SMMNRA Survey Reveals Changing Demographics

More women and minorities are visiting the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, compared to data collected during the last major survey in 2002. Trail safety ranks high on the list, together with improved cell service, and amenities like restrooms, drinking water, and maps at trailheads. Photo courtesy NPS

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly visits parks in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), but a new report based on data collected in 2018 shows park attendance continues to increase and that park visitors are becoming more diverse. 

The Trail User Visitor Survey, conducted by SMMNRA staff and volunteers in collaboration with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, gathered data on visitor demographics, including travel distance, time, and cost; modes of park access; and activity engagement. It also gathered data on park amenities, including a wishlist of trailhead improvements.

This is the first major survey undertaken by the park service in the SMMNRA since 2002. The 2018 survey included 12 additional trailheads and received 3,400 more responses than the 2002 effort.

 The data was collected at 45 main trailheads on state and federal parkland throughout the area over four June days in 2018. Approximately 60 percent of the 153,785-acre SMMNRA is protected open space. While the National Park Service (NPS) oversees the entire SMMNRA, it currently has direct responsibility for only about 15 percent of the actual parkland. California State Parks, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority manage the majority of public lands within the SMMNRA. 

Although the scope of the survey was limited to just four days in June, it was the most extensive to date. Volunteers and staffers collected 4,425 surveys, of which 4,381 provided usable data for analysis.

They also recorded information on visitors who declined to participate in the survey, and conducted a tally of park users each day. This most recent survey was significantly more comprehensive than the last visitor survey. 

“This survey is helpful because it provides us with vital information that will inform us in how we strategically allocate resources at park trailheads,” said David Szymanski, the park superintendent. “It also provides us with a benchmark for additional trailheads we may want to construct in the future.”

The survey found that park visitors are more ethnically diverse than they were in 2002. The data show modest increases across all minority groups, with the biggest change in the number of Latino visitors participating in the study: an increase from 12 percent in 2002 to over 21 percent in 2018.

The majority of visitors were still predominantly white, higher income, highly educated, and childless, but there was a nearly even split in the proportion of male (51 percent) to female (49 percent) respondents, compared to 59 percent and 41 percent respectively in 2002.

“The gap is closing and that is clearly evident in comparing the results between 2002 and 2018,” Szymanski noted. “But we recognize that there is still a ways to go. Programs for lower income, people of color, youth, and other under-represented populations continue to be a priority for the park,” he said.

Nearly three quarters of all of the ZIP codes in Los Angeles County and Ventura County had at least one survey respondent, and visitors participating in the study came from as far away as Santa Barbara, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo counties. Nearly 35 percent of visitors traveled to the park from densely developed areas of Los Angeles County rated as having the “highest park need,” while 25 percent visited from “high need” ZIP codes.

While most survey respondents continued to be repeat visitors, the 2018 survey showed a slight increase in first-time visitors since 2002. The percent of trail users who had not regularly visited their selected trail also increased slightly. 

“These results suggest a growing awareness of and access to the trails,” the report states.

More restrooms, drinking fountains, trash cans and trail maps topped the wish list for trailheads. Improved cell reception also ranked high on the list of desired amenities. Parking was the most frequently used amenity but was not high on the list for expansion or improvements.

The top concerns for trail users were cleanliness, level of trail quality, and safety. 

“Safety and feeling welcome were of higher importance for women than for men, though these specific concerns did not vary widely across age, education, or household income groups,” the report finds. “Survey participants did, however, prioritize different considerations for different trails.”

Respondents also identified crowds, and the cost of parking and travel as important issues. 

The data collected by the survey shows not only an increase in the number of visitors but a high level of support for the National Recreation Area among survey participants across all demographics: 38 percent of respondents want to protect the Santa Monica Mountains in order to provide habitat for plants and wildlife; 36 percent want to protect the area to provide both recreational opportunities and habitat; 22 percent prioritized recreation. The survey also found that 62 percent of survey respondents said they would be willing to donate money to support the upkeep of the SMMNRA.

Nearly half of the area of the Santa Monica Mountains and nearly 90 percent of NPS land burned in the Woolsey Fire, and fundraising efforts are underway to help facilitate repairs. California State Parks are chronically underfunded, and cuts to the National Park Service under the Trump Administration mean less federal funding for the foreseeable future. The SMMNRA must compete with other Los Angeles County parks for Measure A bond money, funding that is mostly earmarked for urban areas. 

“Overall, SMMNRA provides a unique and valuable user experience, with an overwhelming majority of surveyed visitors reporting that they would recommend the trails to others,” the report concludes. “SMMNRA is a popular, highly valued recreation amenity for the Los Angeles region which visitors also recognize is dually important for wildlife and habitat protection. 

“NPS should consider the results of this survey in future trail planning efforts to understand the growing and diverse demographics of park visitors which has significantly changed since the 2002 survey.”

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The data collected in the 2018 survey shows changing demographics. The survey the report is based on was conducted before the Woolsey Fire and the changes that catastrophic disaster brought to the many parts of the National Recreation Area. The survey was also limited to just four days in June of 2018, creating a snapshot, not a complete picture of park use.
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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