For the third year in a row, the US National Parks set an all-time attendance record in 2016 with over 325 million people visiting the 127 parks across the United States. The previous record was set in 2015 with 307 million visitors, and prior to the past three years attendance ranged around the 260-270 million visitors mark.
The most popular parks in 2016 were the Grand Canyon at 5.9 million visitors, Rocky Mountain National Park at 4.5 million visitors, Yellowstone National Park at 4.3 million visitors, and Zion National Park at 4.3 million visitors.
The increase in attendance has been great for increasing awareness of the parks, but like most things, the attendance is a double-edged sword. The National Park Service is elated that so many people want to visit the parks, but it also noted some of the issues that came along with the crowds: damage to areas around walking paths, an increase in litter, more injuries (human and animal) from visitors trying to interact with animals, and an increased number of people who refused to follow the few rules the parks have.
Park goers were also met with difficulties as they tried to enjoy the serenity of nature and the beauty of the parks. The issues arose before most people even got to the parks as they were met with long lines of traffic that resembled something more like the entrance of a theme park than a national park. Once they made it through the gate, most people were tasked with finding, and fighting over, a parking spot. Once parked, the struggle did not end as the most popular trails were usually filled with people. It was a far cry from the solitude that most visitors were imagining, which caused a lot of outrage leading to bad decisions throughout the year. One thing that was surprising was the amount of vandalism that occurred in parks in 2016. Regardless of how many people attended, any level of vandalism is alarming.
The National Parks Service is not scheduled for a budgetary increase anytime in the near future, despite the rapid increase in visitors. With millions of people attending and no increase in funding, the National Park Service is scrambling to find a solution to the problems they are encountering without the ability to hire more staffing or expand parking areas. One interesting idea that is picking up some traction is pre-registration and attendance caps going hand in hand. The idea revolves around giving the National Parks Service a better understanding of how many people they can expect on each day. The attendance cap would help create a better experience for park-goers by easing the size of the crowds. Pre-registration could be done online or over the phone. The project is just in the planning phase, but it could go into effect as soon as next year.