Poll: Are National Parks Overrated?

poll national parks

The fact that I received a traffic ticket for riding my mountain bike across an empty gravel parking lot in Death Valley National Park in no way colors my perspective on parks, authority, being an American, freedom of the hills, best ideas, or any of that. Nuh-unh. No, my perspective is more colored by campgrounds, traffic jams, and tourists: National parks, despite their often glorious settings, too often remind me that no matter how free I feel, the Man is still in charge.

But national parks, despite their restrictions, or perhaps at the expense of their restrictions, harbor some of the most sublime landscapes under the sun, glorious places where, with just a few miles walk, you can escape the hordes and be alone, with no reminders of rules and regs other than perhaps a little blue plastic bag. I’ve sat on top of Yosemite’s Mount Hoffman in the middle of July, when the valley was a hazy mess of air pollution and tourists, and been blissfully alone as my head bumped against the cobalt blue sky. I’ve gone deep into Canyonlands until covered with a century’s patina of dust and never seen another soul, except for thin white contrails far above.

National parks are amazing. And they are exasperating. And what I’m wondering, for the adventurous spirit who doesn’t come to ogle wildlife, but who goes outside for the joy of physical effort, for the levitation of having no borders, for the whole YES of being away, are national parks overrated?


Collective_BRN_Stripe_PLR_BRNThis week, one poll participant will receive Smith Optic’s Collective shades. We’ll pick the winner via random number generator (and announce it here) — all you have to do to enter is vote and leave a comment so we have your email to contact you. Must have a U.S. or Canadian address. Contest ends Sunday, April 14, at midnight PST.

Congrats to Shirley Klepac, winner of the Collectives!

Photo by Shutterstock

{ 73 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Seth

    They pretty much offer the best of both worlds … the wonders of creation for the masses and some even more amazing places for those who are willing to go beyond the beaten path. I’ve had awesome experiences in both locales.

  • jeremy

    the value in the fact that the general public can experience the natural wonders of this country is unmeasurable

  • matt mccluskey

    I love our National Parks. True there are some rules (no bikes on gravel roads?) might need to be looked at for common sense, but they are there to keep the parks natural as possible.

  • Andy

    They are what they are. If you’re looking for real solitude then lace your boots and strap on your pack. Scenic vistas and no approach? Head to a National Park*.

    Exceptions abound. This is kind of a tough one.

  • Jared

    I’d have to agree with the overwhelming majority here. I love national parks and think they are necessary to protect and preserve our beautiful landscapes and wildlife.

  • William

    Hike or bike deep in and you don’t have to deal with the masses or the wardens. That’ my take on Canadian parks.

  • Ryan

    If it wasn’t for National parks we would end up with more Starbucks with great views over the roofs of Walmarts.

  • Matt

    Not overrated…just presented wrong. It should be a celebration of protected outdoors instead of an invitation for Americans to sit in a car, drive through the park drinking there gallon cola, and never leaving the comforts of the A/C. Lets stop the traffic and encourage people to get out and get dirty. Then, maybe, the might see why the land is worth protecting.

  • Lee

    For a family of four that spends their vacations exclusivly in National Parks, and for the price, I think they’re underrated. However, if the purpose of the trip was to as free as possible, get away from mankind,…I can see where there could be better places besides a National Park to look for that.

  • Leigh

    Hard to imagine what the landscape would look like without all the National Parks. I can only imagine the over development though I think some of them are being loved to death.
    @Al I can bring my dog on almost every trail in Banff National Park – and that’s something I very appreciate doing – on a leash of course.

  • ben

    It all depends on what you are looking for. They serve a purpose well, but i would hardly compare it to a backcountry experience where you are alone.

  • Kim

    People enjoy National Parks in countless ways. If your thing is to get out in the backcountry and beyond traffic and gifts shops, all of the National Parks I have visited offer this opportunity. On the same token, if you have small children or cannot safely access remote parts of our parks, you can still experience some of their beauty and wildlife. That’s what they are all about – they belong to all of us! I do, however, support the bus systems they use exclusively in some of parks. Seems to be a great solution for providing access and reducing noise and air pollution and traffic issues and also encouraging people to do more than just drive-bys.

  • Steve

    The idea of National Parks is one of the best to come out of our country. They preserve what certainly would have been lost to development in the name of “progress.”

  • KatieSue

    There are so many good things about them, if anything they’re under rated. I’ve often been on a summit and had only a German family, a French couple, or even a group of college kid climbers from Iceland there to share it with. Where are all the other Americans out experiencing this gift from our country? Get out there MORE! It belongs to everyone and it will do wonders for your soul.

  • Bruce Wilson

    The parks all were set aside for their special fetures and to be protected, but most of the popular ones are overcrowded and take some abuse. From Acadia, to the Smokies, to Yellowstone, Arches to Ranier. But in every one I have been to, if leave your car, and walk some, the crowd goes away, but still encounter people. Even the backcountry sites are full. I have come to prefer the National Forests adjacent to the the parks. They still have some stunning places, with far fewer people, maybe none.

  • Eric

    A. National parks are similar to backcountry travel, the more experienced/adept just have to push farther in to get away from the crowds. B. What was the reason for the traffic ticket?

  • Patrick

    Way too busy. But the regulations which I hate does protect the natural national treasures, or at least attempt to do so. Not overrated.

  • MCR

    Overrated – Not a chance. Overcrowded – Yes. Just be sure to get away from the road and these places are sublime.

  • BCOX

    Might be a stretch, but I’m willing to bet that every great idea also has it’s ‘not so great’ attributes. In the case of National Parks, this comes in the form of attracting a swarm of tourists. But! Tourists bring money, parks need money, and generally tourists are easy to spot, and easy to get away from… exceptions are of course the main roads, campgrounds, and big attractions… but hey, at least they’re out there, trying to do something.

  • Brett Kosmider

    I would agree, the parks can get busy in high season but even some of the most “pristine” wilderness and backcountry are elbow to elbow as weekenders converge on trailheads every Friday night as they pack in. I think the best way to enjoy the Parks is to research when fewer people visit and go during those times.

  • Jenny

    The popular parks sometimes are a hassle with the crowds at certain times, but i get as much satisfaction going to the less popular parks and visiting the popular ones in off seasons. I appreciate that our nation has preserved places for me to go explore.

  • Jeff

    unfortunately they are becoming increasingly valuable.

    they also encompass some of our most unique/distinct geographical spaces.

  • Murph

    Not overrated, they’re pretty awesome. Yes, they are victims of their own success and you have to set your expectations accordingly.

  • David D

    “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America” by Douglas Brinkley is a good answer to this ludicrous question.

  • Chris

    No, they’re amazing … should be protected (from exploitation/dismantling) whilst maintaining maximum access.

  • colby

    they are not overrated, just some a better experience than others for an outdoorsmen who wants to get in touch with nature. you just have to stay away from the tour buses.

  • Pops42

    Maintain the trails and let Mother Nature manage the rest.
    National Parks are like the school system. Support it properly and nothing but good comes out of it.

  • Max

    No way. Never once gone to one and been underwhelmed. And at least out here in the mid atlantic, I’m always surprised by how empty our parks are.

  • ESchank

    I love national parks and have come to realize that the over protections is for either safety or liability, and the boundaries are for the protection of the ecosystalbeauty. But I do get annoyed with the places that have turned in to StatePark/mega attractions. The size of the parking lot at old faithful is amusement park size. Disgusting just thinking about the amount of cars stuck going slow through these parks. THey are sure nice to view and visit, but if i am spending days in the woods, I am going somewhere where people arent. like wilderness and nowhere

  • Jeremy

    No and given the fact there has been record attendances we should investing and funding our National Parks.

  • rick

    Never overated, they are like an outdoor museum, you can breeze right thru or stop and get lost in your own view

  • Greg

    No & I am with Seth. Yes they can be congested with cars and tourists but, for those of us willing to travel a few miles from the car you can be immersed in nature and all alone in some amazing terrain.

  • Doug Ferguson

    Lots of hiking in Canadian parks but very little mountain biking allowed although Jasper National park is bucking the trend.

  • Sean

    I think that the tight restrictions are a necessary trade off for the conservation of the lands. Though many of us realize the fragility of the habitats preserved within park lands, many more tourists are ignorant of the fact that their actions can have severe and long-term impacts on the park. I’ve always been more a fan of National Wildernesses anyway. Less people, less restrictions.

  • Willy

    I think they are a great thing. There may be a ton of rules, some of which make no sense, but if not for them we’d probably see most of these places well destroyed by now. If the rules are what is needed so that my sons can go see the same places in basically the same way I saw them, then I’m glad they are there.

  • Preston Spratt

    National Parks are great. There is a reason that such crowds visit. If you are seriously perturbed by the crowds and rules (probably the big headache) there are plenty of areas of the park to get away from those.

  • Chris Hughes

    I’ve always been amazed at how getting off the beaten path even a little bit gets you away from the crowds, even in the most crowded of our national parks. And, even in the most crowded areas, it’s still often worth dealing with the crowds – some of our parks are just that amazing.

  • Ian

    I think parks are great for those not willing to explore, but if you are into exploring you pay a premium to ‘explore’ in the park. Usually, just outside the park is a similar but free area that doesn’t have the masses, the park fees or the silly rules. It feels more natural for me to play outside the park gates.

  • dennis

    Some of my best experiences have been at national parks and I have found like many others here it’s pretty easy to ditch the crowds. Just have to go off the beaten track once in a while. Probably the most adventurous experience my wife and I had many years ago was a labor day weekend at the Grand Canyon. We did a three-day mountain bike on an old, abandoned road called cape solitude near the south rim. Not sure if you can still do this put the park service did allow us to bike it then. I even ended up getting lost on the reservation when taking a wrong turn trying to find a different way out to avoid the insane climb (aka pushing loaded bikes for miles) back up to the rim. Not a sole to be found for 3 days of blissful wilderness.

  • Stephen Buchness

    Ken Burns and Alistair Cooke had it right that America set the standard with Yellowstone and the fact that the best land was not given to the rich, but enjoyable to all is to be celebrated. Kruger Park is a prime example of a place that would never have happened had Paul not looked at what Teddy had done.
    American parks have moments of crowds and you can be frustrated that people will sit in their cars but all in all the parks are fairly well maintained and being a normal American I have been able to enjoy many of them at a affordable cost.

  • Rosemary

    National Parks are amazing! You just need to find the more remote areas, or go during off-seasons, to enjoy it in solitude. If they are overrated now I would argue it’s because they were underrated before.

  • Dave

    Most people suck – whether they are in the park, the store, the car, the mall, the DMV…
    Parks will always be cool.

  • Mr? OGAR

    Gotta love the National Parks. They allow those less able to see God’s incredible creation, often up close. If you are physically able, You can strap on your hiking boots and find solitude in a hour. This one is easy – let’s celebrate and protect our national parks!

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