Do National Park Crowds Breed Advocates—or Build Annoyance?

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 10, 2015 15

Wild and remote Denali National Park has only one road, which culminates in North America’s tallest peak. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A trip to Denali National Park is a journey into wild America at its best. This six-million-acre landscape is bisected by only one, 92-mile ribbon of road. Travel along it, and you’ll see low-elevation, taiga forest morph into high, alpine tundra. It all culminates in North America’s tallest peak: the 20,310-foot Denali. Wildlife—such as black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall’s sheep, wolverines and wolves—roam freely here, much as they have for millennia.

In the summer months, visitors to Denali National Park may drive their cars on the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road. The rest of the road is limited to tour buses (which provide visitors with a narrated program and box lunch or snack), shuttle buses (which you may disembark and reboard anywhere along the road—providing there is room and you can flag them down), bikers and hikers. Most of the annual 530,000 visitors [2013 statistic] to the park choose a bus tour.

About 100 buses per day travel Denali’s one roadway. But the increasing number of tourists is causing the National Park Service to consider some changes in the schedules. Soon, tour bus stops may be strictly limited to 10 minutes each. Some park visitors fear that sticking to such a timetable will negatively affect the park experience. What would happen if a grizzly bear or a wolf were sighted at the nine-and-a-half-minute mark at one of your stops? Should your bus, then, have to quickly reload and move on within 30 seconds; or should you be allowed to linger for a few minutes more?

Unlike Denali National Park, Zion National Park has many developed trails. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Forced to take the bus

In May 2000, Zion National Park instituted a mandatory shuttle system in the main canyon to relieve crowding and congestion and to protect natural resources. The free Zion Canyon shuttle stops at nine locations in the park; and during the busy season, the buses run from early morning to late evening, as often as every seven minutes.

However, Zion is a very different park than Denali. The shuttle is not the main way that tourists get around in the park; it merely transports you to a variety of developed trails and from one, very walkable area in the park to another. Other than the one road, most of Denali National Park is wilderness backcountry. Using the shuttle there rather than the tour bus requires some serious outdoor skills and planning.

Last summer, in the Alaska Dispatch News, lifelong state resident John Schandelmeier wrote about his recent Denali National Park bus tour. After a gap of about a dozen years between tours, he found that the activity had dramatically changed. While wildlife-viewing opportunities—especially for grizzlies and caribou—remained excellent, he noted that “a couple of times our bus screeched to a halt to look at what was thought to be an animal. Nope, it was just another crowd coming off a mountain.”

If a grizzly is spotted, should a tour bus be forced to move on? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

With more and more visitors coming to see one of the last, nearly pristine places in the United States, if buses are required to keep stops within a strict number of minutes, such interruptions could impact the chances for seeing Denali’s wildlife even more.

Crowds = caretakers

Ken Burns, filmmaker and director/producer of the PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has said that he is happy to see the crowds at national parks and put up with all that they entail. “Traffic jams are an important part of democracy,” he has stated. “If there were no traffic jams, the national parks would have no constituency. And then the next time somebody wants to dam a river or cut down a stand of trees or mine a canyon, there’s not going to be people advocating against it and saying no. Once you lose a place, it’s lost forever. Once you save a place, it is—like freedom, like liberty—a constant vigilance to maintain.”

But the question is: how should we balance encouraging more park visitors with upholding the quality of the national park experience?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Jean Bjerke March 4, 2015 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    This will be an increasing issue as population grows and more and more people want to access the parks. Surprisingly I was actually quite impressed with how the shuttle bus system handled this issue based on a visit last September. Stops were brief but sufficient to observe wildlife, and they were a several minutes longer if interesting wildlife was sighted. Denali is a particularly difficult question since there is only one road, and apart from winning the 4-day road lottery there is no other way into the park but to walk, fly, or take a shuttle bus (or ski or dogsled in winter). Buses cannot safely pass each other on most of the road. It would not really be practical there for stops to go too long, or, with a hundred shuttle buses driving the single road daily, there would be huge bus jams and the schedule people depend on would be seriously disrupted.

    I think each park’s traffic issues should be considered separately. The numbers of visitors, number of miles of road, human impacts including air quality, options for other ways to see each park, vary greatly. There needs to be some control, and also some balance. Fees could be increased for some parks or services, but not so much as to unduly limit access. Perhaps a system allowing for private tours for specific interests could work in some parks. It is a delicate balance.

    The real problem is there are just too many people on the planet! John Muir would be horrified at the crowds in most of the parks, I think. Maybe he would flee on foot to someplace like Gates of the Arctic National Park where there are no roads.

  2. Melissa Girard February 28, 2015 at 5:00 am - Reply

    I think National parks are extremely important. It allows us to appreciate nature, and the beauty this world holds. This summer I went to Rocky Mountain National Forest, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I feel like seeing this in person allows you to respect these habitats. As long as there are rules, guidelines, designated roads and trails that are only allowed for people I think its ok.

  3. Bobbi Beyer February 24, 2015 at 10:51 am - Reply

    When I travel to places that I know have high crowds, I like to go not during the main season. For example, if I am going to Yellowstone, I like to go around Labor Day. I know that I will need to pack clothing for warm and cold weather (possibly snow… which it did snow the last time I was there). However, there are some nice National Parks that don’t get as high attendance as others during the main season such as the Blue Ridge Parkway which makes it great for visiting.

    Some National Parks, it doesn’t matter what time of the year regarding crowds (i.e. Great Smoky Mountains), however, they might have some areas that most of the crowds don’t visit such as Catalooche or Tremont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Seeing some of the areas that aren’t frequented by the other tourists can be a rewarding experience as you can see some wonderful scenery that you might have overlooked because it wasn’t on your agenda when visiting that park.

    I do think that the National Parks might want to increase some of their fees as it has been a long time since some of those parks have seen fee increases. The new proposed fee for Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons still makes them very affordable if you look at the cost per day instead of what the total fee is. Some of the proposed new fees are to help cover the costs to maintain those parks. There will still be some parks that may not be able to charge any fees due to state routes traveling through them (i.e. Blue Ridge Parkway).

  4. Jim Weeder February 23, 2015 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Well having to go to some national parks with my wife’s parents, they acted like national lampoons vacation when looking at the Grand Canyon. So the 10 min. stops would be ok for them. They could come up with tours that would stop for longer time frames for the visitors that really want to enjoy the parks. Higher entrance fees would limit the people that are on limited budgets that want to see the beauties of the parks.

  5. Patrick Potts February 23, 2015 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Raise the entrance fees and things will slow down–However, be prepare for a loud “out-cry”. High prices place value to state & national products.

  6. Matthew Berg, Ph.D. February 23, 2015 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    How we view and “consume” our landscapes is definitely a tricky question! In years past when I lived on the coast, I loved the beach and its welcoming proximity. But when all those “other” people came to take it in, it drove me nuts and made me stay away. Certainly some complex social dynamics of perception and behavior!

  7. Mark Kraych February 18, 2015 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Not to sound anti-tourist but our National Parks are overrun with humans. Went to Zion National Park this summer. It was beautiful and the crowds were AWFUL. We will never visit a National Park in peak season again.

  8. Bobbi Beyer February 17, 2015 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Recreation Facility Specialist at City of Dayton Department of Recreation and Youth Services

    Maybe partnering with organizations that can provide a different service such as backpacking in Denali might be a way to provide a unique experience that some tourist have never thought about. These companies could provide services at the level of comfort of the person partaking in that activity (i.e. basic backpacking for beginners). The Cades Cove Loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers two days a week that have early morning hours dedicated solely to bicyclists. I have biked this loop road twice and totally recommend it as it provides a very unique experience in this area.

    Maybe the parks could recruit some volunteer groups (sort of Friends of Denali) to help build some wilderness trails that tourist could use as an alternative means of experiencing the park. There lots of people that love the outdoors and would jump at the chance of being able to assist the parks that they love. This would also build some advocacy for those parks.

    This may only help alleviate some of the congestion as there will always be areas that are extremely popular and congested (Old Faithful Geyser area in Yellowstone, Cades Cove Loop in the Great Smokies, etc.).

  9. Dave Schmidt February 17, 2015 at 5:58 am - Reply

    I’m reminded of a scene in Ed Abby’s classic, “Desert Solitaire,” where a visitor to The Arches asks Abby (I paraphrase), “how long does it take to see this place?”

  10. Brian Bastarache February 16, 2015 at 6:32 am - Reply

    I do find traffic in such places very annoying. It is a bit discouraging to climb Cadillac Mountain or Mt. Washington (both in national parks here in the east) and walk into a summit parking lot full of cars and tour buses. However, I do understand that most park visitors are not interested in anything more than 100 steps from their cars. While it doesn’t make me happy, I completely agree with Ken Burns’ statement. A FEW, carefully managed roads, parking lots, and associated facilities are required for the average person to visit a park. Without the masses there will be too little support for such protected areas. I don’t mind a few gift shops if it helps fund the park.

    However, we also have a choice. We are not limited to hurried bus routes. We could hike. Take our time and have a more intimate experience. During my last visit to Acadia National Park we drove to the summit of Cadillac (to say we did) and spent the next day hiking several mountains on the other side of the island which few people visit. We only about five people on the trails. It was a great day.

  11. Orume Robinson February 16, 2015 at 6:30 am - Reply

    Dear Candice, depending on the distance to be covered and time available per tour, the time could be regulated or not. However tourists must be made to understand that wildlife viewing in non-captive scenarios is opportunistic, so as to avoid annoyance.

  12. Christopher Nova Smith February 15, 2015 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    When I go to Zion, the bus trip leaves me empty, It is to controlled. So i go hiking, possibly more than I normally would. When I go to the Grand Canyon where a bus is mandated to use, they also leave people with the freedom to get off the bus at the lookouts to stay as long as they like. After the bus trip most people are doing pretty good. The point is if it is to controlled or restrictive, then more people will just do what they want to. This in turn does the exact opposite of what was intended.

  13. Thomas Sawyer February 15, 2015 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    A difficult question to answer-perhaps “controlled” tourism and “controlled” access may provide a good and yet very broad summary, while still allowing several areas of each wilderness area the opportunity and time to recover where man has entered into the delicate and natural environments.

  14. Alex Rausch February 12, 2015 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Karlin, this is a nice compromise. Environmental Educators/Interpreters should always be flexible; it’s the nature of the job.

  15. Karlin Wolfe February 12, 2015 at 9:21 am - Reply

    This is an interesting dilemma. It is very plausible that in the event a visitor to the park, on one particular trip, has seen very little of the wildlife the area has to offer due to bad timing, and then at a particular stop finally glimpses activity but must leave the site in a matter of seconds would feel their time and money were wasted.

    On a smaller scale and different location I have heard similar complaints from patrons who have been on one to three tours and refuse to return to a park/location because of the absence of sightings on their visits. This is through, most likely, no fault of the bus tour driver as the animals are not in displays and it is not a desire of the establishment to limit their space thereby making the animal uncomfortable or stressed. Much of the anger seems to be focused on the idea that by paying for a tour it guarantees sightings. This cannot be expected of wildlife.

    Denali has other options to their tour types. The time estimation is listed on each tour option. Limiting the time at a particular site is not an outlandish idea. Though, having a little wiggle room will keep visitors happy. With one minute left on a visit to a site drivers should be given reign for their best judgement. Allow visitors to get their pictures, view the wildlife a few minutes beyond the designated time allotted to the site and pack up so the next bus has a chance. The time limitation will mostly impact those visitors who have been there before and remember “how it used to be” especially if the drivers are indeed given a little leeway.

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