The Parks Saw More Than 300 Million Visits in 2018


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Can you guess which national park was most popular?

The National Park Service (NPS) saw 318.2 million recreation visits in 2018, according to an announcement released yesterday. This is the third highest number of annual visits on record since 1904 (when the NPS started tracking visitation numbers), though it is about 12.67 million visits fewer than 2017. The announcement also showed that visitors spent nearly 1.5 billion hours on NPS lands in 2018 and booked 13 million overnight stays.

“The visitation to our national parks continues to affirm that Americans are in love with their public lands and hold dear the stories of our nation embodied in the natural, cultural and historic landscapes we protect in the National Park System,” NPS Deputy Director Dan Smith said in the release.

There are 418 total national park sites in the United States. According to the new data, the most visited parks in 2018 included Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which logged almost 11.5 million visitors, and Grand Canyon National Park, which had 6.3 million visits. Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park and Glacier National Park were also at the top of the list.

Other popular NPS sites included Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, among others. The NPS also flagged some up-and-comers, noting parks that logged major annual recreation visit increases from 2017 to 2018, including Michigan’s Keweenaw National Historical Park, Texas’ Big Thicket National Preserve, and California’s Death Valley National Park.

By the Numbers
National Park Sites in 2018

Most-visited NPS site: Golden Gate National Recreation Area (15,223,697 visits)

Most-visited national park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (11,421,200 visits)

Parks that set a new record for visitation: 28

Parks with more than one million visits: 77

Parks that broke a record set in 2017: 17

Jeffrey Olson, chief of communications for the natural resource stewardship and science program at the NPS, said there were many reasons why the national parks saw a 12.67 million visitor reduction in 2018 compared to the year before.

“Some parks and areas of the country had naturally lower visitation in 2018 because of the 2017 boost in visitation from the solar eclipse,” he said. “There were also lingering closures in the Florida and Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes, park closures on the West Coast from large wildland fires, and a months-long eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Rainy weather during the spring, summer and fall months may have also impacted parks in the mid-Atlantic.”

Keeping visitor numbers steady is important as the NPS continues to fight a $12 billion maintenance backlog. According to Olson, parks commit more than 40 percent of the fees they collect to improving visitor services, which includes deferred maintenance.

Beyond this, visitors to the parks bring needed revenue to the communities outside the parks (sometimes called gateway communities), where private companies typically rely on tourism to stay afloat. According to the NPS, visitors to gateway communities spent nearly $18.2 billion in 2017. This spending supported more than 300,000 employees and netted a total of $35.8 billion in economic output, according to the 2017 NPS Visitor Spending Effects Report. (The NPS has yet to release a 2018 version of this spending report.)

“National parks are often the centerpiece of economies for local communities, driving hotel stays, restaurant traffic and spending at local outdoor specialty retailers,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “[The parks’] economic importance is the reason you have seen states willing to go to great lengths and expense to keep their national parks open during federal government shutdowns, and why entire state tourism campaigns are often built around national park sites.”  

According to a report from Headwaters Economics based on NPS data from 2017, the economic benefit created by travelers to national parks goes far beyond tourism. The parks, and the opportunities for recreation they provide, make the towns and cities in and around the parks more attractive to potential residents and businesses.

“The qualities that attract visitors [to national parks] are the same qualities that attract entrepreneurs, that get residents to not leave, that attract retirees, and that attract people with investment income,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics. “Rural America has been losing population—except if you’re a recreational county. Those are growing. And it’s people with higher incomes who are coming to these gateway communities because of the quality of life. Having public lands nearby makes these communities attractive places to live and do business.”

Olson said he expected visitation numbers to be high again next year, in 2019. “Visitation to NPS [sites] is very difficult to predict,” he said. “But if the recent past is any indication of the future, we expect to see annual visitation near or above 300 million in the coming years.”

To get your national parks fix in 2019, consider booking a trip to one of the lesser-known parks in your area. The NPS will also offer five fee-free entrance days at 115 NPS sites this year, during which you can get into any national park at no cost. If you don’t want to deal with the hustle and bustle of those free days, you might also consider buying an America the Beautiful Pass, which gives you unlimited access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites for $80 per year. Senior citizens, current military members, fourth graders and their families, and disabled citizens are also eligible to receive discounted or free passes to the national parks year-round.

When you’re ready to plan your trip, visit REI’s Camping Project, which pulls data from the trip planning and reservation service; you’ll be able to search bookable campgrounds by location and discover nearby activities such as hiking, trail-running, backcountry skiing and more.

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