Last week the National Park Service released the official numbers of visitors to National Parks around the country. Since their creation, over 12 billion visitors have seen, experienced and hopefully fallen in love with the greatest idea in natural conservation. In 2012 alone, 282,765,682 people visited America’s National Parks.
Out of the 401 National Parks, the Olympic Peninsula is ranked the 7th most visited park in all of America. These numbers are awesome, putting us ahead of beautiful parks like the Grant Tetons, Acadia and Glacier National Parks. The only parks ahead of the Olympics are the Great Smokeys, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rock Mountain and Zion. That also means that the picturesque active volcano we refer to as our mountain, Mount Rainier, is less popular than areas like Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent and Ruby Beach.
While I think these numbers speak volumes to the diversity and beauty, I also think they are flawed. For instance, I personally visit the Olympic National Park around 100 times a year, but go through a Ranger entrance less than 10% of the time. Sometimes I have 5 people with me, other times I am alone. I also have gone to Staircase during the winter when no Ranger is on duty, snow is covering the road and the fee area is closed. Does my visit count in official numbers?
Official Numbers here from the NPS: NPS-Visitation-historic-and-top-10-2012
In an attempt to get real numbers, or at least learn how the estimate are gathered, I called the National Park Service and asked them to explain their methods of reaching accurate visitor numbers. I was fascinated to hear that each park has its own unique way of collecting this data, and that very few, if any use the same method. Some parks use a combination of road counters and visitor center information taken by clickers by Park Rangers. In Virginia’s Colonial Park, located along a main route of transportation, a ratio has been created to subtract daily commuters from park visitors. In this way, if you happen to stop at the park after work, you aren’t considered a visitor by these numbers.
My favorite method of counting visitors is done at some parks by having volunteers and employees spend weeks at National Park doing visual counts. These counts are then plugged into a ratio that estimates monthly totals. This is a joke, as visiting a National Park can be impacted by weather, local events, the economy, gas prices and wildfires. If the numbers could be consistently gathered, it would be one thing, but to have such variable methods, which according to the park change every year, creates a serious data problem.
Despite my problems with gathering data, one thing is known. The Olympic National Park is visited by far more people than I think any of you imagine. Everyone who is a local wants to preserve the Olympic Peninsula and keep it a secret, removed from the mass amounts of tourists that they claim will ruin the area. Guess what guys, the secret is out and the Olympic National Park and the Olympic Peninsula, even with skewed data, is one of the most popular parks and regions in America.
The Olympic National Park has not yet responded to my request about their system of gathering this data, but when they do, I will update it accordingly.