National Parks: Storytelling in the Tourism and Recreation Industry

In the tourism and outdoor recreation industry, a destination with things to see and do is an essential element to draw in visitors and support, but storytelling can enhance both the experience of visitors and their contribution towards their surroundings. The United States National Parks utilize storytelling to draw in visitors, explain their safety guidelines, and to encourage actions that aid in the preservation of the parks. Yosemite was the first expanse of land protected by the United States Government for public enjoyment through the actions of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Abraham Lincoln had never been there himself, but the stories and paintings of Yosemite moved him enough to make this historical decision, laying the ground for the national park system we have today.

Now, over 150 years later, the stories and images of Yosemite attract more than 5 million people annually. Recent efforts from Park Rangers, the National Park Service, and the National Park Conservation Association have been using storytelling as a means of furthering the enjoyment, safety, and preservation of parks like Yosemite.


Seeing that only 1% of National Park travelers were African American, Yosemite Park Ranger, Shelton Johnson, made it his personal mission to increase the amount of African American visitors. His letter to Oprah explaining the situation was so moving that in 2010, Oprah and her best friend Gayle King took a camping trip to Yosemite. The story of their trip was aired on Oprah’s television show, encouraging more of the African American population to see themselves enjoying these national lands. Ranger Johnson gave an update to Oprah five years later, saying that he has observed a shift from seeing African Americans at Yosemite about once a week to daily.

Beyond a celebrity camping story, Ranger Johnson feels it is important for the African American population to understand how their own history is ingrained in the National Park history. In 2017, Ranger Johnson spoke in a video for Black History Month about the Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite National Park. The story features the African American cavalry and infantry troop, the Buffalo Soldiers, and their role in maintaining and preserving Yosemite. The Buffalo Soldiers overcame many challenges, creating a presence of law and order in the ‘Wild West’ and Ranger Shelton Johnson feels that their story is one that needs to be heard. With this story, Ranger Johnson fosters a connection between African Americans and Yosemite, allowing for roots in a place that might have felt foreign. These roots, formed through stories, are what Ranger Johnson has seen bring in a population that was less-inclined to visit the national parks.



Throughout the National Parks, there are many signs and postings indicated what behaviors are safe and harmful behaviors to avoid. Unfortunately, most visitors are not captivated by these notices and parks like Yosemite still deal with accidents and even deaths in their fast-running water and more dangerous hikes/climbs. To convey the importance of staying on trials and out of rivers, the parks utilize personal stories that strike a chord with the visitors. At Yosemite, they have a video that precedes the main picture in their theatre, sharing the grave experience of a hiker that lost his friend to the fast-running waters at the park. In another video on Yosemite’s YouTube channel featuring Matthew’s Brush with Disaster, it starts with the text “stories like the one you are about to hear are a common occurrence in Yosemite”. These anecdotes illustrate the importance of exhibiting safe behaviors in a way that resonates with visitors in a memorable fashion that motivates them to adhere to the guidelines.



The main picture currently showing at the Yosemite Theatre features the transcendent nature of the landscape in the national park and the lives it has touched throughout history. It shares how Theodore Roosevelt, the president that displayed unprecedented support for National Parks, was captivated and motivated by his trip hosted by Yosemite’s protector, John Muir. Historical figures and contemporary visitors alike share their stories of being transformed through their experience at Yosemite National park. It is these stories and the promise of future ones that acquire support and resources for the preservation of the National Parks.

The National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) is an independent organization devoted exclusively to advocacy on behalf of the National Park Systems and they use the stories of everyday visitors to garner donations. With over $34 million in revenue, stories that tie people to the landscape effectively builds support for NPCA’s cause. They have a whole page on their website dedicated to “My Park. My Story.” a platform for visitors to share why the parks matter to them. You can view others’ stories filtering by park, or by collections that include Love and Romance, Family Time, and Wildlife Encounters. Protecting and enhancing America’s National Park System for present and future generations is the mission of NPCA and it is supported by those who want the tradition of making stories at national parks to continue.

Within the tourism and recreation industry and beyond, stories serve many functions and are an incredible way to spur action. Whether it is attracting new markets, encouraging certain behaviors, or getting people to buy-in to the future of the industry, stories are a powerful tool. Start leveraging the power of stories today and contact us here.

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