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from July/August 2005
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Destinations Scorecard: National Parks
Text by Jonathan B. Tourtellot    Photograph by Jerry Kobalenko/Getty Images
Destination Scorecard: National Parks
A visitor soaks in a hot spring in Gwaii Haanas National Park, British Columbia.

U.S. and Canadian national parks today face modern pressures inside and outside their borders—pollution, budget cuts, development, soaring visitation, ecological decline. Traveler's expert panelists grade the condition of park destinations, including the gateway towns you visit on the way in and out. Some parks do better than others. One country does better than the other.

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Why Did Canada Do Better?»

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About the Survey»

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The List

If  you visit a national park, you'll often spend plenty of time just outside the park, too—eating, sleeping, parking, shopping, sightseeing—in the town or region that geographers call the gateway. A park and its gateway are really a single destination, with similar history, scenery, and climate. The way park and gateway interact can make all the difference in the quality of your trip and in the sustainability of the destination.

Using the same Stewardship Index pioneered in last year's global Destination Scorecard, Traveler and National Geographic's Center for Sustainable Destinations surveyed some 300 experts in sustainable tourism, destination quality, and park management. We asked them to evaluate 55 North American park destinations, chosen in part for the importance of their gateways.

The scores that follow, listed by rank and based on a 1-to-100 scale, reflect the experts' opinions. No destination rated 90 or above ("unspoiled and likely to remain so"), but one came close. Top-scoring destinations face relatively few threats or, significantly, are learning to handle them. While no place fell into the "catastrophic" under-20 range, troubles go deep for the bottom scorers, with wounds that may verge on permanent. Even so, every destination, even last-place Everglades/Big Cypress, still retains much of what made it park-worthy.

We hope this index will spark discussion and debate. Each park destination below includes sample panelist comments that reflect the opinions behind the score. To ensure integrity, panelists commented anonymously. 

On Top

These 16 parks are virtually pristine and usually on good terms with local people.
1. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site

Gwaii Haanas might seem to rate its excellent 88 due simply to light traffic: Fewer than 3,000 visitors a year make it to the park in the soggy, remote Queen Charlotte Islands. But there's more: a unique partnership between Parks Canada and the native Haida people. "High cultural integrity," says one panelist. "Haida are very involved in park management. Residents display a real stewardship ethic." Authenticity, too: "Archaeological and historic artifacts are left to their natural processes as per Haida tradition, which surprises visitors who expect 'preservation.'"  "Beautiful and intact. A great model for other regions."


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