The number of overnight-camping stays in national parks has declined in the past 15 years.
More than 9.2 million were recorded in the national parks in 1998. The number dropped to 8.54 million in 2003, 7.99 million in 2008 and 7.91 million in 2013 (visitation was hurt by the federal government’s shutdown in October).
The statistics include tent camping as well as RVs, backcountry camping and stays in campgrounds operated by concessions.
National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the decline began in the mid-1990s but began to level out around 2004. The numbers do fluctuate from year to year, with some years showing increases. But national-park visits were down 3 percent in 2013 from 2012.
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Camping numbers spiked in 2009 and 2010 as well, to more than 8.5 million each year, when the weak economy may have encouraged some travelers to stay closer to home.
Olson said more lodging options near parks is also a major factor in the long-term decline. Gateway communities have become savvier about offering hotels, motels, food and entertainment to visitors heading into the parks.
It’s become easier for visitors to spend the day inside a park, then get a comfy bed, maybe with Wi-Fi and cable TV, at night in a nearby town.
Olson added that in the biggest, most famous and most-visited national parks, “camping is still very popular,” with numbers down only slightly and campgrounds often at capacity. But in smaller, less well-known parks, camping numbers are off as much as 30 percent.