The overall benefits of spending time in the national parks are hard to quantify. However, fiscally, the benefits can be measured. In 2021, over 297 million visitors excitedly explored our national treasures. While doing so, these active and fervent consumers also contributed over twenty billion dollars to the nation’s economy. Of course, we know national parks to be about landscapes and history and wildlife and nature, but we cannot deny they also have a huge impact on our overall economy.
When we travel, we spend money. We pay for transportation, lodging, meals, adventures, entertainment, souvenirs, etc. That got me thinking: where do I spend my money? How does anyone decide where to spend their disposable dollars? I know I’ve taken other travelers’ recommendations on all of the above travel-related items, and they always proved to be sound vacation investments. Now, I’d like to offer some recommendations of my own to help others spend their tourist dollars while visiting a national park.
For simplicity, let’s take a look at the top ten most visited national parks in 2021. Fortunately, I have visited each of these parks over the years. The parks are listed in ranking order of visitation last year, and what follows is a mere suggestion as to where to spend your money, whether that be on food, entertainment, lodging, or shopping. For me, where I spent my money added value and provided something memorable to my trip!
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (visitation: 14.1 million)
- Don’t drive, bike Cades Cove! The Cades Cove Loop is closed to traffic on Wednesdays. Rent a bike and travel the loop at your leisure. You can do the full 11-mile loop, or the shorter 8-mile or 4-mile loops. Avoid the “bear jam” traffic and see the bears from your bike! Link: https://cadescovetrading.com/bikes/.
- Zion National Park (visitation: 5 million)
- While in Springdale, enjoy breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe, dinner at the Pizza Noodle, and a slice of the famous Bumbleberry Pie for dessert at Bumbleberry’s Bakery. In a recent three-night stay at Zion, I ate at all three of these twice! Links: http://oscarscafe.com/; http://www.zionpizzanoodle.com/; https://bumbleberrygifts.com/.
- Yellowstone National Park (visitation: 4.9 million)
- Here, ya gotta become a cowboy/cowgirl! You just have to! Saddle up on a true western experience and join in on an old west horseback ride and cookout! Link: https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/adventure/wild-west-adventures/old-west-dinner-cookout/.
- Grand Canyon National Park (visitation: 4.5 million)
- You visit the Grand Canyon, well, to see the Grand Canyon. There are a variety of ways to do so: jeep rides, helicopter rides, mule rides, etc. My time there was limited, so I just explored the rims and soaked in what I could at the historic Grand Canyon Lodge. Since I did not partake in any of those canyon excursions, I cannot recommend any particular company. I can, however, recommend the priceless views! If I return, though, I’m spending my money on the mule ride!
- Rocky Mountain National Park (visitation: 4.4 million)
- Obviously, you have to hike the trails and slowly absorb the beauty of the Rockies, but you should also rent an ATV and explore the Rocky Mountain backcountry! We used the family-owned Estes Park ATV Rentals, and they prepare you and then set you free to roam some trails on your own. Their whole operation is first-rate! Link: https://www.estesparkatvrentals.com/.
- A trip to RMNP must also include a stop at the Alpine Visitor’s Center. It is one of the best VC’s in the park system! Plan to not only shop, but to eat there as well!
- Acadia National Park (visitation: 4 million)
- Kayak in Frenchman Bay along the Porcupine Islands! You’ll most likely spot eagles, seals, and porpoises along this rugged coastal route. You can sign up for different tours. Link: https://www.acadiafun.com/sea-kayak-tours.
- Grand Teton National Park (visitation: 3.9 million)
- Raft the Snake! The thrill of whitewater rafting on the Snake River still lingers with me 25 years later. There are plenty of outfitter options, here are two: https://snakeriverwhitewater.com/; https://www.tetonwhitewater.com/.
- Yosemite National Park (visitation: 3.3 million)
- This is a recommendation of something I didn’t do, but will do on my next trip. Get lodging in the park! You may have to book almost a year in advance to secure reservations, but it will be worth it. The drive into the park is long, and there is a lot of driving to do once in the park. You’ll want more time in this spectacular place, so stay inside the park! There are options of style and pricing: https://www.travelyosemite.com/lodging/yosemite-lodging-experience/.
- Indiana Dunes National Park (visitation: 3.2 million)
- After completing the Diana Dunes Dare (https://www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/diana-s-dare.htm) and earning your coveted sticker, you’ll want some place to reflect on the magnificence of Lake Michigan, and perhaps even watch the sun melt into the Great Lake. Head to the Dig the Dunes Trail Stop, the only shorefront place in the park where you can eat a meal, imbibe some beer or wine, listen to local musicians, and gaze across the lake and see the City of Chicago. Link: https://www.digthedunes.com/.
- Glacier National Park (visitation: 3.1 million)
- The “Power of Pie” is real, my friends, and you must have pie (and a meal) at the Park Café in St Mary’s! It’s a grocery store and a gift store, too, so spend away! It’s a small family business and they definitely will earn your cash and will spoil you, as well! Grab a meal, groceries, souvenirs, and don’t forget the PIE! Link: https://parkcafeandgrocery.com/.
The money we spend in our national parks really is an investment. Our trips are certainly enhanced by the goods and services we purchase, and in the larger picture, we really are investing in our nation’s economy. Invest away, my friends! Enrich your experiences and boost our economy!