Sparked by good weather to start the year, Mount Rainier National Park in 2010 had its highest number of recreational visits since 2004.
The park had 1.19 million recreational visits last year, up 3.5 percent from 2009.
The year started strong because of good weather, with January’s count the highest it’s been since 2003; February’s was the highest since 2001.
The 2010 total was ahead of the five-year average of 1.13 million visits and equaled the 10-year average. The last time the annual count was higher was six years ago, when there were 1.21 million visits to the park.
The increase bucked the systemwide trend for the National Park Service. Recreational visits overall were down 1.81 percent to 280.4 million in 2010.
In 2007, Mount Rainier’s annual visits reached their lowest point – 1.04 million visits – since 1982. But the park was closed for the first five months of 2007 while work was done to repair damage following the historic flood in November 2006.
“It might a sign of an improving economy, more people traveling and taking advantage of the parks,” Randy King, assistant park superintendent, said of the increase. “We’re also on the heels of the (Ken) Burns film and more awareness of the parks.
Two years ago, Burns released a PBS-aired documentary looking at the people, politics and philosophies involved in the creation of the national parks.
“Maybe people got restless. It’s just encouraging that people are getting out and enjoying their parks,” King added.
Weather also plays a major role in park visitation because Mount Rainier is visited primarily by Puget Sound residents on day trips. An estimated 64 percent of park visitors come from Puget Sound.
The weather was unusually mild January through March, with lots of sunshine and warmer-than-usual temperatures, said Debbie Hannevig, fee collection operations manager at the park. Another small increase could be attributed to the fee-free week in April, she said.
Visitation in May was up 27 percent over last year, but that’s because the Stevens Canyon Road was damaged and opened late in 2009, Hannevig added. Good weather led to some of the best visitation numbers in a decade for June through August.
But the weather also can work against the park. There was plenty of snow in December, which often delayed the opening of the road to Paradise. That could be the reason December’s visitation was 13.6 percent behind the tally of 23,736 visits in December 2009.
The increase in visitation also translated into an increase in overnight stays at the park. In 2010, there were 172,838 stays, up 2 percent from 2009.
The numbers of campers who pitched a tent or pulled up with an RV also showed an increase in 2010. There were 89,814 campers who stayed in the park’s frontcountry campgrounds, up nearly 3 percent from the year before.
But stays in the backcountry declined in 2010. There were 40,731 overnight stays in backcountry locations, down 5.5 percent from 2009. That doesn’t surprise King because snow lingered on the ground well into June.