Tips to Ease Overcrowding at Parks and Sites

Across the country, visitation at parks has been rising for several years. With coronavirus and limitations on air travel, parks have seen a new boom along with changes in visitation patterns. Tour busses are no longer bringing international crowds, but local and regional visitors with limited options are flooding in. This includes a rise in visitors who have never been to such parks before.

While this boom is a dream for many outdoor advocates, more boots increases damage to resources and wear on infrastructure. And negative visitor experiences have the potential to taint support for parks long-term.

This is not a particularly new problem, just a change in scale. 106 Group has worked with Pennsylvania State Parks and is currently working with Joshua Tree National Park, California to address these issues through an interpretive lens.

When limiting admissions and increasing staff aren’t feasible, two forms of interpretive messaging can help:
How-To Basics

Those of us who work in this realm take conservation messages for granted. However, newcomers to parks have not necessarily been exposed to the ethics of Leave No Trace™. Likewise, we are hearing an increased need for reminders to wear appropriate shoes, carry enough water, and take a map because cell coverage cannot be assumed. Long lists of regulations don’t help, but clear information at trailheads and along trails can.

Spreading Out

One way to minimize damage at one attraction is to spread visitors out. Make people aware of other interesting things to do in your park. Even encourage visits to nearby businesses and other parks.

The question then is how to make people aware of these messages. Ideally, every visitor would talk with trained staff who can assess level of experience and interests to provide the best advice on where to go and how to behave. But always, we recommend multiple information channels. Here are some tips.

Before they come

Visitors learned about your park somewhere and they found their way to you. That almost certainly means that they came to your website or social media platforms. Prioritize these how-to and spreading out messages right up front. Be repetitive. Be friendly. Be funny. And remember the importance of gorgeous photos. Some parks are even creating new short how-to videos.

On the approach

As visitors drive in, grab their attention with signs intended to be read while driving. You can play with the yellow warning sign format; try the old-time Burma Shave approach of a series of smaller signs; and the National Park Service has been testing drive-by waysides. Depending on your specific geography, consider also a low-power radio station like those used for traffic information. Radio has the advantage of being easily updated to current conditions.

On arrival

Ideally, you would have staff or trained volunteers easily available at each parking area. A temporary tent and table could help them be found. Whether or not that’s possible, use the message strategies at each trailhead. Create bold signs, emphasizing visuals over words. (Don’t feel like you have to struggle to get it just right. Temporary is better than nothing. Consider it prototyping.)

Provide updated park guides/maps built to highlight the messages. Point to the alternate locations as boldly as you do the biggest attractions. Feature how-to information. Put safety tips alongside trail names (“One-way, 3-hour hike with slight slope. Bring water and bug spray. Poor cell reception!”)

Sometimes, nothing can beat a human voice. A solar-powered audio post can provide easily changeable messages at the push of a button. This also has the advantage of options for multiple languages. And the posts can be reused in the long-term as needed.

These tactics work best as part of a larger strategy including infrastructure changes such as reservation-based ticketing (try a lottery), updated traffic flow, additional restrooms and trash, shuttle busses, and increased staff contact stations. But these interpretive strategies are also relatively quick and easy. Go ahead and try them out on their own.

Want to talk through some options? We’d be happy to share our experience. Drop us a line.

Cover image of visitors at Yellowstone provided by the National Park Service. Photo of hiking boots provided by Emma Van Sant via Unsplash. Photo of Angkor Code of Conduct video provided by Youtube. Snapshot of Yellowstone social media provided by Yellowstone National Park. Photo of penguin road signed provided by Mathieu Dessus via Flickr. Photo of Burma Shave road signs provided by John Fowler via Flickr.

Regine Kennedy

Regine is a resourceful planner, facilitator, and project manager whose award-winning work includes community engagement, facilitation, interpretive planning, and exhibit development. She applies a keen attention to detail in every project, while never losing sight of the bigger picture. As a result, Regine empowers clients and their stakeholders to create meaningful and effective solutions that transform challenges into opportunities. She has effectively engaged a broad range of stakeholders, professionals, and people, including several American Indian tribes. Regine’s interpretive work can be found in parks across the country, from Alaska to Florida.