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Millions flocked to national parks last year, despite shutdown

Posted at 6:20 PM, Mar 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-08 12:39:54-05

(CNN) — No park rangers welcoming you to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Gates shuttered at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No guided hikes at the Grand Canyon.

It’s no surprise that the number of visitors to National Park Service sites took a 3% hit in 2013 because of the weeks-long U.S. government shutdown; it started October 1, at the height of fall leaf-peeping season.

The most popular national parks

National park sites saw 9 million fewer visitors last year than the year before, according to National Park Service visitation data. More than 273 million people visited the nation’s 401 national park sites in 2013, down from more than 282 million people in 2012. (The 401 park sites include the headliner national parks, national seashores, national monuments and other designations.)

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was the most popular place in the national parks system, with more than 14 million visitors last year, pushing Blue Ridge Parkway and its nearly 13 million visitors into the No. 2 spot. Great Smoky Mountains National Park came in third place.

Of the 58 specially designated national parks, Great Smoky Mountains was the most visited, with more than 9 million visitors. Grand Canyon National Park came in second place, with more than 4 million visitors. Yosemite came in third place with more than 3 million visitors.

Impact of the government shutdown

Nearly 8 million of the 9 million visitor decrease came from the 16-day shutdown, according to park service analysis.

Bad weather throughout the year also caused some park sites to close. They included Superstorm Sandy-related closures at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Castle Clinton and parts of Gateway National Recreation Area. Weather also caused shutdowns at the Blue Ridge Parkway.

With vacations, weddings and other celebrations canceled in and around the parks because of the shutdown, local economies also felt the economic pinch last year. The year before, national parks across the country generated nearly $27 billion in economic activity and supported 243,000 jobs, according to a park service analysis of 2012 visitor data published March 3.

States help reopen some parks

That’s probably why states such as Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah spent their money to pay to keep some of their national parks open during the shutdown, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said.

“For every dollar spent at the national parks, there’s a $10 return to the local economy,” Jarvis said, including spending at local hotels, restaurants and outfitters.

The park service cannot pay the states back unless Congress appropriates the money through legislation, Jarvis said.

Despite the gloomy news, last year’s visitors showed that they still love their national parks. Here are their favorite national park sites for 2013.

Top 10 most-visited National Park Service sites

1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (14.29 million)

2. Blue Ridge Parkway (12.88 million)

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (9.35 million)

4. George Washington Memorial Parkway (7.36 million)

5. Lincoln Memorial (6.55 million)

6. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (6.34 million)

7. Gateway National Recreation Area (6.19 million)

8. Natchez Trace Parkway (6.01 million)

9. Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4.94 million)

10. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4.84 million)

Top 10 most-visited national parks

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (9.35 million)

2. Grand Canyon National Park (4.56 million)

3. Yosemite National Park (3.69 million)

4. Yellowstone National Park (3.19 million)

5. Olympic National Park (3.08 million)

6. Rocky Mountain National Park (2.99 million)

7. Zion National Park (2.81 million)

8. Grand Teton National Park (2.69 million)

9. Acadia National Park (2.25 million)

10. Glacier National Park (2.19 million)