As the National Park Service begins planning for its 100th birthday in 2016, the venerable agency has reason to wonder who will show up.
By the service's own reckoning, visits to national parks have been on a downward slide for 10 years. Overnight stays fell 20% between 1995 and 2005, and tent camping and backcountry camping each decreased nearly 24% during the same period.
Visits are down at almost all national parks, even at Yosemite, notorious for summertime crowds and traffic jams. Meanwhile, most of the 390 properties in the park system are begging for business.
"Most days, we'd be delighted to see 10 people," said Craig Dorman, superintendent at Lava Beds National Monument, a seldom-visited site near the California-Oregon border that is even emptier these days. "It was pretty crowded around here during the Modoc War," he said, referring to the 1872 Modoc Indian uprising. "But there probably haven't been that many people here since."
Typically, families with children recede from the parks in the fall. Now, the retirees who traditionally take their place in the fall and winter are choosing to go elsewhere. Last year, about 569,000 vacationers went to Yosemite in July, nearly 20% fewer than in the same month in 1995. In January, there were 94,000 visitors, about 30% fewer than in January 1995.
Agency officials admit that national parks are doing a poor job attracting two large constituencies -- young people and minorities -- causing concerns about the parks' continued appeal to a changing population.
A study commissioned by the park service and released in 2003 found that only 13% of the African Americans interviewed had visited a park in the previous two years.
For more than a year, the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has been asking the park service to explain how it intends to attract more minorities to parks.
"Let me assure you that the leadership of the service is talking about this and spending a fair amount of time trying to understand the trends," said Jon Jarvis, director of the park service's Pacific West region. "You don't have to have statistics and surveys to recognize that the visitors we are seeing do not reflect the diversity of the United States."
Meanwhile, the parks' most loyal visitors over the last several decades are vacationing elsewhere. Baby boomers are changing the way they play. Some of the more adventurous have embraced mountain biking and similar sports that are not allowed in many national parks. But as they age, most boomers are less interested in pitching tents and sleeping on the ground.
"I do believe that there is a significant trend, 'Done before dinner,' " said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Assn. "Baby Boomers want hard adventure by day and soft adventure by night. They want to paddle and rock-climb and also their Cabernet and almond-crusted salmon with asparagus. And a nice bed."
Many young families, too, are spurning the parks. According to Emilyn Sheffield, a social scientist at Cal State Chico on loan to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, children have more say in family vacation destinations than ever before and, if they must be outdoors, they prefer theme parks.
But, even if children vote to visit a park, Sheffield said, many families spend no more than three hours traveling to vacation destinations, meaning that parks far from urban areas are getting a pass. In contrast, urban parks, including the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are among the most heavily used parks in the country.
A Nature Conservancy study funded by the National Science Foundation and released last July found a correlation between the drop in national park visits and the increasing popularity of at-home entertainment, including video games and the Internet.
Author Richard Louv writes of a "nature deficit disorder" and suggests parental fears about kidnapping and crime are keeping children off neighborhood streets and out of parks.
"We're talking about a generation that's being raised under virtual house arrest," said Louv, whose 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder," is being used as a study guide at some national parks.
"We scare them to death with signs and pamphlets warning them about bears, snakes, spiders, poison oak, drowning, driving on ice and in snow and all the other disclaimers we provide," said Alexandra Picavet, the spokeswoman at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. "Small wonder they are terrified."
Some parks are using technology to draw teenagers in. Officials at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are experimenting with a Pocket Ranger game that simulates activities available in the park. The game can be downloaded from a website to iPods and other devices and continued in the park as a kind of scavenger hunt.