Experiencing the national parks all too often means taking a car
A road trip across the United States – using any mode – does not feel complete without a visit to one of the national parks.
Naturally, I over-committed in my planning, telling myself I would visit as many of the large, wild reserves as possible. But when I began to research the best ways to reach them, it turned out my only practical option was by car, considering I would have been biking along mountainous highways without much protection, food, or shelter.
Through the font of persistence and ingenuity that builds with biking over mountains and into rainstorms, I did manage a side trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. After conceding to riding in a car, reaching these parks confirmed my impression that – while the remoteness of many national parks is part of their allure – the lacking transportation options makes them inaccessible to those without cars, money, or a lot of time.
A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.
The Park Service appears to be aware of the need for alternative transportation modes, both to attract more visitors and to minimize the impacts of cars. There does seem to be some funding plans to implement intra-park shuttle services and to encourage visitors to seek car alternatives.
As a result, non-driving mobility is fairly easy inside certain parks, such as Grand Canyon and Acadia national parks, both of which have extensive shuttle networks that accommodate significant numbers of people. Acadia’s free Island Explorer buses (above) have proven especially successful, moving more than 530,000 people around the park each year, and is supported by a grant from L.L. Bean. However, these two appear to be exceptions.
Most parks have warnings about traffic congestion and suggest alternatives, promoting shuttles where they are available. Yet congestion still persists, leading to items like Yosemite’s traffic graphs (below) that inform car-bound visitors what times they are likely to deal with congested roads. Without a robust system that allows people to leave their cars outside the park, it will be tough for NPS to shift many visitors to transit.
Though the Park Service is working on several programs that get people out of their cars in the parks, reaching them is still a significant challenge. Of the 10 most popular parks in 2015, Smoky Mountain and Zion have no alternatives to driving access, while six others have confusing and indirect connections to nearby population centers. In the Southwest, there is the Grand Canyon Railway, which connects to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route in Arizona, and there are private coach companies with confusing websites from airports to towns bordering Olympic and Yellowstone’s park entrances. However, they are often too expensive and time-consuming to encourage many people to consider them over their own or rental vehicles.
On top of money and time investments at parks that do have alternative connections, entrance fees benefit those using cars rather than forgoing them. The cost per person on foot, bike or even a park shuttle is generally $15, while a four-person car is $30 (a 4-person car, then, would only pay $7.50 per person). Unless traveling alone, it is more cost and time effective to use a private motor vehicle than not.
That said, two large parks show promising connections. Glacier National Park provides direct access to Amtrak’s Empire Builder route and the cities that it serves in the upper Mid- and Northwest, while the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System offers an inter-city bus service whose fare includes park entry fees and connects riders directly to multiple cities and long-distance commuter options. YARTS, in particular, can serve as a good example of where to start, as it’s operated by the Merced County Association of Governments in cooperation with NPS and moves about 100,000 people – 2 percent of visitors – per year. Such progress is an important starting point and possible model for other parks.
Crucially, the Park Service would also need to promote and incentivize these services – Yosemite’s and Glacier’s information pages portray YARTS and Amtrak as secondary options to driving – to make them viable and popular options.
Finding our parks
The extra complexities of reaching into these wild areas through multiple jurisdictions, while maintaining the natural landscape, adds to the challenge of establishing a transit system. It makes sense that the large, remote parks tend to incentivize personal cars just from a logistical perspective. But in order to better preserve the natural wonders and existing infrastructure in the long-term, as well as improve the visitor experience and accessibility, it is in the national interest to establish systems that reduce the numbers of cars going into and around national parks.
With the uncertainties of transportation into and within the national parks, it is difficult to convince people to get out of their cars. Working with local and state governments is tough. Yet, as the Park Service knows, it is important to provide reliable alternatives in order to keep the wild parks wild while making them more accessible. Certain parks show what is possible, and creating more and better ways of getting around will truly help more visitors experience the outdoors.
Editor’s note: Andrew Carpenter bicycled across the U.S. to report on transportation options.