Crowding at our Parks — What’s acceptable? What’s not? — Recreation Opportunity Spectrum

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Trails and parks are becoming increasingly popular these days.  It seems like almost every weekend that I trek to my favorite trails, the story is the same.  The parking lot is full.  Picnic tables are taken.  The trails are packed with hikers, bikers, equestrians, and dogs.  I wonder if I would even consider this enjoyable.  I wonder if others feel the same.


Then I remembered back to a college course, aptly named “Outdoor Recreation,” that taught me about people’s perception of natural areas and how one’s enjoyment of an area depends on their perception of crowds, management, and other uses of the park.


I also remembered a term called the “recreation opportunity spectrum.”  This topic didn’t mean much to me at the time, but I now know how important these are to recreation professionals and members of the public.    That’s what I’ll be diving into today — the six different types of opportunity factors that determine the spectrum of recreation opportunities in natural areas.  I’ll also be talking about how this applies to local and national parks, and what some managers are doing to combat the crowds.


In a paper titled, The Recreation Opportunity Spectrum: A Framework for General Technical Report 1979, written in part by the National Forestry Association in 1979, Recreation Opportunity Setting is defined as “the combination of the physical, biological, social, and managerial conditions that give value to a place.”

Recreation Opportunities Depend On:

  1. Offered by the land’s natural features; through the landscape, topography, vegetation, views, etc.
  2. Provided through recreational opportunities – what activities are available and how technical are they?
  3. Determined by the conditions of the natural area, including the maintenance, roads, and the policies for the area.


Thus, there is a multitude of opportunities for visitors to natural areas, which depend on a variety of factors.  Therefore, there is a spectrum of possibilities to serve the diverse audience of a natural area.


As an example, a basic campground might include tent sites, RV sites, primitive sites, and backpacking sites.  Each one of these camping opportunities appeals to different size groups and individuals based on the experience that they want to have.

In the late sixties, the ORRRC (Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission), sought to establish a spectrum of uses, ranging from the most primitive and wild to the high-density urban areas.

The driving factor behind the ROC is the assumption that quality recreation experiences occur when there are a diverse variety of opportunities available.  Just like each person has different interests and strengths, the outdoor environment should support those endeavors on a personalized level.

A study by Shafer in 1969 confirmed that managing programs and services based on the “average tastes” do not serve much of anyone.  Instead, by catering to the average, you cater to no one.

Recreation Opportunity Factors

There are six defined opportunity factors which are outlined in depth in the report.  They are:


Includes TYPE of access  –  trail, road, river, cross country, sidewalk
Includes MEANs of transportation –  boat, train, vehicle, bike, walk


Other non-recreational resource uses


  • Commercial activities may include logging, mining, electrical work, etc. influence outdoor recreation.
  • From the noises to the debris, recreationists may feel the impacts of non-recreational uses.
  • Acceptability depends on each visitor’s perception and expectations of their experience.
  • Clear-cuts may not be considered appropriate for the backcountry camper who seeks a wilderness experience, but it may be deemed suitable for an urban dweller.


Onsite management


  • How is the area being managed?  Does the landscaping involve native or exotic species?  Are the materials mostly man-made or natural?
  • How are the facilities and amenities built?  With just a few natural supplies, or with imported materials?  Are there indoor/outdoor showers, bathrooms, towels or hand dryers, energy efficient lightbulbs, solar panels, etc.
  • All of these management decisions contribute to the range of recreation opportunities and perception of those opportunities.

Social interaction


  • How much social interaction is expected and tolerated?
  • Primitive areas – social interaction is anticipated to be very low.

    Therefore, “crowded” is a subjective term that differs based on expectations.


  • Just as I might think it is unacceptable to see 20 people on the trail, others might believe that it is unacceptable to see zero other visitors (Heberleim 1977)
  • Social carrying capacity is determined based on how many people there are, the space and time that separates them, and the natural landscapes that are in the area (if a tree blocks your view of the crowds of people, were the crowds ever there?)
  • Users may find similar recreationists acceptable, but others not…  Mountain bikers may find it acceptable to see several other bikers on the trail, but unacceptable to even see one equestrian.  This is what Lucas confirmed in 1969 when canoeists in the Boundary Water Canoe Area deemed seeing up to 5 other canoeists completely acceptable, but seeing one motorboat was not.

Acceptability of visitor impacts


  • Think pollution, noise pollution, social trails, graffiti/markings

    Any use creates some impact; thus, the relevant question for managers is not “how can impacts be prevented” but “what level of impact is consistent with the type of opportunity being supplied.”

  • How much impact is appropriate?  This is based on of the magnitude (purely objective, measurable), and the importance (subjective, value based)
  • Acceptable level of regimentation
  • Managing a recreation site may involve using controls; some of which may be as subtle as providing information to educate the public, or designing the sites in certain ways.  On the other hand, management could be much more extensive – possibly using legal methods such as rules, regulations, laws, etc.

Case Study: Crowding at Zion National Park

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

2016 brought in over 4 million people to Zion National Park, one of Utah’s finest gems.  Zion has seen record numbers every single year. The increase in visitors has been at least partly attributed to tourism and advertising efforts.  Last year’s Centennial Celebration encouraged everyone to “Find their Park,” and Zion happened to be one of the most popular.

According to an interview by Nevada Public Radio with Zion’s Chief of Commercial Services and Partnerships, Jack Burns, parks that receive more than 1 million visits per year are seeing increased number, but those parks that are less than 1 million visits, are experiencing declines in numbers.

In Zion National Park, park managers want to preserve the park for the enjoyment of future generations, inline with their mission.  Guests experience more crowds than ever before even just waiting to get into the park, finding a camping spot, and along the sacred trails.  Jack Burns notes that there are twice as many social trails as there are designated trails, an unfortunate trend for popular parks.  Managers know that social trails have a lasting impact on the land, causing erosion and unintentionally impacting wildlife in the area.

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