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Free Entry to National Parks This Weekend; What's Your Fave Park's Facebook Status?

Reminder: No entrance fees will be collected at any national park this weekend as National Park Week (April 21-29) wraps up.

When pondering or planning a national park visit, do you use Facebook as a reference tool? The National Park Service is increasing the amount of attention it places on social media platforms, and Facebook is one area of recent emphasis.

Yosemite FallsNPS spokeswoman Kathy Kupper says the National Park Service office in Washington, D.C., issued official social media guidelines a few months ago, and as a result several parks have launched Facebook pages since the first of the year.

"Once that guidance went out to the field, that probably spurred many (park) superintendents to go ahead and start a Facebook page," Kupper told The REI Blog Friday.

The chart below shows the results of my own search for any official Facebook presence offered by the 20 "natural" national parks with the highest visitation figures for 2011. The chart shows both visitation number and the number of Facebook fans each park had today at roughly noon Pacific Time.

Rank    Park 2011 visitors     FB fans*
   1 Great Smoky Mountains        9,008,830     3,119
   2 Grand Canyon    4,298,178     1,841
   3 Yosemite    3,951,393   46,364
   4 Yellowstone    3,394,326         ---
   5 Rocky Mountain    3,176,941     7,797
   6 Olympic    2,966,502         ---
   7 Zion    2,825,505     2,057
   8 Grand Teton    2,587,437   10,778
   9 Acadia    2,374,645   23,960
 10 Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio)    2,161,185        ---
 11 Glacier    1,853,564 100,889
 12 Hot Springs (Ark.)    1,396,354        ---
 13 Joshua Tree    1,396,237        ---
 14 Hawaii Volcanoes    1,352,123       841
 15 Bryce Canyon    1,296,000       373
 16 Shenandoah    1,209,883    1,591
 17 Arches    1,040,758    7,647
 18 Mount Rainier    1,038,229    1,419
 19 Sequoia    1,006,583    7,572
 20 Haleakala       956,989    1,573

* As of noon PDT April 27, 2012 

The always-escalating numbers seem to jump by the minute. Grand Canyon, a relative newbie to FB, had just 1,009 fans on Monday. Shenandoah is the only park in the top 20 at the moment that I can find that promotes its social media platforms on its web homepage.

Olympic coastlineYellowstone is the most popular park still without a Facebook presence. "We've discussed it, but we haven't launched one," says park spokesman Al Nash. Olympic has devoted its social media efforts to a page focused on the demolition of a dam on the Elwha River. Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes says an official Facebook page for the park could appear in 6 months 

Crater Lake, No. 35 in 2011 visitation (423,551) out of the 58 natural park units administered by the NPS, just started its Facebook page a few weeks ago. Last week I was the 95th person to "Like" its page; the park now has more than 300 fans.

Anne Spillane, a seasonal ranger who was already handling Crater Lake's Twitter account, has added Facebook maintenance to her list of duties.

"It kind of naturally fell to me," says Spillane, who works under Crater Lake's chief of interpretation Marcia McCabe. "Quite a few of us already use Facebook personally, so it wasn't that much of a stretch to work on the park's site."

Crater LakeCrater Lake superintendent Craig Ackerman is an advocate of using online resources to inform the public about the park, Spillane says.

"We really view it as a way to reach not only folks who are coming to the park but maybe people who aren't even thinking about the park, to try and get the word out to them," she says.

"It's about information and orientation and education. Some people don't even know we're open all winter. So we're trying to combat the misinformation that some people have about us.

"We just got about 3 inches of snow on Thursday, but the road to the south rim from Highway 62 is kept open year-round. We tell people you can see the lake and can come up and take snowshoe hikes. If the road is closed by a blizzard, we can tell you that, too."

Displaying current conditions is a plus on social media platforms.

"People like the pictures of the snow," Spillane says. "Today we have 104 inches on the ground officially. To most people 104 inches doesn't make sense until you see a car beside a huge snowbank or a building where you can only see the second-story windows.

"We get hundreds of information requests each spring from school kids, too," she says. "This is one place where they can go and get pictures of the park. We have a Flickr account for that same reason."

Glacier NPGlacier, Kupper points out (and the chart below confirms), is the NPS pacesetter in social media usage. Some park Facebook pages were started by enthusiastic park visitors and, in most cases, transferred to park personnel.

Even the main NPS Facebook page (with 128,660 fans) was originally a fan-generated endeavor. The main NPS Twitter feed is handled by a ranger at Alcatraz Island, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

"Part of the reason we do this is to appeal to the next generation of park stewards," Kupper says. "It wouldn't surprise me that a lot of parks have younger people involved in this."

You might detect a certain wild-west vibe when searching for FB pages operated by NPS personnel. Some fan sites responsibly identify their pages as not NPS, while others leave murkier impressions.

Visitors at Grand Canyon NPMost official sites include words such as government organization on their pages, though probably anyone could put those words on their site. Some older, seemingly inactive NPS sites (many displaying a park name but showing a view of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.), will be converted to active pages in the months ahead, says NPS Web Editor-in-Chief Tim Cash.

Also realize commercial businesses (particularly those targeting tourists) tend to sponge off the names of parks; I laughed when a Facebook search (not always a reliable way to locate a park's official site) included "Hot Springs National Park Dental Group."

Even so, it's likely social media platforms will grow in usage by national park personnel in the years ahead. The only potential downside? "I'm not snowshoeing when I'm sitting at the computer," Spillane says. "But that's OK. It's something fun that's been added to my duties, and I really like taking with folks about the park."

Photos above courtesy of National Park Service except Grand Canyon view (by REI Adventures); Half Dome image below by T.D. Wood.

Posted on at 8:40 PM

Tagged: facebook, national parks, social media and twitter

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