KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If you've visited America's oldest national parks, you won't have much trouble picturing this - mile-long lines of idling cars at the entrance to the Great Smokies, hundreds of people trying to get that perfect picture of Old Faithful or hiking trails in Yosemite that are more like city streets than wilderness. Overcrowding is one of the biggest challenges facing national parks. And as the Park Service prepares to turn 100 years old this summer, another record year of visitation is expected. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The National Park Service wants you to get out into nature.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It belongs to everyone. It can be a place -
SIEGLER: But the success of campaigns like this Find Your Park and others from state tourism offices have created this huge demand. Last year, a record 305 million people visited national parks. And as the Park Service likes to point out, that's more people than went to every single Disney park, every single NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball game and NASCAR race combined.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So get up, get out there and find your park.
SIEGLER: I found Zion National Park, famous for its jaw-dropping, red sandstone cliffs, its colorful panoramic views, its lines of 300 deep just to get on a shuttle bus.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: While on the shuttles please do not drink anything other than water.
SIEGLER: Last year, Zion in southern Utah set its own record. Nearly 4 million people squeezed into this 6-mile-long canyon, most coming between March and November. No thanks, said Norma Dunton, who made a point to plan her recent trip for a weekday in winter, when crowds tend to thin out. She's worried about the future of these protected places.
NORMA DUNTON: They have to save the parks. Our children need to have this connection with nature.
SIEGLER: Dunton has been coming to Zion to hike for 40 years, and every year she says the congestion gets worse.
DUNTON: As much as I don't like the idea of reservations to get into the parks - but it would be worth it to save the parks if that's what they have to do.
SIEGLER: Reservations, phased entries for cars, daily caps on visitors. Pretty much every idea is on the table right now for some of the country's oldest and most popular parks like Zion.
JACK BURNS: So you may see a number of shuttle buses pass you by that are full.
SIEGLER: Jack Burns is in charge of crowd management at Zion. He's standing at one of the worst pinch points in the canyon, the popular Temple of Sinawava.
BURNS: So Zion was never designed to see literally millions of people.
SIEGLER: About 15 years ago, traffic and air pollution got so bad here that the park banned cars at certain times. Now Zion's mandatory system is held up as an example of how parks can better manage crowds. But even this is getting stretched to its limit.
BURNS: We also realize that we are looking at a capacity issue here.
SIEGLER: At extremely busy parks like this, managers are starting to talk about turning people away at the gates. Now this is where things get sticky. The mission of the Park Service is to keep these public lands open and accessible. More visitors getting out into nature? That's a good thing. But it's straining infrastructure. There's a nearly $12 billion backlog on maintenance. Search and rescue teams are understaffed.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't know, I would watch out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It looks like they're in a pen.
SIEGLER: And the number of human-wildlife conflicts is on the rise. So is it possible that we're loving our national parks to death? It's a question I put to Joan Anzelmo. She's a retired park superintendent in Jackson, Wyo., who's now with the Coalition to Protect the National Parks.
JOAN ANZELMO: You know, we're running out of room for people to have these wonderful experiences, and the agency and the partners of the agency are going to have to go a great job at figuring this out, and probably figuring it out pretty soon.
SIEGLER: Anzelmo says we're getting used to having to make reservations for concerts or other popular things, and we might need to start thinking that way for some of our most popular national parks.
ANZELMO: If we want to have these places for another 100 years and beyond, you might not be able to do everything at the same time. There may need to be certain kinds of modest limits on what you can do or how you can access certain areas of a national park.
SIEGLER: Well, for this centennial year anyway, one of the Park Service's main strategies is to try to divert people other less visited parks. So instead of going to Zion, have you considered Capitol Reef next door or maybe the Great Basin in Nevada? Or if you do go to Zion, why not go now, beat the crowds? That was Chung Kim's plan. He's taking his parents, who are visiting from Korea, on a winter swing through the national parks of the Southwest.
CHUNG KIM: We've been to, like, Grand Canyon, like, Bryce Canyon, and then this is, like, my third, like, national park here. So, like - I like this national park the best.
SIEGLER: I caught up with the Kims as they were taking a stroll among the Virgin River, where it comes out of a narrow slot canyon into this gorgeous open valley. For his parents, Kim says this looks like pristine wilderness.
KIM: It's still less crowded than in Korea, so they like it here.
SIEGLER: In Korea's national parks, he says, people regularly line up just to get on a hiking trail. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Zion National Park.
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