Number of encounters and experience quality in Grand Canyon backcountry: consistently negative and weak relationships

William P. Stewart, David N. Cole

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The relationship between encounters and the overall quality of recreation experience is one of the most common research topics in outdoor recreation. Yet after more than three decades of study, there remain divergent opinions about both the nature of this relationship and its implications for use limits. Evidence for a strong influence of encounters on experience quality is weak but it is unclear whether this means the relationship itself is weak or that the methods used to isolate the relationship have been inadequate. This paper explores relationships between number of encounters, crowding, solitude/privacy achieved, and overall experience quality for 185 backcountry visitors to Grand Canyon National Park. In contrast to most past research, we employed a diary-like method to control for variation in person-based effects (e.g., differences in expectations and motivations between individuals) and we used a multi-item scale to capture more variation in total experience quality. Our results indicate that there is a consistently negative but weak relationship between number of encounters and experience quality. In other words, most backpackers were negatively affected by encountering more groups, but the resultant effect was small. This implies that managers should be reluctant to justify use restrictions on the basis of higher quality experiences and that user-based empirical research is of limited utility in grappling with such restrictions. Echoing the 35-year-old suggestions of Wagar, the original student of recreational carrying capacity, a careful understanding of the regional supply and demand for different types of recreation experiences, including low density experiences, are more likely to provide the basis for wise decisions about use limits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)106-120
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Leisure Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001


  • Crowding
  • Experience quality
  • Situational effects
  • Solitude

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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