WASHINGTON — Go ahead, blame harsh weather or high gas prices for a marked reduction in visits to Yosemite and other national parks so far this year. The summer droves, though, are returning.
In other words, the time to really beat the crowds may have passed.
At traditionally popular parks from Yosemite and Yellowstone to Mount Rainier and the Great Smoky Mountains, visitation from January through May fell compared with last year, sometimes dramatically. The smaller crowds thrilled park visitors but worried the businesses that depend on them.
"The concessionaires and the gateway communities had a very tough spring," Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman acknowledged Tuesday, "but the summer will be huge."
Through May 31, Yosemite reported an approximately 7 percent decline in recreation visits compared with the same period last year; the Great Smoky Mountains' decline exceeded 8 percent.
Elsewhere, the falloff has been even more dramatic. Yellowstone recorded a 14 percent decline in recreation visits through May 31 compared with 2010, and Mount Rainier reported a stunning 26 percent reduction.
"It's rather difficult to know why," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said Tuesday. "We don't survey people who don't show up."
Nash noted that this year's visitation figures almost inevitably pale compared with the park's record numbers last year. Yellowstone also garners its biggest visitation numbers, by far, during the summer.
Many of the major, so-called "crown jewel" parks experienced reductions significantly greater than the overall National Park Service visitor decline of less than 1 percent.
The reasons can range from the parochial to the global.
At Great Smoky Mountains, for instance, park spokesman Bob Miller noted that the temporary closure last year of a major highway nearby forced many more visitors to drive through the park as an alternative. This inflated last year's visitation total and made a reduction this year predictable.
More broadly, any decline in international travel will ripple through the U.S. parks, where foreigners can make up a big share of the visitors. Economic hard times certainly can keep people at home.
"Our best guess may be that some of it is from fuel prices," Miller said, "but we don't really have a way of knowing why people don't come."
In April 2010, the average U.S. retail price for gasoline was about $2.90 a gallon, according to the Energy Department. A year later, the average price was nearly $4 a gallon.
Weather has dampened visitation, as well. Heavy storms, for instance, forced Yosemite to close for several days in March, while deep and persistent snow continues to slow road openings at Mount Rainier and Yellowstone.
"We had a big winter, with a lot of snow, and it lingered," Nash said
At Yosemite, snow forced park officials to postpone the opening of the important Tioga Pass highway until June 18, about two weeks later than last year and a month later than 2009.
National parks were still a big draw, to be sure, even during the relatively slow spring and winter months. Through May 31, a total of 89,318,694 recreation visitors were recorded in all National Park Service units.
Some of these park service "units" are obscure, such as the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in Northern California (1,162 visitors, down a grand total of 62 from last year). Others are heavily trafficked, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina (2,651,237 visitors, up a remarkable 701,209).
When the weather turns, moreover, visitation can rise quickly. The very snowfall that blanketed Yosemite and deterred visitors earlier this year, for instance, now is engorging the rivers and propelling the waterfalls that more visitors are flocking to see.
"We see a lot of people traveling, a lot of people on the road," said Lester Bridges, the president of the Mariposa County Chamber of Commerce, near Yosemite.
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