Podcast Episode: National Park Service Visitor Stats for 2023 (and Why They Matter)

Podcast Episode: National Park Service Visitor Stats for 2023 (and Why They Matter)

The Fine Art Photography Podcast is back with a new episode that may be useful for landscape and wildlife photographers planning a National Park visit soon.

After a long absence, I’m back with a new episode of the fine art photography podcast. I hope you enjoy it! The cover photo is a cell phone photo I shot through the viewfinder of my Hasselblad 500 C/M last year in the Painted Desert at The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Full Podcast Transcript

In this episode, What National Park Service Says About 2023 Visitor Stats

Intro Music

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. I’m your host, Keith Dotson — a professional fine art photographer with more than a passing interest in landscape photography, so I thought National Park Service visitor stats might be of interest to other landscape and wildlife photographers.

U.S. National Parks are a treasure, not just for US citizens, but for the world. Yellowstone National Park was established by law on March 1, 1872, making it the nation’s and the world’s first true national park.

The US National Parks System set a visionary precedent to be admired and followed by other countries.

If you go to a National Park, you’ll no doubt hear languages from far-flung regions of the globe.

But while the parks protect and conserve some of the most dynamic, awe-inspiring landscapes anywhere, they also often suffer from the burden of overcrowding.

So, as a photographer who often likes to turn my lens onto the landscape, I am very interested in what the National Park Service or NPS has to say about visitation stats.

The NPS maintains a Visitor Statistics Dashboard online, if you’re curious. They report stats on certain parks all the way back to 1979.

In 2023, the NPS reported visitor stats for 400 of America’s 429 National Parks, and said that visits were up by 13 million visits or 4% over 2022. NPS reported a total of 325.5 million recreation visits to all parks that reported in 2023.

In 2023, Yellowstone National Park had a 37% increase of 2022, but that number may be artificially large, because as you may recall, the park suffered a catastrophic flood in 2022 that closed off parts of it for months.

Still, Yellowstone got 4.5 million visitors in 2023, which was its second busiest year ever, with 2021 being the busiest ever. More than half the Yellowstone visits fall in the June July August timeframe, which is kinda understandable because Winter visitation is difficult, requiring special access.

What does visiting a busy park look actually like?

The NPS advises people wishing to visit Yellowstone to plan well in advance. I went to several National Parks in 2023 over the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and parks were very crowded.

At Joshua Tree, which is a vast desert wilderness, I encountered long lines at the entrance gates, overflowing parking lots, and crowds so dense at popular locations within the park that I opted not to stop (except in traffic squeezing past, which was stop-and-go past people and automobiles parked willy-nilly along the edges of the park road.

You’ll encounter scenic wonders so overrun with people that you can’t make photographs. You’ll find yourself elbow to elbow with other photographers at places like Horseshoe Bend or Delicate Arch.
If you make YouTube videos, you’ll have audio contaminated with engine noises, and the chatter of people hiking or herding all around you.

I don’t mean to make it sound like those people don’t deserve to be there — of course, the parks are for everyone. But you may have to work a little harder to get a landscape or wildlife image. For those willing and able to hike into less popular and less accessible locations, it may be a different story.
All of this is to say that I am a fan of creating and supporting more wild places including new National parks and National Monuments.

Before I wrap this up, let me delve into politics for a minute. It may seem implausible, but believe it or not, there is a contingent of politicians and the business community, who are not fans of the National Parks. Why? Because they are more in favor of mining.

Wyoming is blessed to have some of the most scenic landscapes on this planet, but it is also home to abundant mineral resources, some of which are buried beneath scenic splendors too beautiful to ever consider ruining. Yet there are people there who want to reverse the protections of many parks and stop the creation of new ones. 

Last year, using publicly available figures, I calculated the income to Wyoming from Mining and from Tourism, and tourism came out way ahead. It seemed to me like a no-brainer, but I’m neither a mathematician nor a statistician, and my calculations are likely wrong. Has anyone ever done this math? Has anyone ever tried to justify the Parks on the basis of financial gain to the states?

Just taking Wyoming as an example, its economy is heavily tied to mining and agriculture — meaning cattle ranching. Its most important resources are oil, natural gas, and coal. But tourism is also listed as an important and growing industry. 

One source said that the highest number of people employed in the state are in retail sales — some no doubt relying on tourism dollars. But that’s not a high paying career. The source said that the highest paying jobs are in the mineral and petroleum extraction industries.

Let me know if you are aware of any studies specific to the American West about tourism vs minerals extraction. I’d like to report on the results.

By the way, As always, you can find a full transcript of this podcast episode on my blog at I Catch Shadows dot com. And I’ll also include the full text of the National Park Service press release.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. 

Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links
325.5 million visits to national parks in 2023, 4.5 million visits to Yellowstone National Park

Full text of the National Parks Service Press Release:

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, WY – On Feb. 22, the National Park Service (NPS) announced that 400 national parks reported a total of 325.5 million recreation visits in 2023, an increase of 13 million or 4% over 2022.  

Yellowstone National Park hosted 4,501,382 recreation visits in 2023, up 37% over 2022 (3,290,242 recreation visits). Lower visitation numbers in 2022 were likely due to an historic flood event that closed the park from June 13 through June 21. Three entrances opened June 22 and two remained closed until October.

In 2023, visitation was the second busiest on record. The busiest year was 2021 with 4,860,242 recreational visits. More than half of these visits for both years occurred in June, July and August. Visitors looking to travel to Yellowstone in the summer must plan a visit well in advance.  

Visitation figures and trends guide how the NPS manages parks to ensure the best experience possible for park visitors. The Visitation Statistics Dashboard provides recreational visit statistics for every park in the US for 2023 and also for previous years, dating back to 1979 for some parks. There are 429 parks in the National Park System, and 400 parks counted visitors in 2023. For the first time, there are now parks reporting their visitation numbers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and four US territories. Five national parks began reporting in 2023, and this is the first year a park from Delaware is included.

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