Yes, you read that headline right: Don’t go to a National Park this summer. Hear me out, I promise I’m not insane.
We in the United States are amazingly lucky. Spread (somewhat evenly) throughout the country we are all but surrounded by our National Park System. The 58 main parks are the crown jewels of the the American outdoors experience; and, if you were to somehow explore all these parks in one lifetime, there are 349 more places managed by the National Park Service. To steal a term from Ken Burns, the National Park System is unquestionably America’s best idea.
But here is the thing: the National Parks don’t need you. In total, the entire NPS system receives over 275 million visitors per year. The big three (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone) parks receive more than 12 million visitors per year alone. There are serious questions whether this visitation rate is sustainable from a water, wildlife, or pollution perspective. Even worse, the vast majority of this visitation occurs in the summer, concentrating the impact of all those individuals into a just a few months. Logically outside entities see us tourists as the walking dollar signs we are, and there are pushes to develop areas just outside park boundaries where environmental protections are weaker, despite the fact that environmental impacts bleed into the the interior of the park (for example, click here). All this paints a picture of a park system bursting at the seams.
This, obviously, is a problem. However, in the grand scope of things, its a good problem to have. Too many people trying to access our parks means that there is a real economic incentive to protect these areas. In fact, there is so much money to be made that many (Republican lead) states want to take over the management of the parks themselves.
In contrast to the over-pressure and over-development of our National Parks, other public lands are under attack. States are rapidly closing state parks to close budget shortfalls. The federal government is trading public lands at the behest of the ultra-wealthy. The vast majority of public land is managed by a mismash of federal and state agencies across multiple cabinets, all of which have different missions, making coordinated planning difficult.
In putting these two stories together we can really understand the difference between NPS managed and other public lands: While states want to take over the National Parks because they make a ton of money they want to close other public areas because they are losing money. In other words, we have an National Park System that is under pressure due to over-use while the rest of our public land is under pressure because of under-use. Luckily, there is an obvious solution to this problem: Don’t go to a National Park this summer, go to another amazing piece of public land instead.
Coming from a person who painstakingly listed the cutest animal in every National Park (in three parts here, here, and here) this advice must seem pretty ridiculous. However, choosing to utilize other public lands isn’t a death sentence for your outdoor plans. If anything choosing to visit our country’s lesser places should open your eyes to how many amazing options the U.S. has to offer.
Take my wonderful, glorious home of Phoenix for example. You can recreate the vast majority of National Park experiences within a couple of hours of the city while simultaneously decreasing the overcrowding of these parks and increasing the incentive to protect these lesser known, but equally amazing locals. Don’t believe me? Lets run though it.
Or, if you are looking for the peaks of Rocky Mountain why not hit up the Inner Basin Trail?
Araviapa Canyon will make you forget Zion and Bryce.
And if you are looking for the desert landscapes of Saguaro, the Superstition Wilderness is ready, waiting, and better anyways.
And, you can always just wait for a less busy time to visit the National Parks. Ironically, despite being the busiest season, summer isn’t the best time to visit many National Parks. For the Grand Canyon, winter is by far the best time to visit. For one, you get pictures of the Grand Canyon in snow…
…and what’s more, at the bottom winter daytime highs are in the 50s and 60s rather than the 90s and 100s of the summer. Because it’s colder, your star trail pictures will be better too:
So do the world a favor: This summer don’t go to a National Park, because while the National Parks don’t need you, your local lands do. Instead, find some state park, some national forest, some piece of BLM land, pay any fees you can to support these less visited places, fill up your gas tank at that creepy gas station to help support the locals, and prove to the powers at be that you care about all your public lands not just the best known ones.
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