical sites with central city, suburban, or day-tripper locations in major urban regions. Since they enjoy favorable market locations, their lackluster attendance is apparently due to low public interest. This group includes:
* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Philadelphia, PA; it is the smallest NPS unit)
* First Ladies National Historic Site (Canton, OH, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
* Thomas Stone National Historic Site (Port Tobacco, MD, near Washington, DC)
* Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Brookline, MA, a Boston suburb)
* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (Danville, CA, a San Francisco/Oakland suburb)
Qualifying comments are in order for the latter two parks. Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site is open to the public by reservation only (except for certain "No Reservation Saturdays"), and visitors are shuttled to the site for guided tours. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site was closed during part of 2010 due to major preservation project and is not scheduled to reopen until sometime in 2011. Attendance has exceeded 10,000 in only one year (2001) since the park was established in 1979.
The purpose of this report is not to criticize. Visitation is not the sole criterion for measuring the worth of a national park, nor even a necessarily important one. But it is something that matters (else why keep track of it at all?), and strikingly low annual visitation can't help but draw attention.
Of course, low visitation can signal problems. At the very least, National Park Service officials need to ask: Is strikingly low visitation acceptable at [this particular NPS unit]? If it is not, is corrective action in order?
Attendance trends for the low-visitation NPS units, something we have considered only in passing here, also merit attention. Downward-trending numbers may be cause for concern if they persist. At First Ladies National Historic Site, for example, attendance declined 16 percent last year and is down nearly 22 percent since 2006. Of course, some lonely parks have stable or improving numbers. At Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, visitation has rebounded sharply from lows reached in the mid-2000s.
If you'd like to explore the park visitation data more deeply, you'll find the data you need at this NPS Reports site. Remember to be careful when messing around with the visitation statistics for the loneliest parks, since small numerical changes can yield big percentage changes and impacts that may be much more apparent than real. Consider, for instance, the case of Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve, where 2010 attendance was up 443 percent for the year and exceeded the combined total for the three prior years. That looks mighty impressive until you consider that there were just 62 recreational visits in 2010, and a grand total of 50 for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009.
Postscript: Technically, only one of the 58 National Park-designated units -- Kobuk Valley National Park (3,164) -- reported fewer than 10,000 recreational visitors last year. However, it's likely that visitation at Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park also fell short of the 10,000 mark. The National Park Service counts Gates of the Arctic National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve as two separate NPS units, but combines them for many reporting purposes, including visitation. Last year's reported visitation for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve was 10,840. For an explanation of the methods the Park Service uses to count visitors at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, read this document.
Also, it must be remembered that head counting in the parks is not an exact science. Few totals are based on actual counting; most involve mathematical calculations that can vary from season to season, and some rely on mechanical vehicle counters that break down from time to time. As a result, attendance figures are somewhat soft measuring sticks.