If you haven’t been paying attention to the news concerning the US national parks lately, you may not be aware that there is a growing problem in the parks system. They are becoming far too popular and far too easy to access. Now, you may be wondering how the parks being too popular and too easy to access are problems, and on the surface I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. The parks should be enjoyed by people and they should be accessible to everyone. However, only to a certain extent.
The Primary Purpose of the Parks is to Preserve These Beautiful Places
The primary purpose of establishing the national parks, above all else, is to preserve the parkland for future generations to enjoy. Not only that, but to preserve these unique and amazing landscapes and ecosystems for the wildlife that lives in the parks. As I will outline in this article, overcrowding at the national parks is damaging our parks and leading to significant safety concerns. This may lead to changes that will destroy the parks we know and love and prevent future generations from enjoying them like we are lucky enough to be able to.
Just last year, the National Park Service introduced a plan to increase the park fees at a select number of national parks during the peak season. The goal of this fee increase was two-fold. First, it would help raise additional funds for the park service, which is in desperate need for additional funding. However, it would also help alleviate some of the overcrowding that is starting to occur at some of America’s most popular national parks.
It Was a Mistake to Reject Fee Increases
The backlash at this proposal was swift and strong as people objected to the fee increases on the grounds that it would make the parks inaccessible to people who couldn’t afford the fee increases. Last year I wrote an article about why I thought the decision to abandon the fee increases was a mistake and that I didn’t think the fee increases, which were just for a select number of parks and just for the peak season, would prohibit anyone from being able to afford visiting. What it would have done was more evenly distribute the visitation throughout the year.
What More Can Be Done to Address Overcrowding?
Now, we are learning about plans at Arches National Park to incorporate a reservation system for car parking because the park is getting way too overcrowded during the peak seasons. Again, we are hearing a lot of outrage at the proposal from some of the same people who didn’t support the peak season fee increases. I am wondering if these are some of the same people who also complain each time there is a report of vandalism at the parks or an accident that costs a park visitor their life?
In this article, I am going to touch more on the growing issue with overcrowding at America’s national parks. I am going to talk about how this overcrowding is damaging our parks and how it is leading to safety issues.
I will also touch on some of the factors that I think are contributing to the overcrowding that we are seeing in the parks and what we can do to solve the problem. As always, if you have thoughts on the subject or would like to ask questions, I strongly encourage you to post your comments below. This is an important discussion that needs to happen!
Overcrowding Harms the National Parks
Not only does overcrowding in the national parks make the experience of visiting the parks less enjoyable, but the overcrowding produces a real danger of the parks being irreparably damaged. With the increases in crowds, the reports of vandalism and littering within the parks are becoming more-and-more frequent. Below are just some of the reports I have read recently on vandalism within the national parks.
- Vanessa Hudgens under investigation for etching romantic words on Arizona national park rock
- North Carolina Man Reportedly Thought it Would Be “Cool” To Carve His Name On Rock Art Panel At Glen Canyon NRA
- Outraged Hiker Shames Park Vandals on Facebook, Sparks National Hunt
- Vandals carve graffiti on famous arch at Arches National Park in Utah
- A Utah couple posted on Instagram that they carved names into rock wall at Lake Powell, and the internet is furious
Like I said, these are just some of the MANY recent reports of vandalism that I have read or heard about in the US National Parks. As more people are flooding into the parks, more people who don’t seem to care about the parks or the “leave no trace” philosophy that guides park conservation make their way into the parks.
If you look closely at those headlines, you will notice another trend. Rightfully, these reports of vandalism have caused outrage in the community of people who are frequent national parks visitors and ardent national parks supporters. What is both ironic and sad is that some of these very same people have been leading the charge to prevent the National Parks System from implementing procedures that would deal with the overcrowding.
Overcrowding Causes Safety Issues
Not only is the overcrowding at the national parks leading to an increase in vandalism and damage to the national parks, but it has also been leading to an increase in dangerous conditions at the parks. Last year I visited Southern Utah and Northern Arizona for sixth time in my life. It is an area that I love and have been visiting every-so-often for the past decade or more. What I saw when I visited Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and Zion worried me.
With the increase in visitors, there has become a decrease in space at some of the park’s most beautiful, yet dangerous viewpoints. People are jockeying for position to get unobstructed selfies of themselves with their backs to the edge of these viewpoints. Not only that, but with the increase in the number of tourists have come an increase in people who either don’t know trail etiquette or don’t care about trail etiquette. On dangerous two-way trails like Angel’s Landing I saw some incredibly irresponsible and dangerous trail behavior.
It is getting so bad that I don’t really want to visit some of these locations any longer because I don’t want to witness someone die right in front of me. I remember telling my wife that very thing when we were at Horseshoe Bend and were watching people creep up to the edge and even do handstands on the rim of the overlook for pictures.
There Have Been Fatalities at National Parks
Sure enough, a few short weeks later I read about a fatal fall at the Horseshoe Bend overlook. Below are just some of the reports of fatalities I have read about recently. Granted, fatalities have happened at many of these viewpoints for years, but I feel like the danger has increased and we are going to see more-and-more fatalities along with the overcrowding. Again, these are just some of the recent examples and this doesn’t even include all of the fatalities from people hiking without enough water and dying of dehydration.
- Body of missing 14-year-old girl found at bottom of Horseshoe Bend overlook
- Phoenix man falls to death at Horseshoe Bend
- Three dead in national park system accidents as shutdown wears on
- Teen falls to death while trying to take a selfie at Yosemite National Park: Reports
- Couple Plunges To Their Deaths From Yosemite Cliff Featured In Viral Photo
- Dallas Man Falls To His Death In Big Bend National Park
- Hiker missing in Canyonlands National Park apparently fell to his death
What is Causing the Overcrowding?
While there are likely a multitude of factors that are contributing to the problem of over-crowding at America’s national parks, I think there are two large, underlying factors that are primarily responsible for driving the increased visitor numbers and they are related. These factors are the introduction of social media and the increased availability of large tours for the national parks.
Social Media’s Impact on the National Parks
With the introduction of social media, the awareness of the beauty of America’s national parks has been growing steadily year-after-year. As people post pictures of themselves at beautiful places like Yosemite National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and sites like Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, people see these pictures and want to visit these places themselves.
In order to examine what is happening with visitation numbers at America’s national parks, I took a look at visitor numbers at some of America’s most popular national parks from 1994 until the end of 2018. As you can see in the chart below, visitor numbers held fairly steady from 1994 up until around 2012.
However, starting in 2012 the number of visitors at America’s national parks has been growing rapidly. In fact, the number of visitors has more than doubled at Arches, Joshua Tree, and Bryce Canyon National Parks from 2012 to 2018. Let that sink in. In a 6 year span, the number of visitors at some of America’s national parks has more than doubled. I think this is largely attributable to the free marketing the parks are getting on social media.
An Increase in Large Group Tours
Social media advertising alone isn’t enough to account for the doubling of visitation in such a short time. What I think the social media advertising has done is increase the demand for tours to visit these parks, and tour companies have filled that demand by generating an overwhelming number of large tours that take people into these parks and to these scenic overlooks by the bus loads.
I remember visiting Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend 12 years ago and seeing very few tour groups. When I visited again last year, the number of large tour buses full of visitors surprised me. The parking lot at the pull-out for Horseshoe Bend was full of large tour buses. While it is great that these tours are making it easier to visit America’s national parks, I wonder if there needs to be some sort of regulation on the number of tours allowed into these sites daily?
What can be done to Solve the Problem?
So that brings us to the question of what can be done to solve the problem of over-crowding at America’s national parks? I have a few ideas that I have outlined below.
Buy in from National Parks Enthusiasts
First off, in order to solve the problem there is going to need to be a strong buy-in from the national parks enthusiasts who are motivated to write their legislators concerning the parks and a willingness to put politics aside and do what is best for the parks. This includes organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), who have a large following of national parks enthusiasts. Without that, I don’t know that this issue will ever be solved.
Groups like the NPCA, the Sierra Club, REI, and other advocacy groups for the national parks protested the peak season fee increases in the past, and I wonder how much of their actions were driven by politics instead of a love of the parks. Again, I understand the need to make the parks accessible to everyone, but that need HAS to be balanced by a need to protect the parks. Conservation should be the primary focus above all else. If not, they might as well take the word “conservation” out of their organization’s name.
I do think there needs to be fee increases at some of America’s national parks. If you compare the price that America charges for entry into some of its biggest and most popular parks to the price that other countries charge for their biggest and most popular national parks and attractions, the price difference is staggering. I have included a chart below to give you some perspective on just how little the US charges for its parks.
|National Park||Park Fee||Fee Details|
|Yellowstone NP||$35||Per Car for Week|
|Serengeti NP||$60||Per person for day|
|Masai Mara NP||$80||Per person for day|
|Galapagos Islands||$100||Per person for stay|
|Wulingyuan NP||$44||Per person for day|
|Bandhavgarh NP||$36||Per person for day|
As you can see, the amount of money that America charges for its largest national parks pales in comparison to what other countries with large, popular national parks charge. At Yellowstone National Park, a family of five will pay $7 USD per person for a whole week’s visit. That same week will cost you $420 USD per person in the Serengeti, $560 USD in the Masai Mara, $100 per person in the Galapagos, $308 USD per person in China’s Wulingyuan National Park, and $252 USD per person in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park.
Granted, there are national parks in this world that don’t charge more than America’s largest national parks, but those parks probably don’t see the volume of tourists that America’s largest national parks see. There are even parks in the United States that don’t have problems with over-crowding, so admission prices probably don’t need to be raised in those parks. Fee increases in just America’s most busy national parks during just the peak busy season is not the travesty that some people are making it out to be. It is a common sense conservation measure.
Timed Entries at More Parks
A few years ago, some of the National Parks in the United States started to introduce a timed entry system. The goal of the system was to reduce the amount of people inside the park at any one time. Before arriving at the park, you have to go online and reserve an entry time. Then, you have a certain amount of time to enjoy the park.
Since being first introduced, this system has done a tremendous job of reducing the traffic inside some of America’s busiest national parklands. In fact, it has been so successful that this system has now in place during the peak seasons of five different national parks. In some parks, it is just for certain areas that tend to get congested. The parks that have implemented periodic timed entry systems include the following:
- Arches National Park (April 1, 2023 – October 31, 2023).
- Glacier National Park (July 1, 2023 – September 10, 2023).
- Rocky Mountain National Park (May 26, 2023 – October 22, 2023).
- Acadia National Park (May 24, 2023 – October 22, 2023).
- Carlsbad Caverns (365 days a year).
In my opinion, this system should be expanded to more parks. In fact, I think it should also be expanded to the country’s national monuments and national recreation areas that tend to get overcrowded and are having safety and vandalism issues. Sure, it requires some planning. However, if you are serious about wanting to visit the park, that shouldn’t deter you. It will deter those who aren’t serious about protecting the parks.
Charge Foreign Tourists More
I am all for people visiting the United States to check out the country’s beautiful national parks. America has some absolutely stunning park lands, which I highlight frequently in my blog articles and guides. I love that people want to come to America to see our beautiful park lands.
However, these park lands need to be conserved, and with an influx of foreign tourists, the demand on park officials is growing. Americans pay taxes to help conserve the country’s many national parks, on top of having to pay park fees to enter. Americans do not get free access to the national parks. Foreign tourists bring tourist dollars to the areas around the parks, which is very important, but it doesn’t help preserve the parks.
Most large national parks in other countries I looked at charge more money for foreign tourists to visit than they charge locals. This makes perfect sense to me. When I have visited the Serengeti National Park and the Galapagos, I was happy to pay that larger fee. My taxes aren’t used to preserve those parks like the taxes of locals are. I think it is common sense for the United States to charge foreign tourists a bit more for access to the parks.
Regulate the Number of Tour Buses Allowed in the Parks
I also think there needs to be further regulation of the number of tour buses that are allowed into the national parks each day. Again, I think it is great that these tours make the parks more accessible to more people, but that has to be weighed against the cost of conservation. The parks are not a theme park, they are conservation areas. Preserving the parks is the top priority. I think the National Parks Service needs to determine what number of tours is acceptable each day before overcrowding becomes and issue and then limit the number of tour buses to that number each day.
Implement a Shuttle System at More Parks
The final recommendation I have on what the US National Parks Service can possibly do to manage the overcrowding that is happening at some of America’s biggest and most popular national parks is to implement a shuttle service at more parks. The Parks Service implemented a shuttle system in Zion National Park in the year 2000 and it has done wonders to help alleviate the congestion in the park. I think implementing a similar shuttle system in other parks would be beneficial to the conservation of the park and the visitor experience.