Visualizing Our National Parks

by Last updated Feb 4, 2019Data Visualization11 comments

For the best viewing experience, interact with this national parks data visualization on a computer. 

The United States is home to 59 national parks. Our parks range from the volcanoes of Hawaii, to the pristine arctic wilderness of Alaska, to the wild desert landscapes of Utah and Arizona, and the coral reefs of Florida. We are lucky to live in a country with such a wide range of climates and geological features.  We have access to deserts, mountains, jungles, plains, volcanoes, beaches, and forests, all available to us to explore.

I recently moved to Huntsville, AL and now consider the Great Smoky Mountains my “home” national park. The Smokies claim to be the most visited national park in the US.  Through some google searches, I discovered IRMA, the National Park Servicess (NPS) free online data store, and confirmed that the Smokies truly are the most visited park; by a long shot. Since then, I’ve spent the past few months working on this data visualization to help better understand our national parks. All of the plots are interactive.

America’s first national park, Yellowstone, was recognized in 1872, and initially had a few thousand visitors each year. Since then, 58 more parks have been added, including the most recent addition in 2013: California’s Pinnacles National Park. Since the birth of the national parks system, visitation to the parks has been trending upwards.

Total Visits

Visitor Trends

The National Park Service provides visitation data for each of the parks dating back to 1904. Overall, the visitation across the parks has steadily increased over the last 100 years.  There was a significant drop in attendance during World War II as well as a few years in the 1970’s (not sure the reason for the latter spike, but the former makes sense.)  In the early 2000’s there was a drop in total national park attendance and visitation became fairly stagnant, until 2013.  Since 2013, national parks have been seeing a massive influx of visitors entering the park, gaining more popularity every year, and increasing total visitation by about 5 million additional visitors each year.  2017 set a new record for national parks with 84 million total visitors. 2017 had 20 million more visitors than just 5 years ago in 2013.

The high visitation rate across the parks has pros and cons. It is great that so many people are active in the outdoors and have an appreciation for nature. However, many of the national parks are becoming overcrowded. The NPS is currently proposing that some of the more popular parks will have a greater entrance fee to combat the high visitation. Some parks, like Zion, are even contemplating implementing a visitor reservation system to enter popular destinations within the park. Read more about overcrowding in the parks in this New York Times article.