No, It’s Not Your Imagination: Our National Parks are More Crowded Than Ever

Even with pandemic restrictions winding down, US national parks are having their biggest year ever.

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Last fall, something interesting happened in Rocky Mountain National Park. The months of November and December posted 28 and 38 percent visitation growth over the same months in 2019. At the time, locals chalked it up to an increased backcountry interest due to Covid-induced leeriness and red tape around resort skiing. As it turned out, however, that was just the beginning of an incredible spike in national park visitation.

In Rocky, April 2021 visitation was up 14.7 percent from 2019, 20.1 percent from 2018, and 16.1 percent from 2017, 41.4 percent from 2016, and an incredible 57.1 percent from 2015. Yellowstone National Park had its busiest May ever, up 11 percent from 2019, with more than 483,000 recreation visits. Arches and Canyonlands? Up 15 and 30 percent. Yosemite? 11 percent. Acadia? A whopping 74 percent growth for January through April from 2019. You get the idea.

And while it may not be every national park experiencing record traffic, it appears that, at minimum, our country’s most popular national parks are spiking. During last year’s quarantines, many Americans sought safe, outdoor, family-friendly activities in lieu of gathering at restaurants, resorts, movie theaters, or theme parks. The solution was neighborhood walks and first-time visits to local trails, and many state parks and usually-empty trailheads around the country experienced record traffic. Now, even with the indoors opening up again, it seems that the hiking bug has caught on in a big way.

What this means for you, Backpacker fam, is that our community is possibly larger than it’s ever been—and that you’ll need to put renewed efforts into pre-planning your national park trips to avoid crowds. Target mid-week visits. Visit early (alpine start, anyone?), or even consider visiting late for a shorter evening outing after the crowds thin around dinner time. And don’t forget that to distribute impact, many parks (including Rocky Mountain) are instituting a timed-entry permit that you need to reserve prior to your visit. Patience and flexibility are key. As it is with anything, so is kindness. Parks are indeed for everyone, so be a welcoming ambassador.