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Alaska led U.S. in least-visited national parks in 2014, but Skagway historic park saw a record

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2015

America's national parks drew tourists in record numbers last summer, according to the U.S. National Park Service, but most of the agency's Alaska units remain starved for attention.

The five least-visited parks in the 49th state attracted fewer than 2,000 visitors total in 2014, according to agency numbers, and three of the parks -- all in the Northwest Arctic -- actually posted goose eggs in the visitor column.

John Quinley, Alaska region spokesman for the Park Service, is sure someone visited Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park and the Noatak National Preserve. It's just that they didn't get counted, he said.

The count was better in the Southeast Alaska town of Skagway, a well-preserved historical outpost popular with cruise-ship tourists, and it was there the Park Service claimed a record.

Visitation to Skagway's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was near 1.1 million in 2014. That marked the first time an Alaska park topped 1 million visitors. It came in a year when Alaska parks set a record for total visitors at just under 2.7 million, Quinley added.

Klondike, however, still lagged far behind the popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. The more than 10 million visitors to Great Smoky led the nation for a record for park visitors.

"In 2014, there were 292.8 million visits to national parks, breaking the previous record set in 1999 when parks saw just over 287.1 million visits,'' the agency reported in a press release.

Alaska contributed piddling few of those visits, though it is home to nearly two-thirds of the nation's 84 million acres of national park lands. Alaska boasts 54 million acres in 15 national parks, preserves and monuments. The state's 84,375 square miles of national park land comprises an area just larger than Idaho and just smaller than Utah, the nation's 13th and 14th largest states.

Of those 15 parks, the five most accessible attract about 95 percent of visitors.

Along with the record number of visitors to Klondike in 2014, Denali National Park and Preserve attracted about 531,000 people, Glacier Bay National Park another 501,000, Kenai Fjords National Park some 271,000 and Sitka National Historical Park about 157,000.

Alaska's 10 other national parks combined saw fewer than 150,000 visitors. Visitation to many of them appeared to be increasing slowly, but in many cases that comes after years of stagnation or decline following a burst of activity in the wake of the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, saw traffic jump by almost 20 percent to 16,100 visitors last year, approaching the level of activity seen in the late 1980s.

Visitation to Alaska's remote parks is hampered by the lack of travel facilities and costs. Access is usually possible only by small plane or boat. In these areas, even counting people -- other than the Alaskans who live in small villages inside the boundaries of some of the parks -- is a struggle.

"We're wrestling with how we count there,'' Quinley said. "We want to rethink how we're tracking recreation in those areas.''

Alaska's three goose-egg parks are in a vast area of wilderness in America's Northwest Arctic. Not only are these parks hard to get to, there are no visitor centers or fixed entrances. Past estimates of use have been largely guesses, admitted Quinley, who said it might have been better if park statisticians had put something other than a zero in the visitor box for 2014 -- say maybe a question mark.

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