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Visiting national parks in 2021: Now, we are disrupting more than receiving

After more than a year of pandemic-related travel restrictions, Americans are ready to get back on the road again. While air travel might still seem to be a bit iffy, the traditional road trip vacation is making a return. In this case, national parks have become the popular destinations among travelers in 2021.

In the U.S, both big and small national parks quickly filled up every day because of overcrowding. The situation has become a little out of control.

PHOTO CRED: Ershov Maks.

Many people have driven all the way to the parks but ended up being turned away because the parking lots have no vacancy. Conflicts and fistfights between visitors for spots at the parks are common as well.

However, the most problematic reality is the increasing carbon footprint left behind by visitors in nature. People have caused a series of environmental issues that they don’t even notice. Nature is facing some critical challenges.

Littering has become a big issue. While visitors are enjoying the blessings of nature, they are also over-consuming it. Irresponsible behaviors such as leaving non-biodegradable waste behind, painting and carving on the rockfaces, and disturbing the wildlife have severely affected the ecosystems within the National Parks.

How many people are visiting national parks in 2021?

road trip vacations
PHOTO CRED: Michael Vi.

Just exactly how many people have been swarming to the national parks since the pandemic started? According to the National Park Service, national parks hosted around 237 million visitors in 2020.

While national parks have seen rising popularity in 2021, the official visitor counts this year won’t be completely transparent and available until mid-2022, as Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief spokesperson for the NPS said.

The most visited national parks, as the report further shows, have hit significant visitor counts during the pandemic.

For instance, just last year all around, Great Smoky Mountains National Park hit 12.1 million, Yellowstone National Park 3.8 million, Zion National Park 3.6 million, Rocky Mountain National Part 3.3 million, Grand Teton National Park 3.3 million, and Grand Canyon National Park 2.9 million.

Although the overall recreational visits to national parks in 2020 were down more than 90 million visits (27.6 percent) from 2019, the number was still impressive.

This year, according to Today, tremendous amounts of visitors have already shown up at various national parks locations. For example, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming received 88,000 visitors in April alone. The number was a 48 percent increase from its 2019 season.

Problems that arise with overcrowded national parks

It’s fun to go to national parks to enjoy nature. Road trip vacations can be the perfect time to bond with family or friends.

However, along with the increasing popularity of national parks, there come many undesired consequences as well. Visitors, in general, don’t seem to be responsible enough for their behaviors.

nps conservation
PHOTO CRED: NPS via NPCA (National Parks Conservation Association)

Littering has always been a headache when it comes to the preservation of the natural environment. Each year, the NPS oversees 70 million pounds of trash, food scraps, and hygiene products left behind by visitors.

The NPS urges people to take responsibility for their behaviors and minimize their waste output.

There are also visitors who have been extremely disrespectful of the natural scenery, like carving and painting on the rockfaces.

national parks 2021

“Graffiti and other forms of damage to park resources are harmful and illegal. Repair of vandalized sites is costly and time consuming. Often, a damaged site can never be fully restored to its original condition.”

Zion National Park for National Parks Traveler.

Human activities have also greatly affected the lives of wild animals as well. It’s understandable that people get excited when they are so up close to wild animals in real life.

However, wild animals are untamed and often not so friendly to strangers who trespass on their territories. Attempts to interact with wild animals is not only risky but also peculiarly immature and irresponsible.

So why all the swarming to national parks in 2021?

In recent years, there have been frequent filed reports on travelers who lost their lives by falling off the cliffs in various national parks.

For instance, a Phoenix man slipped off the cliff edge and died in 2018 and a Greek tourist fell to his death when a rock underneath him gave way in 2010 at the Instagram-famous Horseshoe Bend. What is driving people to visit despite the many incidents that happened?

national parks 2021
PHOTO CRED: John Burcham. Image via The Guardian.

“Social media is the number one driver. People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for the iconic photo,” said Maschelle Zia.

The social media push is an irresistible force. People share their travel posts at the national parks on their social media and attract even more people to come. Viewers on the other end of the phone will think, “oh this place looks cool, I want to go check out too.” Such effect snowballs and eventually leads to the plummeting recreational visit. People are the greatest impact.

road trip vacation
PHOTO CRED: John Burcham via The Guardian.

Nevertheless, the nature of national park visits has changed. Rather than a temporary getaway from hectic workload and city life, national park trips in 2021 are more like a competition to create more iconic (sometimes even dangerous) photos.

What can we do to slow down the deteriorating environmental conditions?

national parks 2021
PHOTO CRED: John Burcham via The Guardian.

Little do we know that the national parks we love are “in danger.” Earlier this year, National Parks Traveler released its second annual list of national parks that are threatened and endangered by overcrowding.

Zion National Park in Utah, for example, is currently listed as endangered. Its scenic canyon has attracted many visitors via road trip and flight vacations every year, but this also makes the park struggle to control crowds.

Irresponsible visitors have treated the park with disrespect. They have defaced rockfaces with spray paint, carved their initials into the soft sandstone, and trampled vegetation by straying off designated trails, according to the NPS.

road trip vacation

Followed by Zion, a couple other national parks have also faced similar crises, just not as severe. The conditions of Arches National Park in Utah, Big Cypress National Preserves in Florida, Glacier National Park in Montana, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina, and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington currently list these parks as threatened.

Therefore, what can we do to help preserve the national parks? While the National Park Service can definitely improve its reservation systems, invest in more rangers, scientists and administrative staff, and do better jobs at crowd control, we visitors must be held responsible for our own behaviors as well.

Be more respectful of nature as well as the wild animals that reside within. Your road trip vacation is not more important than the natural world.

Because if we don’t do something urgent about the situation now, the national parks will all be gone one day. Don’t let nature pay the price for our reckless decisions and behaviors.