President Obama and family are scheduled to take a whirlwind tour of two Western national parks this weekend, in part to spotlight the National Park Service's fee-free weekends, and to encourage park visitation.
Not that visitors necessarily need encouragement. This summer has brought record attendance to some public lands, including Yellowstone National Park, where the Obamas are set to visit Saturday after arriving today in Bozeman, Mont. On Sunday, they're off to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Attendance at Yellowstone hit a record high in July with 900,500 visitors, up 11% over the previous July and 6% over the previous monthly record-holder in July 1995. Lower gas prices compared with last year and pent-up demand probably are behind the increase.
Nationwide, the park service projects more than 200 million visits by the end of August, and it expects attendance this year to increase 3% over 2008. For the first time, the park service this summer waived entrance fees, which range from $3 to $25, over three weekends.
(This weekend marks the final fee-free weekend, but entry fees also will be lifted on National Public Lands Day Sept. 26 and for current and former military personnel on Veterans Day Nov. 11.)
On Father's Day, which landed on a fee-free Sunday, visitation at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado shot up 54% over the previous Sunday, says park service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper.
Still, it's uncertain to what extent the fee waivers spurred visitation systemwide. But they did generate publicity that "made people aware national parks are economical destinations," Kupper says. "In the '50s and '60s, this was the American vacation. But we've gotten away from it. Now, there's been this growing movement to connect kids with nature and spend more time with the family."
Although retail and food sales within some parks were somewhat sluggish this summer as more travelers sought to curb expenses, "we attracted new customers — people who might not normally have taken a national park vacation," says Brian Murphy, marketing director for Aramark, which operates concessions in Shenandoah, Denali and other parks.