Really Getting Away From It All: The Loneliest National Parks

Alaska's Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve counts as two separate units of the National Park System, but still counted only a grand total of 62 recreational visitors in 2010. NPS photo.

The most popular national parks get visitors galore. But what about the other end of the attendance spectrum, the end that is anchored by the system's least-visited parks? From the attendance point of view, you might say that these are lonely parks dwelling in the deep shadows cast by their more celebrated brethren. Let's shed some light on them.

The National Park Service's attendance data for 2010 reveal that 69 National Park System units attracted a million or more visitors. After allowing for some double counting (the Park Service has a very quirky way of counting NPS units), it remains that more than 60 NPS units cracked the million-visitor threshold last year.

Against this background, it's hard to believe that each of 23 NPS units -- nearly 6 percent of the National Park System's 394 units -- attracted fewer than 10,000 visitors last year. The total attendance of this bottom tier was 77,825. That's less than 0.3 percent of last year's system-wide visitation of 281.3 million, or about the number of people who visited Death Valley National Park during the month of February last year.

Here is the roster of the 2010 cellar-dwellers (2010 attendance in parentheses):

* Hamilton Grange National Memorial (0)

* Aniakchak National Monument & Aniakchak National Preserve (62)

* Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve (204)

* Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (984)

* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (1,103)

* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (2,445)

* Cape Krusenstern National Monument (2,521)

* Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (2,642)

* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (2,888)

* National Park of American Samoa (3,006)

* Kobuk Valley National Park (3,164)

* Noatak National Preserve (3,257)

* Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (3,285)

* Nicodemus National Historic Site (3,448)

* Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (4,063)

* Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (4,350)

* Thomas Stone National Historic Site (6,004)

* Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (6,211)

* First Ladies National Historic Site (8,766)

* Lake Clark National Park & Preserve (9,931)

* Fort Bowie National Historic Site (9,491)

Attendance data are aggregated for Aniakchak National Monument and Aniakchak National Preserve, even though the National Park Service counts them as two separate units of the National Park System. The same is true for Lake Clark National Park and Lake Clark National Preserve.

Although a strong geographical bias is apparent (two-thirds of these units are west of the Mississippi River, fully one-third are in Alaska, and one is in the South Pacific), the loneliest parks are actually quite a mixed bag. There's room here for legitimate differences of interpretation, but I can see two "special case" units, one group of remote units, and one group of low-interest urban units.

The first special case is Hamilton Grange National Memorial in New York City. The visitation reported for Hamilton Grange shows zero recreational visits for the years 1980-1982, 1993-1997, 2007, and 2010. However, this NPS unit attracted 40,000 annual visitors as recently as 2000 and counted 15,287 visitors in 2005. The wildly fluctuating numbers reflect periodic closings, the most recent of which was made necessary when the historic building that is this park's reason for being was closed for a time and then moved to a new site. Hamilton Grange is scheduled to reopen at its new location in Harlem this year, and visitation can be expected to return to normal levels in due course.

The second special case is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, a recently-established park located on US Navy property near Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area. The Port Chicago site, a former Affiliated Area, was redesignated as a National Memorial under National Park Service administration and established in 2009 as America's 392nd national park. The Navy severely restricts public access, making it available only by prior arrangement well in advance.

At least 14 of the reporting units in the bottom tier are in relatively remote locations, being hard to get to or situated outside the day-tripping zones of large population centers. The remote parks are:

* All seven of the Alaska units on the list (none of which has road access)

* National Park of American Samoa

* Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve (Virgin Islands)

* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (Big Bend National Park, Texas; no federal facilities)

* Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Chihuahuan Desert, southeastern Arizona)

* Nicodemus National Historic Site (Great Plains, northwestern Kansas)

* Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Great Plains, east-central Colorado)

* Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Great Plains, Texas panhandle)

Five NPS units on the "lonely list" are cultural-historical sites with central city, suburban, or day-tripper locations in major urban regions. Since they enjoy favorable market locations, their lackluster attendance is apparently due to low public interest. This group includes:

* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Philadelphia, PA; it is the smallest NPS unit)

* First Ladies National Historic Site (Canton, OH, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

* Thomas Stone National Historic Site (Port Tobacco, MD, near Washington, DC)

* Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Brookline, MA, a Boston suburb)

* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (Danville, CA, a San Francisco/Oakland suburb)

Qualifying comments are in order for the latter two parks. Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site is open to the public by reservation only (except for certain "No Reservation Saturdays"), and visitors are shuttled to the site for guided tours. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site was closed during part of 2010 due to major preservation project and is not scheduled to reopen until sometime in 2011. Attendance has exceeded 10,000 in only one year (2001) since the park was established in 1979.

The purpose of this report is not to criticize. Visitation is not the sole criterion for measuring the worth of a national park, nor even a necessarily important one. But it is something that matters (else why keep track of it at all?), and strikingly low annual visitation can't help but draw attention.

Of course, low visitation can signal problems. At the very least, National Park Service officials need to ask: Is strikingly low visitation acceptable at [this particular NPS unit]? If it is not, is corrective action in order?

Attendance trends for the low-visitation NPS units, something we have considered only in passing here, also merit attention. Downward-trending numbers may be cause for concern if they persist. At First Ladies National Historic Site, for example, attendance declined 16 percent last year and is down nearly 22 percent since 2006. Of course, some lonely parks have stable or improving numbers. At Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, visitation has rebounded sharply from lows reached in the mid-2000s.

If you'd like to explore the park visitation data more deeply, you'll find the data you need at this NPS Reports site. Remember to be careful when messing around with the visitation statistics for the loneliest parks, since small numerical changes can yield big percentage changes and impacts that may be much more apparent than real. Consider, for instance, the case of Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve, where 2010 attendance was up 443 percent for the year and exceeded the combined total for the three prior years. That looks mighty impressive until you consider that there were just 62 recreational visits in 2010, and a grand total of 50 for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Postscript:
Technically, only one of the 58 National Park-designated units -- Kobuk Valley National Park (3,164) -- reported fewer than 10,000 recreational visitors last year. However, it's likely that visitation at Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park also fell short of the 10,000 mark. The National Park Service counts Gates of the Arctic National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve as two separate NPS units, but combines them for many reporting purposes, including visitation. Last year's reported visitation for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve was 10,840. For an explanation of the methods the Park Service uses to count visitors at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, read this document.

Also, it must be remembered that head counting in the parks is not an exact science. Few totals are based on actual counting; most involve mathematical calculations that can vary from season to season, and some rely on mechanical vehicle counters that break down from time to time. As a result, attendance figures are somewhat soft measuring sticks.

Comments

Hamilton Grange National Memorial was really lonely with 0 visitors! Turns out it was closed for relocation in 2010 . . .

Now, let's see why Aniakchak National Monument & Aniakchak National Preserve was the next loneliest spot on the NPS map.

From its NPS.gov web page:
"Given its remote location and notoriously bad weather"
"A vibrant reminder of Alaska's location in the volcanically active 'Ring of Fire'"
"Aniakchak is Bear Country!"

No wonder it received only 62 visitors last year! ;-)

A serious comment, after pondering these of yours, Bob:

The purpose of this report is not to criticize. Visitation is not the sole criterion for measuring the worth of a national park, nor even a necessarily important one. But it is something that matters (else why keep track of it at all?), and strikingly low annual visitation can't help but draw attention.

Of course, low visitation can signal problems. At the very least, National Park Service officials need to ask: Is strikingly low visitation acceptable at [this particular NPS unit]? If it is not, is corrective action in order?
If by "corrective action" you mean "closing," let me say this: I don't mind my tax dollars going to support Hamilton Grange or Aniakchak any more than those going to support Yellowstone or Yosemite. I am in favor of preserving all the nature and heritage that we can in this great land of ours. I'd rather my money go to these purposes than to Tomahawk missiles landing in Gaddafi's compound.

Of course, I am on the extreme in this regard. At the other extreme are those who would close all national parks, monuments, and historical parks as a waste of taxpayer dollars. And, I might add, as impediments to business profits.

I seem to remember from a while back a National Parks Traveler piece on certain sites that were closed over the years due to lack of visitors and public interest. The resources of the NPS are limited and some unfortunate choices must be made at times. I trust the NPS to make them.

Good comments, Bruce.

As someone who generally perceives little waste in the Park Service overall, I do have to say that some units are Congressional attempts at pork barrel, bringing a handful of jobs and a small amount of federal funding to Rep. Whozyface's impoverished rural district or Sen. Whatzizname's mayoral buddy. In looking at the NPS imperatives, including protection of wilderness areas, I'd question whether all of these urban parks are necessary. They might be best turned over to the relevant municipalities or foundations.

In an earlier post this week, you asked for "cultural parks that don't get enough love" (http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/03/summer-special-ten-cultural-historical-parks-dont-get-enough-love7689) and the Olmstead site was the first that came to my mind!

Excellent comment AnonymousD.

I think I remember questions like that being asked many times when some areas were proposed for establishment. American Samoa is one of those. It was alleged that establishment of that unit was purely an attempt to boost tourism to an impoverished place that probably shouldn't even be part of the United States in any way.

The article explains the reason for low attendance at Port Chicago.

But there are other places, like Ft. Bowie, where part of the very attraction of the place is the fact they are so remote. (Yet, I would argue that Ft. Bowie isn't really remote. Rather it's just kind of inconvenient.) At FOBO, visitors must walk a mile and a half to reach the visitor center. A fairly easy hike, but maybe something people just choose to avoid even though the experience of hiking in there through country little changed since the days of Geronimo is an important part of helping us understand the history and hardships of those people who experienced life in that place. (For those who have special access needs, it is possible to drive to the VC.)

Attendance at a park certainly should not be main criteria in considering it for some other possibilities such as abolishment. Instead, if it comes to that, the most important should be going back to look carefully at WHY it became a park area in the first place.

I think there can be a certain amount of "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it" in some of this. The number of people who can or chose to visit someplace has no bearing necessarily on the inherent value of preserving that place.

I've seen some of the extremes, currently living at a park in Alaska with just under a million visitors annually for the past decade or so, and having also spent an extended vacation a year ago at National Park of American Samoa, which is on the 'remote' list. Neither is "better" than the other, and both have scenic and historical value. Others that I have visited from small [Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts, Klondike in Seattle] to large [Mt Rainier, Yellowstone] are all worthy of the NPS and deserving of support and visitation.

My opinion is that all of this can be interesting, but not a call for alarm or action.

Sorry about the ambiguity, Bruce, but I'm afraid it comes with the territory. I've used "corrective action" here in the conventional sense of the term. That is, a corrective action is an action that eliminates the cause of a problem. In the case at hand, if low attendance or declining attendance were deemed a significant problem at a particular national park, it would make sense to identify and weigh all of the potential corrective actions -- the goal being to increase attendance or maintain it at an acceptable level.

It's exceedingly unlikely that poor attendance could ever serve as the sole justification for delisting a national park. That said, it could certainly open the matter to discussion.

I occasionally mountain bike alongside the Eugene O'Neill Nat'l Historic Site, because it's on a forced detour route adjacent to the eastern border of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness in Danville, Calif.

The Las Trampas preserve suffers from typical East Bay Regional Park District overregulation. Specifically, mountain bikers riding on the Las Trampas Ridge (i.e., the main route) are required to detour down a dirt road with a 40-50% grade and a few miles north climb back up to the ridge. This is to avoid a singletrack that runs along the ridge. It's a rule that, for understandable reasons, is flouted regularly—the off-limits singletrack is popular with cyclists. But if one does take one's life in hand by obeying the absurd rules and half-sliding down the dirt road chute, one arrives almost on the doorstep of the Eugene O'Neill Nat'l Historic Site.

It is a strange place. No one seems to be there. I've walked around its perimeter more than once and have always found it locked up. One does see an NPS vehicle or two parked in its small parking lot at times, but unoccupied. It could be a scene from The Omega Man or The Quiet Earth.

Ah, ha, an explanation: the website says, "Reservations are required to visit this site."

However, it also says, farther down, that beginning May 1, 2010, no-reservation Saturdays will begin, and presumably they have begun. But you can't drive there. You can only be shuttled up by NPS at 10, noon, and 2. I'll try to swing by there on a Saturday mountain bike ride and see if I can be admitted.

Is there an advertising budget for the NPS? Would there be a political uproar if one existed?

I don't mind the numbers for Aniakchak National Monument and the other Alaskan site. Those units are under the NPS cover mainly for protection, not for education or entertainment. Looking at some of the historical units with low to non existing visitation, I am temped to see things differently.

If a cultural/historical museum does not attract visitors, then obviously something is wrong. And consequently it should be fixed of shut down.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Thomas Stone seem to be of no national interest anymore. They might have been seen as important figures one time but this aspect faded since. For the First Ladies there never was any interest and the location was an incredibly bad idea from the very beginning.

Let's see if Frederic Law Olmsted can attract the masses again when his museum reopens. His work is important, but obviously not well known or not conntected to his person in the general public or a significant community.

And the terms of access to Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site are a bad joke. I remember the strong rules for visiting the old J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu in the 90s - they had very limited parking on site and to avoid visitors to park in the residential neighborhood around the museum they allowed visting only with preregistered parking or by public transport, while public transport and Malibu obviously does not really fit. But the Eugene O'Neill Site beat that by a few orders of magnitude. A site that does not want visitors, consequently does not get any. And either they change the terms of access or the NPS should find some other use of the property.

There are so many things that affect visitation at our parks from year to year such as weather patterns, economy, special events, services & reconstruction. For example one winter at Biscayne NP the snorkeling boats were broken therefore visitation plummeted as no one could get out to the reefs! When reflecting on a parks visitation it is important to look at trends that take place over several years versus just looking at one year.
However, with that said, isn't it amazing to know that there are still places like Aniakchak, where we can still find complete solitude and wilderness.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Thomas Stone, being American Revolution figures, may become more popular in 15 years when the 250th anniversary arrives. The Stone unit, IIRC, was conceived as part of a plan (wisely abandoned, IMO), to honor all signers of the Declaration of Independence with individual sites. (As to that, why isn't the William Floyd Estate, home to another signer--and part of Fire Island Seashore--a separate national historic site?)

It isn't necessarily bad that historic houses have relatively low annual visitation--the impact of higher use might harm the resource.

Many ages ago I got mad at my parents and refused to get out of the car.
They told me we were going to a National Park, we went to some old house instead...

Bob Janiskee writes:
The second special case is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, a recently-established park located on US Navy property near Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area. The Port Chicago site, a former Affiliated Area, was redesignated as a National Memorial under National Park Service administration and established in 2009 as America's 392nd national park. The Navy severely restricts public access, making it available only by prior arrangement well in advance.
I think I mentioned it before, but is this the only NPS unit where visitation is restricted to US citizens and permanent residents?

http://www.nps.gov/poch/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm

I'm sure they would make an exception for foreign dignitaries or in special cases. Perhaps that could include a descendant of one of the Port Chicago victims.
Both Port Chicago and Eugene O'Neill NHS are pretty close to home, but I've never visited. I have been to John Muir NHS. Apparently they talk about the "secret location" of John Muir's grave, which is somewhere in Martinez. The rangers there talk about it but apparent won't disclose the location. I wonder if the location counts as a seldom visited NPS site?

Yeah - how does one count recreational visitation? I took a look at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park once. I just went to the little display (the Rosie Memorial) in a city park in Richmond, California. Most of the people there were simply sitting on the lawn and didn't seem all that interested in the display. This guy is only riding his bike next to the display.

Ranger Bri said, "isn't it amazing to know that there are still places like Aniakchak,
where we can still find complete solitude and wilderness."

True. Perhaps even more amazing, however, is that right in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area (approx. pop. 6 to 7 million) there are tens of thousands of acres of open space that offer, if not wilderness, complete or virtually complete solitude. Many times I've mountain biked Mission Peak Regional Preserve, which abuts an area of perhaps 2 million people, and seen either no one or one or two other people. And that's during daytime. At night (access is legal until 10 p.m.) seeing no one is the rule. The same goes for Henry Coe State Park, Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, Rancho Cañada del Oro and Sierra Vista Open Space Preserves, Joseph D. Grant County Park, Soquel Demonstration State Forest (on weekdays), and on and on. It is incredible to see people crowded onto freeways from an eyrie 2500 feet above them and a few miles away, all alone and with not even a suggestion that anyone one else might be nearby.

In fact, on the night of Obama's election I went to Mission Peak and rode in the dark precisely so that I would not know who had won until I came down. It worked like a charm. As I looked over the whole Bay Area, I said to myself that millions of people down there know something I yet don't, and I rather like it that way.

So, is the solitude the result of folks not knowing what exists in their backyards, or because of society's sedentary nature?

Always looking for a place of serenity and rich history!

Sand Creek Massacre is a very important site, that has only recently been made a part of the NPS. Only a few years ago it was nearly inaccessible to the general public, as it was still privately owned ranch land. Last summer I visited it for the first time and was surprised twice: First, that the Colorado Visitor Center in eastern Colorado had only a vague idea of where it was located; and second, that when I found it, it turned out to be a National Park (I had no idea). I loved the isolation of it, and the sacred space. You could daytrip there from Denver, but most people prefer to head for the hills, not the scrubgrass windy plains. Still, I'm so thankful I was able to visit it.

Bob--
I have been lucky enough to visit 5 of the listed "least-visited" NPS areas. Their serenity and peacefulness as well as the quality of the preservation of their resources are largely due to their remoteness.

Regarding your comment about Gates of the Arctic NP and Preserve: I did a 14-day combination hiking a rafting trip there. During the whole trip, we did not see another person, other than those with whom we traveled, until we reached Bettles, Alaska. The solitude was incredible. It is an experience I will never forget.

Rick

I'm envious, Rick. Don't tell anybody, but I haven't visited a single one of those least-visited parks.

So, is the solitude the result of folks not knowing what exists in their backyards, or because of society's sedentary nature?
That is a tough question to answer briefly. The Bay Area has a critical mass of nonsedentary people—there are tens of thousands of vigorous outdoor enthusiasts here—so that isn't a consideration. I'd ascribe the dearth of visitors to these factors: (1) some places are newly established and not well known; (2) other places bear the nominal title of open space preserves but are mismanaged as de facto cattle ranches and not worth visiting (or are visited by a fraction of the people who would visit them if they were better run); (3) for all of its self-congratulatory self-image of outdoors sophistication, the Bay Area tends to rely on the opinion of one newspaper writer about what's worth visiting and they go where he suggests they go; and (4) many places are in fact heavily visited.

I think one issue with First Ladies is also the lack of an NPS presence. Not to diminish the work of the wonderful people at the National First Ladies library, but when people visit a National Park, I think they expect a National Park Service presence. That, and yes, the location in a small rust-belt city in the former home of a not-particularly-well-known First Lady surely also doesn't help.
Also, I hadn't heard before of the movement to create an NPS UNit for each signer of the Declaration of Independence. In the case of Thomas Stone, a major impetus also was that the home was severely damaged by fire in the 1970's, and it wasn't clear that any other Party would have the resources to restore the home without NPS involvement.

Couldn't agree more about the First Ladies Site. Not only is it missing a strong NPS presence but it is very difficult to drop by and be apart of anything but the bookstore. Tried to do so last summer and I mostly I got to use the restroom and get my stamp before moving on. Not easy.

I want to note that Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site was also closed for a major construction project during 2010 (as well as during the previous several years). The fact that it served more than 3,000 under extremely challenging circumstances is a testimony to the dedication of its staff who worked to make the site's archival resources available at an off-site location and conducted tours, lectures, and school programs sharing the historic and cultural significance of the site with the public even though the site was unavailable for public visitation.

Thaddeus Kosciusz.... Have a chance to go to Philly soon. Is this a good site to visit? How long will it take to take in well?

According to the park website, "Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Monument is closed for renovations during the month of April."

I can't offer any first-hand observations about this site, but you'll find more information at this link: http://www.nps.gov/thko/index.htm