U.S. National Parks attracting middle-aged visitors in hordes, but not youth

Yellowstone park

Every generation harps on the younger one for not enjoying the great outdoors enough, chastising the new-fangled technology that keeps the youth indoors. First, it was the introduction of televisions, then it was the Gameboys, and now it’s iPhones, tablets, and personal laptops. Back in my day, we played outside—not in some Candy Crush Kingdom!

But it turns out those old-timers might actually have a point this time around. Last year, the National Parks in the U.S. attracted a record-breaking number of visitors at 292.8 million. Only problem? Youth only made up a small fraction of that.

In 2014, the median age of visitors to Denali was 57 years old and in Yellowstone, it was 54 years old. Meanwhile, the number of visitors under 15 years old has shrunk by 50 percent in the past 10 years.

In an interview with CNN’s Morgan Spurlock, retired Yosemite Park Ranger Bob Roney said that today’s youth are too “plugged-in.”

“I started in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hippie generation. People were wanting to get back to the land. I don’t see that as much today,” Roney said. “People want modern conveniences. Young people are more city-oriented and tend not to be wildlands-oriented.”

While it’s easy to blame technology, part of the youth issue is also institutional.

National Park Service employees are overwhelmingly middle-aged, with 75 percent at least 40 years old. Currently, only 7 percent are 29 years old or younger. For a teenager, hiking with a twenty-something-year-old guide is likely much more enticing than being led by a ranger their parents’ age.

The National Park Service is attempting to attract youth with its Junior Ranger program, which teaches kids about national parks and the park service.

Meanwhile last year, Parks Canada drew widespread scorn after it announced it would be offering WiFi hotspots at visitor centres and campgrounds in an attempt to attract more urban Canadians to the parks.

Approximately 20 million people visit Parks Canada’s parks every year.