Finding Time for Our Parks

Americans are visiting more parks but spending less time in them. What does this mean for the future of our wild spaces?

| Fall 2016

  • Author Wallace Stegner once called our national parks “America’s best idea.” Not everyone agrees, but few would deny that the idea of preserving areas of great scenic, historic, cultural, or scientific value is a worthy concept.
    Photo by Anita Ritenour
  • As we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, the organization created to administer our multiple treasures, it might be helpful to pause and ask whether in another 100 years, we will still have constituencies for our parks and wildlands.
    Photo by John Fowler
  • One important step toward increasing the time both children and adults spend in wild nature—and thereby the chance that they will continue to advocate for our national parks and wildlands— is extending Americans’ vacation time.
    Photo by Kevin Vance
  • With vacation time so short, especially in the United States, our trips to parks last a week at most.
    Photo by Arches National Park

When I was at Yosemite’s spectacular Tunnel View a few years ago, I watched in disbelief as visitors poured out of vehicles and rushed to snap photos, bringing cameras or smartphones to their eyes before they’d even looked at the scene. Their first view of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls was mediated through a lens. And those were the visitors who had time to stop. Many others simply rolled by slowly in their cars, taking photos out the windows. “Been there, shot that,” one visitor wore on his T-shirt. The idea seemed to be to collect as many quick photos as possible so as to post them on Facebook as proof that one had conquered yet another park.

“People aren’t stopping to look anymore,” Yosemite Communications Director Scott Gediman told me then. “They’re rush, rush, rush and I see that every day.”

A generation ago, the average Yosemite visitor spent 48 hours at the park, Gediman pointed out. Now the average visit lasts a mere 4.8 hours. “People aren’t taking long backpacking trips like they did before,” Gediman says. “Backcountry use is actually declining even though more people come here.”

Over at the Grand Canyon National Park, the average visit is even shorter. Most visitors spend just 17 minutes looking at the magical abyss. A friend described witnessing a family whose car pulled into one canyon view parking lot. “Stay in the car, I’ll get the shot,” the father hollered to mom and the kids.

Shelton Johnson, the veteran African American ranger and novelist, had the same observation about park visitors. “They’re harried, they’re rushed, they’re looking at their watches,” he laments. I tagged along with Johnson one day as he went about asking Yosemite visitors about how much time they spent at the park. We found that most of the American visitors were day-tripping and that fully a quarter of the park’s visitors were from overseas. The foreigners were the ones spending more time out in the American wilderness.

One Austrian told Johnson he’d be spending three weeks in the park. A man from London joked that he was glad Americans didn’t have more vacation time, since “I can come to this beautiful place and it’s not even that crowded because the Americans are all chained to their desks.”

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