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National park visits boom amid recession

WASHINGTON — Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, 286 million visitors flocked to national parks last year, an increase of 10 million people.

Utah's national park units attracted just over 9 million visitors during the year, up by 300,000.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speculated Tuesday that the increases may have come because families on tight budgets view parks as bargains, parks offered free visitation on three weekends, and parks attracted extra attention because of President Barack Obama's visit to the Grand Canyon and Ken Burns' documentary on the history of parks.

"People both here and abroad know that our national parks are America's best idea, even during an economic downturn," Salazar said.

He added that parks "provide vacation bargains for families living on a tight budget. They offer priceless opportunities to inspire adults and children alike with our wonderful natural, cultural and historic heritage."

The National Park Service reported that 2009 visitation fell just short of the all-time visitation record of 287.2 million in 1987.

Salazar said the parks provided a boost to the economy in tough times, saying a new study shows that the National Park System supports more than 223,000 jobs and nearly $14 billion in economic activity.

While visitation was up by 3.9 percent nationwide, the increase in Utah park units was a bit lower, at 3.5 percent.

In Utah, Zion National Park attracted the most visitors of any park unit in the state: 2.7 million, up by 45,000. That set a new all-time visitation record and was the fourth time that park has set a new visitation record since 2002. It celebrated its centennial last year.

Zion also ranked No. 7 in visitation among parks nationwide, behind Great Smoky Mountains (9.5 million visitors), Grand Canyon (4.3 million visitors), Yosemite (3.7 million), Yellowstone (3.3 million), Olympic (3.3 million) and Rocky Mountain (2.8 million) national parks.

Elsewhere in Utah, park visit increases and decreases varied widely. Remote Rainbow Bridge National Monument attracted the biggest increase by percentage — 18.7 percent, or a jump of nearly 18,000 visitors. The biggest decrease was at Cedar Breaks National Monument, where visitation dropped by 8.5 percent or by nearly 46,000 people.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell) attracted the second-most visits of any park unit in the state: 1.96 million visitors, up just 13,000 from the previous year. Bryce Canyon National Park attracted 1.2 million, up by a booming 16.6 percent.

Arches National Park attracted 996,312 visitors, up 7.3 percent; Capitol Reef National Park attracted 617,208 visitors, up 2 percent; Canyonlands National Park attracted 436,241, nearly unchanged from 2008; and Dinosaur National Monument attracted 203,862, up 1 percent.

Also, Timpanogos Cave National Monument attracted 138,571 visitors, up 12 percent; Natural Bridges National Monument attracted 92,023, nearly unchanged from 2008; Golden Spike National Historic Site had 45,334,This story was reported from Salt Lake City.