- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

When the Obamas visit Yellowstone National Park on Saturday for a first family getaway, they’ll be in good company.

As part of a national trend, Yellowstone broke its own visitation record in July when 900,000 tourists entered the Wyoming park. That was an increase of 11.4 percent from the previous July, typically the park’s peak month, and about 53,000 more visitors than the monthly record set in July 1995.

While Yellowstone’s jump in popularity may be the most dramatic, the entire National Park Service system is having a better-than-average year at its 391 sites, which include national parks, battlefields, seashores and historic sites such as the White House.

“There’s definitely been an increase this year and we’re anxious to see how that plays out,” National Park Service spokesman David Barna said.

Another flagship destination in the West, Yosemite National Park in California, reported its biggest June and July numbers in more than a decade.

See the results of our poll of readers on their favorite national park by clicking here.

In June, the park had 501,588 visitors, its highest June number since 1996. Another 608,567 tourists arrived in July, the most visitors for that month since 1998, said Yosemite spokesman Erik Skindrud.

Park officials credit several factors for the spike in attendance, including lower fuel prices, the affordability of a national-park vacation, the presidential inauguration and even the recession.

“A visit to Yellowstone or any national park is a good value,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. “You can do a hotel, a cabin or go camping. There’s a lot more flexibility that families have when they plan a visit to a place like Yellowstone than with some other tourist destinations.”

About 127.6 million people visited all National Park Service sites from January through June, an increase of 3.49 percent over the same period in 2008, and the first major increase in several years.

A big reason for the national increase was the presidential inauguration. The National Park Service recorded 2.66 million more visits in January 2009 than it did in January 2008. Of those, 2.22 million were in the District of Columbia, said Tom Wade of the National Park Service’s statistics office in Denver.

Even without the inauguration, however, the parks are enjoying a boom year, hosting 2 million more people in the first half of 2009 than in the first half of 2008. Numbers for the first half of the year have remained relatively stable at about 123 million since at least 2004.

Mr. Barna said the scattered estimates for July and August mean that even “if you take the inauguration out of play, I would say there’s been an increase of 2 to 5 percent over the previous year.”

“We’re optimistic that at the end of the year we’ll see a nice increase,” he said.

He predicted that international tourism may be driving much of the uptick. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, visits from foreign tourists plunged. This may be the year those travelers decided it was safe to come back, he said.

Story Continues →