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Public Use of the
National Park System





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

current topic Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10



Public Use of the National Park System (1872-2000)
Chapter 5
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National Patterns of Outdoor Recreation and the National Park System

a. The Five Recreation Patterns and the 24 Activities.

b. The Four Types of Occasions for Outdoor Recreation.

c. ORRRC's Concepts and Public Use of the National Park System.

d. Need for Public Use Studies of the National Park System.


This section reviews the outdoor recreation patterns and activities identified and measured by ORRRC, and considers their implications for the National Park System. Patterns and activities include passive outdoor pursuits like sightseeing and walking; backwoods recreation, including camping and hiking; water sports; winter sports; and physically active recreation of youth, including games and sports, horseback riding and bicycling. A study of ORRRC's survey of the four occasions for outdoor recreation activities also throws light on public use of the National Park System. These occasions are a vacation, a trip, a day's outing, and a short occasion of two or three hours duration. This section presents a chart showing current views of the compatibility of 24 different outdoor recreation activities with the natural, historical, and recreational areas of the System.

In 1962 ORRRC published the results of its comprehensive National Recreation Survey, as ORRRC Study Report 19. [13] In 1967 the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation published a subsequent study carrying the data through 1965. [41] These two documents constitute the most comprehensive study of outdoor recreation activities ever made in the United States, and contain concepts and data valuable for any study of public use of the National Park System.

a. The Five Recreation Patterns and the 24 Activities. The National Recreation Survey identified five broad patterns of out door recreation, Different groups of recreationists, in a very general sense, tended to follow each of these patterns. The five patterns ranged from "passive outdoor pursuits," such as driving and walking for pleasure, to "physically active recreation of youth," such as playing outdoor games and sports. Within each recreation pattern, the National Recreation Survey also identified, defined, and measured the principle recreation activities, which numbered 24. The following table shows the five recreation patterns, the recreation activities characteristic of each, the percentage of the population participating in each activity, and the number of days each activity was pursued per person in the United States during 1960-1961. [15]

Passive outdoor pursuits
Annual Days
Per Person
% of Population
Driving for pleasure20.7352
Walking for pleasure17.9333
Nature walks2.0714
Attending outdoor sports events3.7524
Attending outdoor concerts, drama.39 9
Miscellaneous activities .57

Backwoods recreation
Camping.86 8
Hiking.42 6
Mountain climbing.09--

Water sports
Canoeing.12 2
Sailing.11 2
Other boating1.9522
Water skiing.41

Winter sports
Snow skiing.07 2
Sledding and tobogganing.51 9
Ice skating.55

Physically active recreation of youth
Horseback riding1.25 6
Bicycling5.17 9
Playing outdoor games and sports12.71

We do not have a further breakdown of these statistics for recreation patterns and activities to reveal the precise nature of public use of the National Park System. Nevertheless, some general comments may be offered.

(1) Passive outdoor pursuits dominate outdoor recreation in the United States. These pursuits represent three-fifths of the total outdoor recreation in the nation. These pursuits also appear to dominate use of the National Park System. Until they are measured statistically, we cannot be certain; but it seems probable that the majority of the visitors alike to natural areas, historic areas, and recreation areas are sightseers. It is significant to note that among natural areas, this statement is clearly true of Yosemite National Park. In a perceptive article in National Parks Magazine for October 1967, based on a master's thesis at the University of Michigan, Warren A, Johnson makes some interesting observations. [16] In 1966, 54.9 percent of the visitors to Yosemite did not stay overnight, 26.3 percent stayed three days or less, and only 18.18 percent stayed longer. It seems clear that sightseeing is the major public use of Yosemite. Among historic areas, sightseeing is obviously the principal public use. This would be equally true of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, with 2,745,000 visits in 1966, of Castillo de San Marcos in Florida, with 488,500, and of Cabrillo National Monument, across the country in California, with 1,085,000. Among recreation areas, there is also extensive sightseeing use. In 1966 the Blue Ridge Parkway--a recreational area--had 8,011,000 visits, almost all of them for sightseeing. A great many of the 2,830,000 visits to Cape Cod National Seashore in 1966 were probably sightseeing. It is more difficult to judge the 3,720,000 visits to Lake Mead and those to other reservoir areas. The proportion of sightseers to other users of the recreational areas of the System may diminish in future years as more facilities are developed in these areas.

(2) Backwoods recreation. Some lovers of the outdoors may quarrel with the term "backwoods recreation" as inadequately reflecting the intensity of superlative wilderness experience. There would be some justice in such criticism, but for this analysis we find it necessary to use the term. According to ORRRC, backwoods types of recreation constituted about three and a half percent of outdoor recreation in the United States in 1960-61. Three-fifths of this was hunting, which is forbidden in the national parks, monuments, and historical areas, although it is permitted and encouraged in appropriate national recreation areas. The remaining forms of backwoods recreation, namely, camping, hiking and mountain climbing, are widely pursued in the National Park System. Camping, however, is no longer as much a backwoods recreation activity as it used to be. Steady improvements in design of camping equipment, which make it easier and quicker to set up and take down and more comfortable to use, have made camping a different experience for many people from what it used to be. Oftentimes today, camping is simply an inexpensive form of family accommodation on what is basically a sightseeing trip. Out of 9 million camper days in established campgrounds in the National Park System in 1966, almost 4 million were in trailers and only a little over 5 million were in tents. Volume 20 of the ORRRC report offers this further observation on camping: "The large majority of American adults, as well as the large majority of vacationers, do not go camping. In some cases age is a deterrent and often lack of experience. The main reason, however, is that most Americans like comfort and service during their vacation. This is especially true of women who look forward to a change from housework; often it is true of men also." [17] It would appear likely that "hiking with pack" rather than "camping" is the best measure of the desire of the American people in 1960-61 for wilderness experience.

Many who are lovers of the national parks to whom the lonely grandeur of remote places is an invaluable experience may find it difficult to realize that apparently only some people like to be alone. Most people evidently prefer to be with others.

The distinguished anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Mead, writing on outdoor recreation in the context of emerging American cultural values, observed: "... for most people the point of a park--whether it is in a city or in the country or at the seaside--is that it is full of people, and a park where one is out of sight or hearing of others is--as it may be in fact--a dangerous place." [18] And the well-known sociologist, Professor William J. Goode of Columbia University, commented in the same volume: "Poets and philosophers of the outdoors (along with the author) have praised the aloneness of the outdoors but most Americans enjoy nature best in groups and family units." [19] We may or may not agree with Professor Goode's conclusion and it should perhaps be further verified in regard to natural areas of the National Park System. If the conclusion is sound, as seems probable, it will have to be taken into account in managing public use of the System.

(3) Water sports. There is a very large public demand for water sports as a major and growing form of outdoor recreation activity in the United States. It represented over fourteen percent of outdoor recreation in 1960-61. The number of power boats has increased enormously in recent years. The National Park System offers facilities to meet a part of the demand for water-based recreation, but the facilities vary from segment to segment of the System, and in many areas there are definite limits to this type of recreation.

Fishing is an important visitor activity in many natural and recreational areas. The System's recreation areas are the principal locations for visitors to enjoy water sports. This makes a lot of sense, for most recreation areas are water-based either as reservoirs, seashores, or lakeshores. There has been a sharp rise in public demand for water sports since World War II and establishment of many of the national recreation areas represents, in part, a response to this demand.

(4) Winter sports represented a very small part of outdoor recreation in the United States in 1960-61--scarcely more than one percent, The most popular winter sport, ice skating, was pursued to a minor extent in the National Park System. Sledding, tobogganing and skiing were the predominant types of winter use in natural areas of the System. Here the problem was how much intensive use to permit, supported by ski tows, and involving timber cutting to open ski slopes, which could become conspicuous in the summer season. Generally speaking, intensive developments are properly avoided in natural areas. There is no problem in permitting such developments in recreation areas. However, the present recreation areas in the System are principally seashores or reservoirs and offer little natural terrain for winter sports.

(5) Physically active recreation of youth. This is the second most important category of outdoor recreation in the United States, ranking next to passive outdoor pursuits. It comprised about 21 percent of all outdoor recreation activity in 1960-61. Most of this recreation, however, is not suitable in the natural and historic areas of the National Park System. In the survey year, two-thirds of this recreation was playing outdoor games and sports. While these activities are normally pursued on playing fields near home, they may also be pursued in national recreation areas and the National Capital Parks, Washington, D. C. There is plenty of room, however, in all three categories of the National Park System for the two other principal physically active recreation pursuits of youth, namely, horseback riding and bicycling. The problem with horseback riding is its growing cost which has already put it out of reach of most people, although it is theoretically available in many areas of the System. We may be on the brink of a growing demand for bicycle riding, however, which is likely to take initial hold in recreation areas like Cape Cod, where the terrain is suitable and the public use pattern compatible. One sees no objections at all to bicycle riding also in natural or historic areas, and many reasons to encourage it.

b. The Four Types of Occasions for Outdoor Recreation. In addition to identifying five outdoor recreation patterns and 24 activities, the National Recreation Survey also identified and analyzed four types of occasions for outdoor recreation activity, These are a vacation, a trip, a day's outing, and an occasion of only two or three hours' duration. Each of these types of occasion has special meaning not only for outdoor recreation generally, but also for understanding public use of the National Park System. Perhaps the most illuminating data is contained in a special report from the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, published as ORRRC Study Report 20, referred to above.

(1) A vacation. The survey defined a vacation as a trip of more than three days which the person surveyed regarded as a vacation. During the survey period (1959-60), 43 percent of American families went on a vacation trip, over 80 percent in their own automobiles. Many vacationers reported they would have liked to travel even more. Nearly as many families took a vacation trip as bought a car or any major household appliance. Other studies by ORRRC show that during the year from June 1960 to May 1961, persons twelve years and over took nearly 80 million vacations, remaining away from home nearly 800 million person-days.

Vacation trips are often family trips which include children. Thirty-five percent of the vacation trips recorded in the University of Michigan survey involved husband, wife and children. Thirty eight percent included one spouse and children, friends or relatives, or were made alone. Twenty-five percent included husband and wife and no children. While statistics of this kind are not available for travel to the National Park System, it seems probable that family travel predominates.

Vacation trips varied greatly in length and distance. The median length of vacation trips was 8-9 days. Two-fifths of the trips covered long distances and were made to another region of the country or abroad. One-third of the trips were out-of-state but within the general region. One-third of the trips were made within the vacationers' home state. Since units of the National Park System are found in every region and most states, travel to one or more of them is usually possible even on a short vacation in one's home state.

"Automobile riding for sightseeing and relaxation" was the most popular recreation activity on vacations. It was engaged in by 53 percent of vacationers. "Outdoor swimming or going to a beach" was second, with 38 percent participating, and "picnics" third, with 29 percent, Furthermore, among vacationers who visited Federal or state parks, 77 percent engaged in "automobile riding for sight seeing and relaxation." The survey concluded that people on vacation trips to parks pursue those activities they consider help them "see and enjoy the scenery and nature--pleasure driving, hiking, nature and bird walks, camping, and picnics . . . Many of the visitors undoubtedly come to the parks for a short time en route to some other destination. They may make only a brief stop in the park, and they are interested primarily in activities which are part of seeing the sights. Other park visitors stay longer and have more time. Yet park visitors did most of their swimming, fishing, boating and canoeing, and hunting outside the parks." [20] (Underlining supplied.)

(2) A trip is an outdoor recreation occasion during which the participant is away from home at least overnight. According to the National Recreation Survey, from June 1960 through May 1961, there were 111 million outdoor recreation trips. Many of those occasions were weekend trips.. Outdoor recreation activities on short trips tend to be different from those on vacation. Only 38 percent participated in "automobile riding for sightseeing and relaxation." Thirty-seven percent went fishing; 30 percent went swimming or to a beach; and 25 percent on picnics. (The percentage exceeds 100 percent because those surveyed could list more than one activity.)

A person on a short trip may sightsee in the National Park System but is more likely to do so when on vacation. People who take weekend or other short trips are seeking opportunities for fishing or swimming, camping or hunting, much more often than sightseeing. The recreation areas of the National Park System, because of their proximity to large centers of population and their water-based recreation activities, make a significant contribution toward meeting some of the outdoor recreation needs of people on "trips."

(3) A day's outing is an outdoor recreation occasion not involving an overnight stay away from home. Outings averaged eight hours each, and because they do not involve an overnight stay, are much less expensive and therefore more frequent. There were 810 million outdoor recreation outings during the year June 1960-May 1961. Picnicking is the most frequent reason for an outing; swimming second, fishing third, attending outdoor sports events fourth, and hunting fifth. Sightseeing and driving for pleasure run a rather poor sixth and seventh. While units of the National Park System may be visited by some people on outings, such visits are more likely to occur during vacations or overnight trips, Outings may become an important element in public use of such national recreation areas near urban populations as Cape Cod, Fire Island, and Point Reyes.

(4) Short occasion of two or three hours' duration. The ORRRC Report identifies this type of occasion, but gives much less data on it than on vacations, trips, and outings. It appears that a good deal of walking for recreation is done during short periods of two or three hours. Many city-dwellers find walking a pleasure and important for health. The growing interest of the National Park Service in urban parks, natural beauty, and historic preservation is potentially relevant here.

c. ORRRC's Concepts and Public Use of the National Park System. For many years the term "recreation" has been used differently by different people. The ORRRC report established an identifiable and measurable framework for the term "outdoor recreation." Within it is to be found the entire spectrum of recreation activities pursued in the National Park System from hiking with pack to water-skiing. Now that so much valuable data has been collected nationally on this framework--data periodically made current by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation--it would seem only common sense for everyone concerned to use it in discussing public use of the National Park System.

There are bound to be differences in viewpoint over the nature and extent of such public use. These differences are likely to be compounded if the term "recreation" is used in a general, subjective or derogatory sense, such as castigating park visitors as "crowd-recreationists." On the other hand, if a particular outdoor recreation activity is believed on the one hand to be desirable, or on the other hand objectionable, in a specific location in a particular park, the issue is pinpointed if the activity and location can be identified precisely. For this reason, the outdoor recreation activities and categories developed and measured by ORRRC provide a valuable tool for analyzing and discussing public use of the National Park System, and for managing that use.

In order to clarify our ideas about the proper framework for public use of the System, let us examine ORRRC's five patterns of outdoor recreation and their sub-activities, and set forth in chart form which activities the Service currently considers generally compatible with the preservation of the System and each of its segments for the benefit of the people of the United States. We are not dealing here with the quantity, but only with the kinds of recreation activity. In considering compatibility of use, we differentiate between natural, historical and recreation areas, but do not attempt to consider individual parks and exceptions.

Compatibility of Outdoor Recreation Activities with Segments of the National Park System

Natural Areas
Historical Areas
Recreation Areas
Passive Outdoor Pursuits
Walking for pleasureXXX
Nature walksXXX
Driving for pleasure(1)Sightseeing only; see noteSightseeing only; see noteX
Attending outdoor sports events(3)NoNoX
Attending outdoor concerts, dramas(4)NoSee noteX

Backwoods Recreation
Camping(5)XSee noteX
Mountain climbingXNot applicableX
Hunting (6)NoNoSee note

Water Sports
Swimming(7)See noteXX
Other boating(8)See noteSee noteX
Water skiingXXX

Winter Sports
Snow skiing(9)See noteNot applicableX
Sledding & tobogganing(9)See noteNot applicableX
Ice skating(9)See noteNot applicableX

Physically Active Recreation of Youth
Horseback ridingXXX
Playing outdoor games and sportsNoNoX


(1) Driving in a park is classified here as sightseeing, It may give pleasure, but it is the pleasure of sightseeing. People do not pay a park entrance fee simply to drive for driving's sake on park roads.

(2) Picnicking is permitted only in approved locations.

(3) There are some water sports events in some national recreation areas, such as Lake Mead and in National Capital Parks. There are some baseball and football fields in National Capital Parks.

(4) There are many special events in historic areas, including commemorations and national holidays. Outdoor dramas are performed at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and in National Capital Parks, and concerts are also performed in the latter area.

(5) In approved locations only. Generally prohibited in historical areas, with the exception of archeological areas in the Southwest where camping is common.

(6) Public hunting and fishing are resource uses which are considered desirable and compatible with most national recreation areas.

(7) In approved locations only. Intensive beach developments are contrary to policy in natural areas.

(8) Canoeing and sailing would usually be permitted in any area of the System where suitable waters are available. Power boats are prohibited on many waters in natural areas, and their use is regulated on permitted waters.

(9) In natural areas, only by special justification and plan. Trail or cross-country skiing is encouraged when safety factors permit.

Careful description of the use pattern for each type of area--natural, historic and recreational--is a proper subject for the statement of management principles for each segment of the System. The first of these detailed statements, the Compilation of Administrative Policies for Natural Areas, was issued by Director Hartzog on September 13, 1967. [21] This compilation represents a major step ahead in the thoughtful analysis and interpretation of basic public use and preservation policies for a major segment of the System. Parallel compilations for the historic and recreational areas will doubtless be issued soon.

The above table confirms the pluralistic nature of public use of the National Park System. Different patterns of public use, such as passive outdoor pursuits and backwoods recreation, go on side by side in the same park. Different recreation activities characteristic of these patterns, such as sightseeing and hiking with pack, are pursued by different groups of people in different areas of the same park simultaneously. Recognizing and analyzing the pluralistic forms of public use in each park or, in other words, the different user groups, is important to the overall management of public use of the System.

d. Need for Public Use Studies of the National Park System. While its concepts, data and conclusions leave room for discussion, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission's basic report to Congress and the 27 study reports that followed, laid a monumental foundation for a better understanding of the outdoor recreation habits and needs of the American people. In addition to the summary report, Outdoor Recreation for America, and Study Reports 19 and 20, we single out for special mention Study Report 22, Trends in American Living and Outdoor Recreation. This last volume contains the valuable comments and insights of 14 recognized scholars in the behavioral sciences. Among subjects discussed by these authorities in relation to outdoor recreation are technological changes in our society, attitudes toward work and leisure, population growth and change, urbanization, social mobility among classes, changing family relationships, ethnic groups, mass media, and the recreation needs of such special groups as the aged, adolescents, minorities, single adults and foreign visitors. Among authors of essays in this volume are Dr. Margaret Mead, distinguished anthropologist of the American Museum of Natural History, who writes on "Outdoor Recreation in the Context of Emerging American Cultural Values: Background Considerations;" Dr. Philip M. Hauser, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, on "Demographic and Ecological Changes as Factors in Outdoor Recreation;" Dr. William J. Goode, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, on "Outdoor Recreation and the Family to the Year 2000;" and Dr. Herbert J. Gans, then at the University of Pennsylvania, on "Outdoor Recreation and Mental Health." These essays are cited because even a brief study of the approaches such behavioral scientists make to outdoor recreation will reveal how little the National Park Service really knows about its visitors and their needs.

This is not to say that the Service has not been aware for a long time of the importance of public use studies. It has been keenly aware of their value for management and has made a beginning within its very limited resources. The Service has long kept data on travel, but in recent years the collection and interpretation of this data has been critically reviewed and consistently improved. It is interesting to note that as long ago as 1955, the Service contracted with Audience Research, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, for A Survey of the Public Concerning the National Parks. [22] This study provided helpful background data that contributed to better understanding of public attitudes toward the national parks. It is well to recall, also, that the MISSION 66 staff, under Director Wirth's leadership, achieved a broader understanding of the System and its public use than had been reached before. Nevertheless, there are still great gaps in our knowledge and some persistent differences of viewpoint.

Current research includes a study of the carrying capacity of Rocky Mountain National Park mentioned above. This is being conducted by a team organized by the Center for Research and Education at Estes Park, Colorado, including participants or consultants from the fields of ecology, sociology, statistics, anthropology, psychology, wildlife management and recreation from several universities. The Service has also embarked on a research program to examine the socio-economic relationship between certain parks, their visitors, and the surrounding communities. These studies are usually conducted by state universities in cooperation with the Service. Thus far, studies have been completed for Teton County, Wyoming (University of Wyoming), and Dare County, North Carolina (State University of North Carolina). Similar studies are in progress for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Memphis State University) and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (University of Arizona).

It seems evident that continuing careful thought needs to be given to further developing the concepts and financial support for a program of public use studies for the System as a whole, and for many of its units. Management of the National Park System must inevitably be based on thorough knowledge of its natural, historical and recreational resources, and of the human beings who use it, as their behavior manifests itself in each park area, The concepts for a program of public use studies should be developed by an appropriate staff group, with advisors, representing or consulting with representatives from the behavioral sciences, the natural sciences, the fields of archeology and historic preservation, and the statistical, economic, interpretive and planning elements of Service organization. This need not be as cumbersome as it sounds. Many circumstances, including diminishing resources, mounting use, and perhaps as a last straw, the current national concern over foreign versus domestic travel, conspire to make this study effort peculiarly timely now.

Needless to say, studies of public use will not be very helpful unless they are accompanied by informed consideration of the interrelationship of the visitor and the resources, tangible and intangible. It is to be hoped the Service can build on the foundations laid in the ORRRC report, but add refinements and subtleties in analysis of visitor behavior that were impossible in ORRRC's broad national survey.


Last Modified: Thurs, Mar 14 2002 7:08 am PDT