National parks draw record crowds

Near record numbers of Americans are expected to head to national parks this year as the U.S. National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. Visitation to the national parks reached an all-time high in 2015 with more than 307 million visitors, the Park Service says, and AAA reports the parks will remain busy places in the year ahead.

According to a recent AAA survey, 79 percent of Americans say they are as likely (42 percent) or more likely (37 percent) to visit a national park in the next 12 months, building on the momentum of this year’s centennial celebrations.

“The demand for national parks is off the charts this year, and it’s exciting to see that Americans are poised to take even more national park vacations in the years to come,” said Bryan Shilling, managing director of AAA Travel Products and Services. “In times of global uncertainty, many are turning to domestic vacations and the variety of national parks offers something for every traveler to discover.”

Eighty-five percent of Americans have visited at least one national park, and a majority say the national parks are a “must-see” vacation destination (73 percent).

“Although Oklahoma has no national parks as such, the National Park Service oversees the nearly 10,000-acre Chickasaw National Recreation Area in the foothills of the Arbuckle Mountains in south-central Oklahoma near Sulphur,” said Chuck Mai, spokesman for AAA Oklahoma. “Because water is the star there, now’s a great time to visit to beat the heat and enjoy the 2,350-acre Lake of the Arbuckles, plus the smaller lakes, creeks, streams, waterfalls and swimming areas.”

Oklahoma is also home to ten National Wildlife Refuges, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and the National Park Service manages two National Trails in Oklahoma.

National parks are growing in popularity among younger generations, with nearly half of Millennials (46 percent) saying that they are more likely to visit a national park in the next year, outpacing both Generation X and Baby Boomers.

“It’s not surprising to see that younger generations are particularly interested in visiting national parks,” said Shilling. “Travel is part of Millennials’ DNA, and they consistently seek experiential travel opportunities, a major draw for national park visitors.”

According to the National Park Service, the most visited national parks in 2015 were Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain. AAA’s survey revealed the national parks that top most Americans’ bucket lists for future travels include Yellowstone (33 percent), Yosemite (17 percent) and Grand Canyon (12 percent).

Travelers planning trips to national parks in 2016 can enjoy discounts on select dates in honor of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. All sites that charge an entrance fee will offer free admission Aug. 25-28, on Sept. 24 and on Nov. 11. The service’s actual 100th birthday is Aug. 25.

Results from the AAA survey reveal additional details about Americans’ national park vacation preferences:

  • The vast majority (91 percent) of visitors to national parks drive to their destination. The remainder choose to fly (18 percent), ride on trains or buses (10 percent each) or take a cruise or boat (7 percent).
  • The majority of Americans (66 percent) typically stay in a hotel, motel or lodge when visiting a national park. Camping (41 percent), vacation rentals or cabins (38 percent), staying with friends and family (33 percent) and bed and breakfasts (27 percent) are also popular accommodation options.
  • Visitors’ favorite national park activities include walking or hiking on park trails (53 percent) and sightseeing (35 percent).

To evaluate national park travel intentions, AAA contracted with a national research company to perform a telephone survey of 1,012 adults living in the continental United States. Survey results are an accurate representation of the total continental U.S. population with a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. The survey was conducted June 23-26, 2016.