By Hannah E. Jones
The Chattahoochee River is not only a natural resource for metro Atlanta, it’s also a financial powerhouse. In 2022, according to a recent report from the National Park Service, folks visiting the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) and spending money in the area had a cumulative benefit of about $260 million for the local economy.
The CRNRA had 3.5 million visitors last year, ranking 22nd in visitations out of all 420-plus National Parks. For context, that’s higher on the list than Yellowstone. Visitor spending in communities near the park was also significant — coming in at $177 million — and supported 2,372 jobs.
CRNRA’s designation within the National Park Service offers added visibility for folks visiting from another state or country. Of that 2022 spending, 88 percent came from non-local visitors.
“I’m not surprised [by the numbers] due to the population of the Atlanta region and how citizens have embraced the park,” CRNRA Superintendent Ann Honious said. “We’re also on the list of national park units for people to visit from elsewhere, so we have a good mix of visitation. It just keeps growing and growing as people discover this park.”
The CRNRA, which covers 15 park units along 48 miles of river, has been rising in popularity over the years. For example, in 2021, 3.2 million visitors spent about $160 million — supporting 2,170 jobs — and had an economic impact of $236 million.
“Anecdotally, [the growth] is partially due to the pandemic because a lot of people found that nature and recreation were great ways to get out during the pandemic, and then they found they loved it and continued to do it,” Honious said. “We see frequent visitors in this park but we also see people traveling from another state because it’s a national park unit. We have a lot of reasons that make us more busy.”
The team sees these numbers as a testament to the importance of ecotourism and investing in these efforts. The CRNRA is currently undertaking a decades-long effort to create its first-ever Comprehensive Trails Management Plan. As it stands, most of the current trails are old roads, utility corridors and legacy social trails, which are pathways worn down over time by visitors.
The Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy (CNPC) recently received a private donation of over $526,000 — the largest single donation in the organization’s 10-year history. The funds will be used to support the trail management efforts, which is projected to cost between $10 to $20 million in total.
The team is also looking to get more on the map. In a recent interview, the CNPC team shared that it’s pursuing a name change for the CRNRA, wanting to become designated as a National Park rather than a National Recreation Area. This will be an ongoing effort, as a name change would require an act of Congress.
That aside, the CRNRA is proving to be an important pillar for metro Atlanta — not only as a natural refuge within a bustling metro area but also for the economic benefits that ecotourism provides.
“This report really shows that having a park is not only for the people that use the park but it’s also a benefit to the community economically,” Honious said. “Those numbers are bigger than people would initially estimate.”
To look through the entire report from the National Park Service, click here.