HOLD UP! First check out our National Parks 101 post for a great intro to National Park System definitions and designations as well as maps and tables of the 59 National Parks.


After our decision to visit all 59 National Parks and rationalizing leaving our careers and our home to do it, Elizabeth and I knew we needed to study up on the NPS history and operations so we could at least talk halfway intelligently with park enthusiasts who have been exploring parks long before we were born as well as have context in which to frame and appreciate all the awesome stuff we’ll be seeing over the next year. And since we got all “checks” on our kindergarten report cards, we learned our lessons on sharing and wanted to pass the knowledge along. So check out our brief look at the NPS history, usage stats and funding of the National Parks.


NPS History

The National Park Service is charged with preserving our nation’s history, but the NPS history is fascinating in itself. Probably the only thing I could have told you before I started researching for this trip and getting into the parks community through things like #ParkChat on Twitter is that Teddy Roosevelt was known for supporting conservation and the National Parks. This is very true — he doubled the number of sites within the National Park System from 1901-1909 and signed the Antiquities Act in 1906 giving Presidents executive power to declare historic landmarks or structures National Monuments — but the foundation of national parks in the U.S. was laid long before…

  1. 1832 – In an action that was the first of its kind by any country, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation that set aside four sections of land around what is now Hot Springs, Arkansas as protected land. Hot Springs Reservation was created to preserve the natural, thermal springs and adjoining mountainsides. However no legal authority was established and federal control of the area was not clearly established until 1877.
  2. 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation ceding the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (later known as Yosemite National Park) to the state of California and prohibiting private ownership. California was designated to manage the park for “public use, resort, and recreation”. This was the first legislation of its kind and the public had a heated debate over whether the government had the right to create parks. Famous conservationist John Muir published many writings on how California’s government permitted the destruction of Yosemite’s natural resources and extensive damage by livestock (he was formerly a shepherd and logger in Yosemite). He was instrumental in getting Yosemite converted to a National Park in 1890.
  3. 1872 – US created the world’s first National Park by establishing Yellowstone. It was given to the federal government to manage because at the time Wyoming, Montana and Idaho were territories. It was also given to the federal government because of the perceived mismanagement of Yosemite by the state government of California. Famous conservationist John Muir
  4. 1916 – National Park Service was created when Woodrow Wilson signed Congress’s National Park Service Organic Act on August 25, 1916. Stephen Mather was a business magnate and conservationist who organized a publicity campaign that published a series of articles to praise the scenic and historic qualities of the national parks and advocate for an independent agency within the Department of the Interior to oversee the federal lands. Mather became the first NPS Director (1916-1929). In 1916 the NPS portfolio contained 9 major parks and 14 total (10 of those later became National Parks): National Park portfolio in 1916


Current Assets under management of the NPS:

National Parks current assets


Usage Statistics

Since the National Park Service inception in 1916, visitors to the parks has increased 896-fold (I never knew there could be that many folds!). Some of the growth is due to the NPS adding sites and some is due to the increased popularity of sites. (Raw, filterable Visitor Use Stats for the entire NPS history can be found here.)


National Park Visitors since 1916


The first increase (year 19) occurred when FDR issued 2 executive orders transferred War Department historic sites, Department of Agriculture national monuments, and parks in DC all to NPS management. At the end of World War II (year 29), U.S. tourism saw a boom from a growing economy and reunited families. Then in 1932 (year 32) Eisenhower endorsed a 10-year uplift and expansion of NPS facilities in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the NPS in 1966 (year 50). This continued attention fueled rapid growth of the NPS). Since 1988 (year 72) visitor growth has largely leveled off. My personal theory is that this is in part because of globalization and the ability for families to take vacations abroad and maybe even the growth in technology keeping us increasingly indoors. But the NPS is working hard on their centennial outreach campaigns to get more people to #FindYourPark and the Switchback Kids are on a mission to play part in bringing parks to the next generation!

If you thought NPS visitors were all about National Parks you would be sorely mistaken. The top 10 NPS sites include more National Parkways and National Recreation Areas (to understand the NPS site designations and structure, see National Parks 101) often because they are close to urban areas and can be traveled through in route to your destination.

2014 Top 10 NPS sites by recreation visitors
The top 10 sites attract 28% of all visitors to NPS sites, leaving 72% for the remaining 357 sites who submitted visitor stats.
National Park Visitors by park site - top 10
2014 Top 10 National Parks by recreation visitors
The top 10 National Parks attract 58% of all visitors to National Parks, leaving 42% for the remaining 48 sites who submitted visitor stats. So obviously if you can make it outside this top 10, you will have a lot less crowds to wade through, which in my opinion always makes for a more pleasant, hassle-free and enriching experience.
National Park Visitors by NP - top 10
2014 Bottom 10 NPS sites by recreation visitors

You’ve probably never heard of these, I know I haven’t.
National Park Visitors by park site - bottom 10
2014 Bottom 10 National Parks by recreation visitors
National Park Visitors by NP - bottom 10
Elizabeth and I are committing to not just visiting the National Parks, but getting the full, unique experience of each one. This means riding the bike paths, paddling the water routes, fishing the streams, climbing the cliffs, and hiking the backcountry, snorkeling the reefs and all the park-specific adventures like sandboarding in Great Sand Dunes National Park (the first stop on our route). And we’ve also committed to tent or hammock camping for at least 1 night — and an average of 4-5 nights — in each park. This chart shows the evolution of who visitors stay in the parks. I was surprised that RVs are now most popular. We will be splitting our time between ranks 2 and 4.


National Parks visitor stays


Money and the National Parks

All these visitors spend billions that boost the national and local economies. Click here for more stats and charts on visitor spending effects.


National Parks tourist spending


But managing 407 park sites, 22K employees and 293M annual visitors doesn’t come cheap. The NPS creates a 600+ page document every year to justify their spending requirements. That’s probably like a small picture book by government standards, but it sure looks scary to me. (click here for some light bedtime reading)

National Park budget justifications


Here is the official NPS Budget overview. For 2015 the NPS requested $3.6B, which is an increase of $55.1M over 2014. Again, probably relatively small by government standards. Especially when you look at everything the NPS does and how NPS sites give every American citizens access to a wealth of recreation, family time, vacation destinations, etc.


National Parks budget overview 2


And here you can see the proposed increases of 640M solely for the Centennial Initiative. Yeah, it’s a big deal! The NPS is investing literally hundreds of millions in park uplifts and public outreach between 2015-16. They even hired a fancy New York ad agency, called Grey, to do campaigns like #FindYourPark.


National Parks centennial budget increase


We are super excited to be doing our small part to support this large movement and historic celebration of the centennial. Unfortunately, our calls to Grey and emails to NPS have not found that $640M to have any wiggle room to help out the Switchback Kids ;).


For an intro to National Park System definitions and designations as well as maps and tables of the 59 National Parks check out National Parks 101.

Written by Cole

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11 Comments on "NATIONAL PARKS 201: NPS history, visitor boom, the $$ trail and more"

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Shelly Hafner

Well researched piece. We look forward to following you on your journey.

A. Janelle

Unk and I look forward with anticipation to each adventure in your travels. Be safe and God Bless. Love, A. Janelle & Unk Clem.


Thanks Aunt Janelle (& Clem!). We appreciate the support!

mary langhorst

I will enjoy your trip through all of the National Parks…Proceed On…😊
Mary Langhorst
Bellevue, Nebraska

mary langhorst

If you are planning a stop in Omaha at the offices of The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and NPS, let me know. There is a Lewis and Clark Chapter in the Omaha area. We would be honored to visit with both of you…😊

Danny Sumner

After reading and viewing the material presented you are very serious about having fun. Have a great time.