National parks and monuments in New Mexico saw a surge in visitors in March with White Sands National Monument and the Chaco Culture National Historical Park recording the highest number of visits in many years.
Even Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where broken elevators mean visitors have to navigate the equivalent of a 78-story building when they exit the caves, recorded 51,157 visits, its best March since 2008.
“It’s been interesting,” said Valerie Gohlke, a spokeswoman for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. “People come here who would not have walked in and out, and most are saying they enjoyed it, most had an interesting time,” she said. Still, the repairs have limited what those with disabilities can do at the site. The park’s goal is to get the elevators running by Memorial Day weekend.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico had 4,680 visits in March, double that of last year and the most since 2004. White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo logged 71,857 visits, the highest since 2002.
“We’re up 20 percent last month over 2015, so that’s a significant increase for us,” said Becky Burghart, a ranger at White Sands.
The National Park System, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is marketing the richness and history of public parks, monuments and landmarks. Including the newly designated Manhattan Project National Historical Site, there are 15 federal sites in New Mexico.
Part of the government’s effort to raise awareness of the National Park Service’s Centennial are commemorative U.S. postage stamps with images on 16 stamps. Stamps with images of Bandelier National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns were released last week.
Also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has listed 23 World Heritage Sites as places of natural or cultural significance. New Mexico is home to three of those, more than any other state. They are Chaco, Carlsbad and the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo.
Also boosting more family travel to the parks is a campaign launched by President Barack Obama in February. “The Every Kid in a Park Campaign” offers every fourth-grader and his or her family free admission to national parks and monuments for a year. There are also educational materials on the heritage sites and transportation money for school trips.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of marketing and every fourth-grader is getting free passes. All that certainly has had something to do with it,” Gohlke said of the increase in visitors at Carlsbad Caverns.
“There’s no hard data why we’re seeing the bumps,” said Burghart of White Sands. “The centennial marketing, the economy, gas prices, all that seems to make sense.”
“It’s good, whatever it is, it’s real good,” said Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott. He said lower gas prices and the spring skiing season brought more people into New Mexico and many also incorporated a park visit. “I think the centennial had a lot to do with it,” Lott said.
Through March, Lott said, visitation at Bandelier is up 34 percent from the same three months a year ago.
Nathan Hatfield, of the Chaco park, said it received a grant as part of the centennial celebration from the National Parks Foundation, which pays transportation costs for school groups. Between March and May the park will be able to host 1,000 children with the money.
Park campgrounds are booked most weekends through fall, and Chaco is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park for nighttime astronomers.
“A lot of folks are coming to experience the dark sky,” Hatfield said.
New Mexico Tourism Secretary Rebecca Latham expects a tourist bump from the national marketing efforts. Her agency hopes to leverage that with a campaign aimed at out-of-staters highlighting state parks and culturally rich areas.
Latham said some in the national park system don’t see New Mexico’s federal land having the same draw as destinations such as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Wyoming’s Yellowstone, California’s Yosemite and Utah’s Zion national parks.
But Latham said the lure of places as Bandelier is what the New Mexico True campaign is trying to capture.
One who agrees with Latham is Eileen Ogintz, who writes a kids travel blog for the Chicago Tribune, “Taking the Kids.”
In an April 7 post touting National Park Week, which runs April 16 to 24, she highlights New Mexico’s parks with a special eye toward Bandelier.
In New Mexico, she writes, “you have your choice of national monuments that offer a wide range of experiences — climbing up ladders to peer into ancient pueblo dwellings, sliding down the huge sand dunes at White Sands National Monument, exploring the history of the Manhattan Project and the beginning of the atomic age at the newly designated National Historic Park in Los Alamos. Learn all about stalactites, stalagmites and bats at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.”
She writes that “Bandelier has long been a favorite of my family. … The petroglyphs are amazing — a turkey here, a face there, one that looks like an alien.”
New Mexico’s national parks and monuments have about 1.6 million annual visits, according to a report by U.S. Geological Survey economists released in April 2015. The analysis showed visitors spent $89 million in the state in 2014. That spending supported 1,400 jobs and had a cumulative benefit to the state economy of $107 million.
If you go
In celebration of National Park Week and its own centennial year, Bandelier National Monument will hold the following events this week:
• “Secrets of the Museum” tours at 1:30 p.m. Monday to Friday at the visitors center.
• “Geology and Botany of the Falls Trail” at noon Thursday and Friday. Participants should bring water and wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable shoes. The three-mile walk will last two to three hours.
• Book signing with author Paul Secord for his book of historic photos of Bandelier, 1 p.m. Saturday in the bookstore.
• Ranger-guided backcountry hike on the Burro Trail on Saturday; moderate difficulty, eight to 10 miles; registration required.
• Moonlight hike on the Tyuonyi Overlook trail, 2 1/2 miles round trip, 8 p.m. Saturday; registration required.
For more information visit www.nps.gov/band.
Visitor numbers for March
White Sands National Monument
2016 — 71,857
2015 — 59,694
2014 — 59,736
2013 — 67,526
2012 — 50,319
2016 — 51,157
2015 — 49,677
2014 — 43,129
2013 — 49,637
2012 — 44,131
Bandelier National Monument
2016 — 16,166
2015 — 11,702
2014 — 12,755
2013 — 12,916
2012 — 16,844
Chaco Culture Historical Site
2016 — 4,680
2015 — 2,575
2014 — 3,408
2013 — 3,560
2012 — 3,210
Source: National Park Service