Back in 1989, I was a restless college freshman looking for a spring break alternative to South Padre Island. So I hopped in a van crammed with several fellow geology students and one brave professor, and we drove 1,400 miles from Minnesota to Big Bend, the first national park I had the opportunity to visit. The 1,252-square-mile southwest Texas expanse was stupefying in its beauty and immensity. We felt like we had the whole place to ourselves, which was almost true; that year, Big Bend recorded 281,728 visits, an average of less than one person per square mile per day.
In 2021, the park received 581,000 visits, more than double the 1989 figure. Along with 43 other national parks, it set visitation records last year, driven largely by widespread cabin fever at the height of the pandemic. Maine’s Acadia National Park crossed the four-million mark. Utah’s Zion National Park blew past five million. And astoundingly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, surpassed 14 million. In total, the 423 national park entities recorded 297.1 million visits last year, an increase of 60 million over 2020. The U.S. Forest Service, which tracks visitation on a five-year cycle, estimates that our national forests welcomed 168 million recreational visitors in 2020, an increase of 18 million from 2019.
The statistics underscore two truths: These days we’re all seeking solace, beauty, freedom, fun, or escape in the outdoors. And we’re all contributing to the well-documented damage to parks and national forests caused by overuse. If there’s one piece of good news to come out of the past few years, however, it’s that “COVID was the shock that forced change,” says Tate Watkins, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, based in Bozeman, Montana. “Unfortunately, there’s not an easy solution, but there are many creative ways to manage overcrowding.”
Public lands may be beleaguered, underfunded, and even antiquated in some ways, but managers are using every means they can think of to alleviate the worst congestion.
“It’s exciting to see growing interest in national parks for inspiration, education, and recreation,” National Park Service director Chuck Sams told me in an email. “The National Park Service is exploring many different tools and techniques to help improve how visitors get to and experience the most popular places, including addressing the impacts of increasing visitation.”
Among these tools are reservation systems, shuttles, lotteries, and pilot projects, some of which launched before the pandemic. In 2018, Muir Woods National Monument in California became one of the first Park Service sites to institute parking and shuttle reservations, a year-round system designed to reduce traffic and noise in its iconic old-growth redwood grove.
In Hawaii, Maui’s Haleakala National Park instituted reservations for visitors arriving by car between 3 A.M. and 7 A.M. to watch the sunrise. Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Acadia National Parks have introduced timed-entry vehicle reservations on their most congested roads. In Glacier, day-use visitors must now pay $2 per vehicle to motor along Going-to-the-Sun Road between May and September. Zion has begun an online lottery for coveted permits to hike Angels Landing, Yellowstone created an early-access lottery for reserving backcountry campsites, and Yosemite set up a pilot lottery program that awards camping permits for sought-after sites at its North Pines Campground. On the Forest Service side, Minnesota’s Superior National Forest reduced permits for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by 13 percent.
The systems that have been in place long enough to track are working. “Prior to 2018, vehicle congestion and unsafe parking clogged park and county roads,” says Charles Strickfaden, communications director for California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods, and Fort Point National Historic Site, which collectively saw 13.6 million visitors in 2020. The reservation system, he explains, admits people in a steady but controlled stream throughout the day; previously, most arrived en masse. “Congestion at the park’s trails is significantly reduced, the parking situation has improved, and, over the past three years, 96 percent of respondents to the customer-satisfaction survey report a positive experience visiting Muir Woods.”
At Acadia, before timed entry for three-mile-long Cadillac Summit Road went into effect, the number of cars exceeded the parking capacity on 98 percent of days between late May and mid-October. Now, says John Kelly, a management assistant, “Cadillac Mountain is the one place in the park you are guaranteed to find a parking space mid-May through October.”
Reservations may be effective, but they can lead to problems, specifically with who gets to enjoy preferred outdoor spaces. The University of Montana recently released a study demonstrating that reservations made using the federal government’s online camping system, Recreation.gov, are disproportionately filled by white, high-income people who have access to high-speed internet and more flexible free time—luxuries that many people of color or rural residents don’t have.
There are several things to consider: Opt for lesser-known and nearby parks and public lands. Schedule visits to heavily trafficked places in the off-season.
“There is no silver bullet for equitably and efficiently allocating these resources,” says Will Rice, a University of Montana assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management, and the study’s lead author. He cites a statistic from Recreation.gov that would frustrate any hopeful camper: a campground with 57 sites can see close to 19,000 individuals all trying to book the same spots, for the same dates, immediately after the reservation has been released. Just 0.3 percent of campers will successfully reserve a campsite in such a scenario.
Rice favors lottery systems as one solution, because they take place over an extended period of time, which in turn doesn’t require immediate action and makes access to high-speed internet less of an issue. “As someone who studies crowding from a distributive justice framework,” he says, “lotteries are more equitable.”
Beyond logistical solutions, what state and federal park managers, nonprofits, and think tanks all say is that it takes a concerted effort to create more space and ensure equitable access for all. That means municipal, county, state, and federal governments, as well as local businesses, nonprofits, and individuals, all need to have a seat at the table.
One of the most comprehensive models used today was conceived by government officials in Utah who oversee five national parks, 43 state parks and recreation areas, and 22.8 million acres run by the Bureau of Land Management. In recent years, Utah has been embroiled in controversy over its handling of public lands, specifically the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments. Protections for both areas were rescinded or slashed by President Trump in 2017 at the urging of then governor Gary Herbert, then reinstated in 2021 by President Biden.
In 2013, however, Utah acknowledged that outdoor recreation contributed billions to the economy, and it founded the nation’s first Office of Outdoor Recreation. (Sixteen states have since established similar offices.) Then, four years later, Utah implemented a grant program that diverts approximately 1 percent of the state’s revenue from hotel taxes into its Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Fund. Thanks to that revenue source, the state has since granted $34 million to municipalities, counties, advocacy groups, and nonprofits to build recreation amenities that support economic development.
In 2020, the Office of Outdoor Recreation established an Outdoor Adventure Commission, tasked with surveying the state’s assets to determine where public-land access is problematic. Once the gap analysis is completed, the commission will come up with a 10-to-15-year strategic plan. To fund this, the legislature passed a bill last year that will earmark 1 percent of existing state sales tax for an outdoor-recreation infrastructure account. By the end of 2022, it’s estimated that the tax will generate $36 million.
“The initiative behind the Outdoor Adventure Commission is that we can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” says Pitt Grewe, the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, who also oversees the commission. “People are coming to Utah to recreate. If our public spaces are too crowded, they won’t come, and that will hurt us economically.”
One beneficiary of the annual grant is Zion National Park Forever, a nonprofit organization whose members have partnered with Zion for 97 years.
“Our organization existed way back in the late 1920s,” says president and CEO Lyman Hafen, a fifth-generation southern Utahan. “About eight years ago, we realized we had a mission that transcended what we had been doing for decades.”
One of the group’s goals was to create an eastern gateway to Zion, an objective that had been in the park’s management plan for 30 years. To get it moving, Zion Forever spearheaded the East Zion Initiative, which convened 40 stakeholders, including federal, state, county, and municipal governments, local business owners, and private citizens like rancher Kevin McClaw, who donated 20 acres to build a new visitor center on Zion’s undeveloped east side.
Surrounding the visitor center will be 30 miles of mountain-bike singletrack, ten miles of which have already been completed, looping around that edge of the park, as well as 40 miles of new hiking trails on BLM land that will link to existing park trails. Construction is expected to begin this fall. Once finished, the $34 million endeavor—$1 million of which has already been funded by an Office of Outdoor Recreation grant—is expected to help disperse crowds by funneling 1.5 million Zion visitors to the east side.
Similar efforts are underway in Georgia, where the Trust for Public Land, a national outdoor nonprofit, has been working with the City of Atlanta, Cobb County, and the Atlanta Regional Commission on the Chattahoochee Riverlands, an ambitious vision that will connect the metro Atlanta region to the Chattahoochee River. An initiative that involves more than 70 stakeholders, Riverlands plans include a 100-mile network of parks and multimodal trails between Buford Dam to the northeast and Chattahoochee Bend State Park to the southwest. Thus far, 80 miles of river and 18,000 acres of land have been protected.
“We can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” says a Utah recreation official. “People are coming to Utah to recreate. If our public spaces are too crowded, they won’t come.”
The beauty of this project, says program director David Patton, is that “it provides close-to-home access, eliminates the necessity to drive, and relieves pressure on the national parks,” especially for area residents who may not be able to afford a trip to a distant outdoor destination like Zion.
“We’re doing community-driven conservation,” says Patton. “If we are really going to create equitable access to the outdoors, we need to sit down and listen to what will help communities thrive.” These collaborations are a sign of progress, but the process takes years. In the meantime, summer has arrived, and it’s time to wander. So what are some concrete actions we can all take to immediately reduce our impact?
There are several to consider: Opt for lesser-known and nearby parks and public lands. Schedule visits to heavily trafficked places in the off-season. If you’re already invested in a national park trip this summer, do your homework and plan ahead to get a better sense of all the possibilities, not just popular ones; national park websites have plenty of history, culture, science, and wildlife information, along with details about acquiring permits and reservations.
“Choosing when, where, and how to recreate can make a big difference,” says the Park Service’s Sams. “Through NPS.gov, the NPS app, and Recreation.gov, the Park Service promotes trip-planning activities that consider potentially unexplored places and alternative times.”
While you’re at it, widen your lens. “Stop being a destination traveler,” says Lynne Dominy, superintendent of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. “Use the whole landscape around you.”
Dominy means that instead of being myopic about one park, consider the experiences you can enjoy outside of it. Near the Apostle Islands, that might entail spending a day mountain-biking singletrack at Mount Ashwabay Ski Area in the Nourse Sugarbush State Natural Area, or taking an overnight canoe trip down the Brule River. Not only will such adventures take pressure off the national parkland, but they will distribute your tourist dollars more evenly throughout the region.
Finally, whichever public lands you explore, follow the rules—no exceptions. Leave no trace, respect wildlife, stray on the trails, watch your step when taking selfies, pick up after your dog, dispose of litter properly, and don’t remove or deface anything.
Thirty years have passed since my journey to Big Bend National Park, but I still remember the awe of rafting past impossibly high canyons lining the Rio Grande and the excitement of reaching the summit of 7,832-foot Emory Peak, the highest mountain I’d ever climbed.
My geology career fizzled before it started, and I don’t have kids to share such sacred places with. But I am hopeful that these lands will continue to be preserved, and that restless college students for generations to come will be able to appreciate their power and experience the same feelings of freedom and reverence that I did.