It could be the upside of the economic downturn: The Obama administration says visits to national parks are up nearly 4 percent this year.
The National Park Service said Monday that 127.7 million visits were made to national parks in the first six months of the year, an increase of about 4.5 million over the same period in 2008. In June alone, visits to national parks increased by more than 700,000 compared to June of last year.
"America's national parks and public lands provide affordable and accessible recreational opportunities from coast to coast," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "It is great to see so many Americans, including the first family, take advantage of the incredible natural, cultural and historic resources that we have here at home. Especially when times are tough, our parks and public lands refuel the spirit and help energize local economies."
President Barack Obama and his family visited Yellowstone National Park on Saturday and Grand Canyon National Park on Sunday. The visits came during the last of three summer weekends when the administration waived entrance fees at 147 national parks and monuments to spur tourism and boost local economies.
Officials credit the "free weekends" for part of the spike in park visits, but say visits were up even before the fee waivers began in June. The economic slowdown may have forced people to stay close to home for their vacations, officials said, noting that visits to parks near urban areas including Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, Acadia National Park in Maine and Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania were all up this year compared to last.
Visits also were up at Yellowstone, which spans Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and is among the top five most-visited national parks. The park is known for Old Faithful and other geysers as well as hot springs and spectacular scenery.
More than 900,000 people visited Yellowstone in July, an all-time record for monthly visits and a jump of 94,000 visits over 2008.
Al Nash, a spokesman for Yellowstone, said the free weekends promotion likely played a role in the increase, but said a bigger factor was a dramatic drop in gas prices from a year ago.
"Frankly you're not likely to plan a trip halfway across the country or halfway across the world to save $25," Nash said, referring to the park's entrance fee. But visitors were enticed by gas prices that dropped from about $4 a gallon last year to just over $2.50 a gallon this year.
"If you compare the cost of visiting a national park to any other type of tourism or entertainment it just reflects what a great value we are," Nash said.