Every year, more than 9 million people visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park — more than twice the number who gawp at the Grand Canyon.
The scenery is stupendous: From the top of Clingman's Dome, one of the highest points in the Appalachians, a mesmerizing series of hunchback ridges slopes toward the horizon, each one a paler blue echo of the last. The park also boasts over 1,000 miles of hiking, biking and riding trails, a collection of well-preserved frontier cabins, and all manner of intriguing fauna, from orange salamanders to black bears.
Yet in the 30-odd years that Kent Cave has been working there, the sense that, for many tourists, the park is "an obstacle to be overcome" on the way between the souvenir stores of Cherokee, N.C., and the amusement parks of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has grown ever stronger.
The number of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaked in 1999, at 10.3 million. The decline since then has been relatively small. (Hard economic times favor cheap holidays.) Much the same is true of America's whole network of national parks and monuments, which received almost 283 million visitors last year, just shy of the 287 million reached in 1987 and 1999.
Simply holding their own, however, is something of a setback for America's parks, where ever-higher numbers of visitors used to be the norm. Moreover, the average age of those who visit appears to be increasing, although data are scant. In the Smokies, the share of summer visitors aged 61 or over rose from 10 percent during a survey conducted in 1996 to 17 percent in a similar sounding in 2008; the share of those 15 and under fell from 26 percent to 22 percent.
The National Park Service has all manner of explanations for its stagnating popularity. The simplest is that other forms of entertainment are distracting Americans from its charms.
As Jonathan Jarvis, its director, put it in 2011: "There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passe than in the age of the iPhone." A spokesman cites the proliferation of middle-class holiday options in recent decades, from time-share accommodation that makes a regular stay at the beach affordable to family-focused developments in spots like central Florida and Las Vegas.
The park service also worries that America's minorities, who make up an ever-increasing share of the population, are not as interested in its wonders as whites. "Many immigrants come from places that have no history of parks, and they arrive with no cultural connection to places like Yellowstone or Gettysburg or Independence Hall," Jarvis noted.
In response, the park service has come up with new ways to endear itself to younger, browner, technology-obsessed Americans. It has held focus groups with blacks and Hispanics to find out why they stay away. It started a program to come up with potential parks and monuments that would reflect the history of Latinos in America, which led, among other things to the creation of a monument honoring Cesar Chavez, a Hispanic labor leader.
A similar tilt toward Asian-Americans is now under way. And individual parks make a special effort to attract minorities in their hinterland, from Hindus near the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York to Vietnamese near Lowell National Historic Park in Massachusetts.