President Obama is visiting Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks this month to promote Free Weekends (part of his stimulus package). So far, free admission isn't doing much. The Washington Post reports, "Free Weekends Having Little Effect on National Parks."
Obama's got the economic equation backward. The National Parks need more expensive amenities to make them more accessible to our increasingly diverse (and increasingly sedentary and obese) population. This would require taking on the wilderness ideology that emerged in the 1960s and is becoming increasingly outdated.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the government view was that the most important thing was to protect the high country from the ever-growing hordes of nature-lovers wanting to trample it. But, in the 21st Century, the hordes of wilderness-wanderers aren't growing. To get people back to the National Parks, they don't need cheaper admissions (which max out at $23 per vehicle, which is cheap). They need more luxury.
For example, in the roadless high country of Yosemite National Park, above Tuolumne Meadows at around 10,000 feet in altitude, there has long been a circuit of about five High Sierra Camps, with tent cabins and dining halls, each a day's walk (6 to 8 miles) apart. So, you can take a five night hiking trip without carrying your own food and fuel, you can sleep in a bed, and have a hot shower (at three camps): it's $136 per person per night for food and lodging. This circuit is very popular with aging nature lovers who don't want to put up anymore with the rigors of sheer wilderness backpacking at high altitude. So you have to apply in a lottery each year in the autumn for the next summer. My aunt and uncle applied every year for about a decade, but never got chosen, and finally gave up when they got too old for high altitude hiking.
That's just sad.
Considering how popular this amenity is, you might think the National Park Service would have expanded it, adding more High Sierra Camps in Yosemite, and setting up similar circuits in Kings Canyon and Sequoia to the south. In truth, the more remarkable thing is that the NPS hasn't dismantled the High Sierra Camps. Ever since the 1960s, the dominant ideology in Sierra circles has been that pure wilderness is best and things like wooden floors for permanent tents are probably evil. So, we're lucky the National Park Service didn't burn down the High Sierra Camps.
Similarly, if the Grand Canyon were in Austria, there would be a gondola cable car ride to the bottom (and, more importantly, back up again -- trust me, from my experience at age 12, getting in the Grand Canyon is a lot easier than getting out of it).
My experience with the Palms to Pines aerial tramway that whisks you from Palm Springs to 8,500 feet up on the edge of the Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness is that the crowds at the top are, despite the high price ($23 per adult), much more diverse than the backpackers who clamber up from Idylwild on the other side.