National Park Visitation Dropped 28% in 2020

With the Covid-19 pandemic closing parks and borders, U.S. national parks saw fewer visitors than they had since 1980.

Photo: NPS/M.Quinn

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National park visitation dropped precipitously in 2020, plunging almost 28% to its lowest level since 1980, the National Park Service said in a report on Friday.

According to the NPS’s Annual Visitation Highlights, national parks and other sites managed by the agency saw a total of 237 million visits, down 90 million, or 27.6%, from 2019. Seven parks reported more than 5 million visits, down from 11 in 2019.

In a press release, the NPS attributed the decline mostly to coronavirus-related closures. Parks across the country shuttered or modified their operations in response to the pandemic, beginning on March 20, 2020, when Rocky Mountain National Park and Yosemite both announced they would close in response to requests from local government officials. In all, 66 national parks closed for two months or more.

Covid-related travel restrictions and border closures also kept visitors home, as Canada and the United States closed their borders and the U.S. put travel restrictions in place limiting or banning non-U.S. citizens from places including China, the U.K., and the European Union from entering the United States. While the NPS’s release didn’t address international visitation, Yellowstone National Park officials said in 2018 that 26% of their visitors were from outside of the United States.

While Great Smoky Mountains continued its 77-year run as the most-visited national park in the U.S., others saw their popularity change dramatically. Grand Canyon’s visitor numbers dropped by more than half, from 5.9 million in 2019 to 2.8 million in 2020. In contrast, Yellowstone’s visits dropped by just 5%, making it the country’s second-most visited park for the first time since 1947.

It wasn’t all downside, however. Fifteen smaller parks saw record numbers of visitors last year, including Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, which recorded a 21% increase in visits over 2019.

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge said in a press release. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”