Is the “National Park Effect” Real? – Just Go Travel Studios

Is the “National Park Effect” Real?

Acadia National Park Avoiding Crowds in Our National Parks Bryce Canyon National Park Canyonlands National Park Death Valley National Park Dry Tortugas National Park Gateway Arch National Park Indiana Dunes National Park Joshua Tree National Park Pinnacles National Park Saguaro National Park White Sands National Park

When a National Monument or National Seashore or National Recreation Area gains “National Park” status, are they guaranteed to receive an immediate boost in attendance in the following years?

Is there such thing as a “National Park Effect?” 

What will happen with attendance at the nation's newest National Parks in the next few years?

 

BACKGROUND

In recent years, the National Parks have received record attendance.   In fact, there have been over 300 million visitors to the National Park sites in each of the last four years.  These years saw a significant increase over the early 2000’s, where attendance bounced between 273 million and 292 million for nine years straight.  This increase in attendance came for a variety of reasons, assisted by gas prices and the rise of social media. In addition, the “Find Your Park” campaign has also had quite the impact, which started in early 2015 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.

National Park Attendance Growth

National Park Attendance, data courtesy of the National Park Service

Certainly, those National Park sites having full National Park status tend to be the most talked about and the most well-known (even though the most visited National Park site in 2018 was the not an actual National Park-it was instead the Golden Gate National Recreation area!).

Crowds near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

Crowds near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, courtesy of the National Park Service

In the past few years, we’ve been lucky enough to have several new sites receive official “National Park Status”, including Pinnacles National Park in 2013, Gateway Arch National Park in 2018 and Indiana Dunes National Park and White Sands National Park in 2019. 

White Sands National Park

Each time a park status change is announced, there is an influx of comments on articles concerned about the impending surge in crowds. 

But does this actually happen?  Or is this just a myth and only an insignificant name change?

NATIONAL PARK EFFECT: RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

To answer this question, we set out to understand trends in park attendance.  Since there are many factors that can impact park attendance (including weather, marketing and gas prices), we had to establish a common baseline by which to measure park attendance as new National Parks were named.  To do this, we selected 25 parks that have had National Park status since 1950 or earlier. These parks would form our “normalized park attendance” baseline.

Attendance growth of our baseline National Parks

Normalized National Park Attendance Baseline, data courtesy of the National Park Service

All park attendance statistics were gathered from statistics offered by the National Park Service.

Once we had a baseline established, it was time to start looking at specific parks to prove or disprove the theory.  We chose only parks that were named after 1980. We also chose to focus only on parks that were in the Continental United States, as they are the parks that are accessible to most vacationers in the United States.  The parks we analyzed (and their years being named as official “National Parks”) are:

  • Great Basin National Park (1986)
  • Dry Tortugas National Park (1992)
  • Saguaro National Park (1994)
  • Death Valley National Park (1994)
  • Joshua Tree National Park (1994)
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (1999)
  • Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2003)
  • Congaree National Park (2004)
  • Pinnacles National Park (2013)

Gateway Arch, Indiana Dunes and White Sands National Parks are all too new to analyze but stay tuned to see our predictions based on our findings.

Finally, for all the selected parks, we chose to compare attendance the three years after they were named as a National Park to the three years before they were named as a National Park.  We then calculated the growth and compared it to the growth of the 25 baseline parks to help prove or disprove the theory.

NATIONAL PARK EFFECT: PRELIMINARY RESULTS

After collecting and analyzing the data, we were surprised by the results!

National Park Effect: Growth of new National Parks relative to the baseline

Normalized growth in the 3 years following being named as a National Park

Out of the nine parks evaluated, only four of the parks gained in the number of visitors, while five actually declined in visitors relative to the baseline national park growth.  This was certainly surprising, as we had expected most (if not all) would have experienced a significant “bump” in attendance!

We even looked at the five years before vs. the five years after, and the results were unchanged.

So, is the “National Park Effect” completely false?  Is it simply a name change with no other impact?

Well, not so fast.

NATIONAL PARK EFFECT: OTHER FACTORS

After reviewing the parks that had an attendance boost and those that didn’t, a thought emerged.  

Could the proximity to large metropolitan areas have an impact as well?  

In other words, when a park is already near a large metropolitan area, are the people that want to go to the park already going to the park, regardless of its status?  Are new parks only seeing a surge when a large population of people aren’t already near the park?

After reviewing a list of the large metropolitan areas of the country, we took another look at the data.

National Park Effect: Growth in attendance of New National Parks relative to the baselineNormalized growth of new National Parks and proximity to large metropolitan areas

We found that of the nine national parks analyzed, the ones that were not within three hours (or 180 miles) of a major metropolitan area (as defined by over 2.5 million people) were more likely to be impacted by being named as a National Park.  While this was not the case 100% of the time, in general, parks that were not near metropolitan areas did in fact receive a bump in attendance relative to our baseline national parks.

CONCLUSION:

  • Is it right to assume that sites being named as a National Park will receive an automatic bump in attendance in three to five years following the changes in status to a National Park?  No, not at all!

  • Are parks that are not near large metropolitan areas (over 2.5 million people within 180 miles) more likely to receive an increase in attendance after they are named as a National Park?  Absolutely.  While not a 100% guarantee, if parks are located in remote areas, they are likely to see a bump in attendance after gaining the notoriety that comes with being named as a National Park.

So if you are worried that your favorite National Monument might become overrun with people following a change of status, that might not happen (unless you are in a more remote part of the United States).  

That being said, there is a reason why the parks are visited so much! They are filled with incredible beauty!  For our family, nothing seems to set aside all the worries in the world like getting out on a hike in a national park.  Crowds or not, be sure to enjoy the time in these beautiful spaces and take care to keep them pristine for future generations.

PREDICTIONS FOR THE NEWEST NATIONAL PARKS

What does this mean for the newest National Parks?  What is likely to happen to the attendance in the next few years?

Applying the learnings and same criteria as we have above, here are our predictions:

Gateway Arch National Park

Gateway Arch National Park, image courtesy of the National Park Service and Sue Ford

  • Gateway Arch National Park: Gateway Arch National Park became a National Park in 2018.  It is literally in the city of St. Louis, which has a metropolitan area of over 2.8 million people.  Our prediction is that it will not see a massive bump in attendance vs. the baseline parks. Benefiting from nearly one year of data to help prove our theory, it looks like the attendance in 2019 will be about flat vs. 2018 attendance.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park, image courtesy of the National Park Service
  • Indiana Dunes National Park: Gaining National Park status in 2019, Indiana Dunes National Park has long enjoyed high attendance due to its proximity to Chicago (which is less than 100 miles away) and also nearby Indianapolis, Indiana (which only has 2 million inhabitants, but still quite a lot!).  Given our earlier findings, it’s likely that Indiana Dunes National Park will not see a higher growth rate in attendance relative to our baseline parks.  

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park

  • White Sands National Park: The newest National Park, White Sands, gained official National Park status in December of 2019.  It is not easy to get to, not near many large cities and not near any metropolitan area over 2.5 million people (the closest is Phoenix, which is over 400 miles away).  Our prediction? White Sands National Park will see an increase in attendance over the next three years. Be sure to check out our recommended activities in the park in our blog, What to See and Do in White Sands National Monument.

    FURTHER INFORMATION ON CROWDS IN NATIONAL PARKS FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS

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