More people are visiting the nation’s national parks than ever before.

The National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th year in 2016, reported that total recreation visits to the country’s 367 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, battlefields and other sites reached 307.2 million in 2015, up 4.9 percent from 2014 and breaking a record for the third year in a row.

Which National Parks were the most popular?

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (10.7 million)
  2. Grand Canyon National Park (5.5 million)
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park (4.16 million)
  4. Yosemite National Park (4.10 million)
  5. Yellowstone National Park (4.1 million)
  6. Zion National Park (3.6 million)
  7. Olympic National Park (3.3 million)
  8. Grand Teton National Park (3.1 million)
  9. Acadia National Park (2.8 million)
  10. Glacier National Park (2.4 million)

NPS counts up to one entrance per individual per day. That means a family of four entering Yellowstone National Park on four consecutive days would be counted as 16 visits. It does not count entries by commuters, government personnel, tradespeople and people residing within park boundaries.

Recreation Visitor Hours reached 1.33 billion, or 4.34 hours per visitor, while Backcountry Overnights reached 2.02, up 7 percent.

That’s good news for the industry’s push to get more people active outdoors, especially after the NPS’ previous forecast (in March 2015) expected that visits would decline 1.3 percent for the year. While officials are still crunching data for their annual statistical abstract, conversations with visitors and other anecdotal information suggest low gas prices and favorable weather — particularly in the interior mountain states — contributed to record attendance in 2015.

It’s not all good news, however. NPS officials said record attendance at Yellowstone National Park last year (up more than 16 percent) overwhelmed the park’s staff and resulted in traffic jams and dirty restrooms that spoiled visitor experiences. Officials estimated the maintenance backlog exceeds $11 billion.


Yellowstone National Park

Visitation grew the most, or 21.2 percent, at Yellowstone’s West Entrance, which accounted for 42.5 percent of the visitation, or more than any of the park’s five entrance gates.

“Last year’s visitation tested the capacity of Yellowstone National Park,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. “We are looking at ways to reprioritize in order to protect resources, to provide additional ranger programs, and to keep facilities clean.”

Congress just provided an increase in funding for national parks in 2016, and that is going to help meet some needs related to increased visitation, officials said. Congress is also considering separate “centennial” legislation which could provide additional temporary increases and permanent authorities that will encourage philanthropy, volunteerism, and allow us to directly improve services.

“We will be asking park visitors to pack their patience for the upcoming summer season, as we expect more record breaking numbers in 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year,” said Wenk said.

President Obama’s budget request for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2016 seeks $3.1 billion, or $250.2 million more than the FY 2016 enacted levels to boost the National Park Service’s essential programs and operational needs.

Photos courtesy David Clucas