National Park Service logoThe national park system is headed for a record-breaking number of visitors this year if travel trends hold up.

Nearly 232 million people have already visited national park sites this year, with recreational visits in 2009 up almost 5% compared to the first nine months of 2008, according to ABC News.

If visitation stays strong through year’s end, the parks could see more than 288 million visitors for 2009, topping the previous records of more than 287 million visitors in 1987 and 1999, according to National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey G. Olson.

Ken Burns’ new series about the national parks, “America’s Best Idea,” which debuts on PBS Sept. 27, is expected to help keep interest in the parks high for the rest of the year. “We think it’s the neatest thing since sliced bread,” Olson said.

But other factors have already contributed to bringing in 13 million more people through August of this year compared to January-August 2008.

President Obama’s inauguration in January kicked off the year by bumping up tourist numbers to park sites like the National Mall and monuments in Washington, D.C. Then the reopening of some portions of Gulf Islands National Seashore, off the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, added another 3 million to park visitation, according to Olson.

Low gas prices and an increased interest in regional, inexpensive vacations also brought more folks to the parks. “Generally in times of economic turmoil, national parks are seen as being a great value, and people really connect with the parks as a place to go,” Olson said.

Obama’s visit with his family to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone added even more buzz, and three fee-free weekends this summer encouraged more people to visit the parks too. (Fees were also being waived on Sept. 26, which is National Public Lands Day.)

Olson said October is a big month for travel as well, especially among retirees and in parts of the country where there is fall foliage.