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Social media steers more visitors to national parks in Mountain West and beyond, study finds

This is an aerial image of a small town near the snow-capped Rocky Mountains on a partly cloudy day.
Town Of Estes Park
A view of downtown Estes Park, Colorado, a community just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, which has experienced a rise in visitation and high social media exposure over the past 10 years, according to a new study.

Social media can influence everything from what we eat to where we vacation. Now, a new study shows it’s also driving more visitors to U.S. national parks, especially in the Mountain West.

National parks with high social media exposure saw visitation increase by 16% to 22% relative to parks with less exposure, according to a study from Georgia Tech’s School of Economics, which measured Instagram and Twitter activity tied to national parks over the past decade.

In the Mountain West, that rang true for several national parks, including Bryce Canyon (Utah), Death Valley (Nevada and California), Grand Teton (Wyoming), Rocky Mountain (Colorado), Yellowstone (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana), and Zion (Utah).

The rise in visitation due to social media can boost revenue for parks and local economies, said study author Casey Wichman, an associate professor of economics at Georgia Tech. He found the average park with high social media exposure raked in an additional $0.9 million to $1.8 million in annual revenue relative to the typical park with low social media exposure.

On the flip side, he said that more visitors “can lead to overcrowding, it can lead to environmental degradation, increased traffic congestion in the parks, which might lead to poor air quality and just kind of a negative experience for others.”

Notably, a recent report from the National Parks Conservation Association found 97% of parks face the threat of air pollution caused by climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Wichman said 90 million people visited a national park in 2023, which is a 25% increase from 2010.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.