Surge in national park visitors drives costs up and leads to reservation requirements

After attendance dropped off to historical lows last year, foot traffic at some of the country’s biggest and most well-known national parks is surging this summer — in some cases leading to reservation requirements and cost increases.

“We don't have official numbers for 2021 yet, but what I can say is that we're expecting one of the busiest years on record,” Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, assistant director of communications for the National Park Service, recently told Yahoo Finance Live’s Seana Smith (video above).

For instance, Yellowstone National Park, with its footprint extending through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, recorded its busiest month ever for visitors in May and it’s annual visitor rate is outpacing the previous record set in 2019. Last month, more than 483,150 guests visited and this year alone, the park has welcomed over 658,500 visitors— up 14% from 2019.

It’s a similar story in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park that saw its busiest May out of the six most recent years with over 363,700 guests. And the surging crowds are staying on site with the park reporting a 93% increase of camping in the park and a 117% increase of backcountry camping, from May 2019.

Due to quarantine restrictions last year, travel was largely relegated to domestic car trips but ultimately hinged on open attractions. At the country’s 423 national parks, there were fewer opportunities to visit with more than 15% of the parks closed for two months or more last month. Attendance dropped more than 27% in 2020 compared with 2019 and marked the lowest visitor year since 1980.

In 2020, the top five most visited national parks — Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Teton — saw a collective attendance drop of over 13% from the prior year.

With domestic travel being the de facto vacation for Americans who are still reluctant to venture overseas because of health concerns or international laws, the visitor influx is straining the country’s national park network. Crowds are pushing the parks to capacity, taxing resources, and disturbing the natural beauty with vehicle traffic, packed trails, increased waste, illegal camping — sometime leading to destruction.

For instance, in Moab, Utah — situated between two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands — an unattended campfire last week set outside the park’s boundaries ravaged over 8,000 acres as of Monday evening.

In response to its swell of visitors, some national parks require advanced reservations due to fewer staff and surrounding communities still rebounding from the pandemic, Anzelmo-Sarles said, noting that Zion National Park and Glacier National Park require reservations, among others.

While “the vast majority of parks” don't require advanced reservations, Anzelmo-Sarles told Yahoo Finance Live, people may need to think ahead if they plan to stay overnight because campground reservations are up and hotels near the most popular parks are booked through the summer.

California’s Joshua Tree National Park has also proposed a camping fee increase “commensurate with customer demand and use,” a press release stated. The park has seen a 23% steady increase of campers over the last five years and says its campgrounds are “full almost half the year.” The $5 assessment will bring a pricing shift for the 11 campgrounds ranging in price from $15 and $30 starting in October.

“This stronger presence will allow the park to better address common campground issues such as noise complaints, unattended food and trash disposal, graffiti, and campsite poaching,” the release noted.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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