Top 10 Most Visited National Parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance sign; Jimmy Wayne photo.

The most visited park in the land; Jimmy Wayne photo.

I like data, I'm a bit of a nerd in that regard. One side of my brain likes the organic, unordered world of our natural national parks, but then the other side of my brain likes order and numbers and rankings. And so today, I present ranked visitation data for similar minded left-brained folks out there.

The National Park Service count people visiting the parks. Each park in the system has a method for figuring this out, which is actually a little more complex than clicking a counter every time a car drives past the entrance station. How do you separate recreation visits from, say, commuters which drive along a road that is managed by the park? Tough to answer, and that's why the NPS has statisticians on staff to figure it out. These statisticians once a year release a document that ranks all park units in the system based on visitation. Here is what they found for visits in 2006.

Top 10 Most Visited NPS Units
RankPark NameVisitation
1Blue Ridge PKWY 18,953,478
2Golden Gate NRA 13,486,824
3Great Smoky Mountains NP 9,289,215
4Gateway NRA 8,456,456
5Lake Mead NRA 7,777,753
6George Washington MEM PKWY 6,872,213
7Natchez Trace PKWY 5,713,583
8Delaware Water Gap NRA 5,254,216
9Cape Cod NS 4,487,716
10Grand Canyon NP 4,279,439

With 3 parkways and 4 recreation areas, that list doesn't necessarily represent the big, out-of-the-way destination parks that we typically picture when we think of a 'National Park'. And so, let me apply a filter to the data to isolate just the top ten National Parks.

Top 10 Most Visited National Parks
RankPark NameVisitation
1Great Smoky Mountains NP 9,289,215
2Grand Canyon NP 4,279,439
3Yosemite NP 3,242,644
4Yellowstone NP 2,870,295
5Olympic NP 2,749,197
6Rocky Mountain NP 2,743,676
7Zion NP 2,567,350
8Cuyahoga Valley NP 2,468,816
9Grand Teton NP 2,406,476
10Acadia NP 2,083,588

These two 'top ten' lists look pretty similar to last year's numbers, but there has been some movement in the bottom ten parks. Want to avoid the crowds? Check out these least visited park units. Aniakchak had only 60 visitors last year! It has been noted though, counting must be tough at Aniakchak considering there are no permanent buildings (NPS or otherwise) at the monument. The only real way to get there is by float plane, and even that can be tricky I've been told. Counting down from 10 ...

KEY:
  • NHS - National Historic Site
  • NM - National Monument
  • NMEM - National Memorial
  • NP - National Park
  • NPRES - National Preserve
  • NRA - National Recreation Area
  • PKWY - Parkway
  • W&SR - Wild Scenic & Recreational River
AttachmentSize
NPS.visitation.ranked2006.pdf14.89 KB

Comments

It somewhat surprises me that Grand Teton is almost 500,000 visits behind Yellowstone. They're so close that you'd think someone making a long trek to Yellowstone would factor in time to visit its next-door neighbor.

And I'm not sure it's fair to include the George Washington Memorial Parkway, as I believe it receives a lot of commuting traffic.

The Zion number seems a tad high, too, as there's only one small, six-mile-long canyon that lures the lion's share of the traffic, and you need to ride a shuttle bus to do that, unless you're staying at Zion Lodge. Of course, visit in July or August and I'm sure you'll think the overall number is a bit low.

I think Zion is a side trip from Las Vegas for some people. Something to do once you've lost all your money...

-- Jon

How do they figure totals on something like the GW Memorial Parkway? I've driven it many times and ridden on my bike alongside dozens more, and no one is counting that I know of. It's actually hard to believe given the sheer wall-to-wall commuter traffic that the total is that low. Why is something like that counted and not the National Mall?

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Only one of the bottom 10 is a national park. Great Basin NP is very beautiful and a nice get away from the lights of Las Vegas. I had always heard that it is ranked very low in visitation, which is great for me. How does it compare with other national parks?

I'm always gut-punched when I read these kinds of stats. I'm unsure how Great Smoky Mountains survives hosting nine million people in the course of a year. Even with the majority being drive-throughs or tour buses, this is an unbelievable amount of footprints in that area. It would be staggering enough if we actually had funding in place to handle the pressure to the infrastructure and environment. But in these times when funding is ridiculously low...? How the hell is GSM still in one piece??

I was wondering why Frederick Law Olmsted NHS was a least visited park since it is in an urban, and one would assume fairly accessible, location. Is it related to the park closing? Per the NPS website: "Frederick Law Olmsted NHS is currently CLOSED to visitors in order to carry out a construction project involving park buildings, grounds and collections. The park anticipates reopening in 2010."

When did the park close??

Great observation Felicia -- there are a number of parks that simply shut down a big chunk of their operation once the Bush adminstration decided maintenance was the number one NPS priority. I've gone to a lot of parks in the past few years that were closed on a Monday or Tuesday, restricted their off-season hours greatly, or closed down the main attraction of the site (Hampton NHS historic home, Dinosaur NM visitor center, Frederick Douglass NHS, among others). All those excess FEMA trailers are being put to good use.

-- Jon Merryman

Even highly visited national parks have undervisited, and sometimes surprisingly accessible, components. We live an hour +/- from Rocky National Park, and last Saturday, four us hiked the Cow Creek Trail. It is on the east (i.e., metro Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins) side of the park, and temperatures in these Front Range cities were flirting with triple digits. The wildflowers are at their peak in mid- to late July. The trail is roughtly three miles one-way with a cooling waterfall at the end, the elevation gain a relatively modest thousand feet AND there is no entrance station at this trailhead -- meaning access is free. Even as shuttle buses are used to ferry people to the popular Bear Lake parking area, people wishing to climb 14,255-foot Longs Peak arrive before dawn to secure a parking space and cars snake nose-to-tail over Trail Ridge Road, we saw fewer than 30 people -- including one party of two and one party of three backpackers.

I find the statistics reporting 18,953,478 visits for the Blue Ridge Parkway subject to question. I say this not only because of the very high number of visitors registered, but also because the Blue Ridge Parkway numbers are much larger than those reported for urban parks and parkways like the Gateway National Recreation Area, George Washington Pkwy and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I suspect that the methods used to determine park visitation are not consistent from unit to unit within the National Park System. I wonder what quality control the NPS uses prior to reporting visitation statistics?

It's easy to see how GSMNP is so popular when you consider that the majority of the country's population is east of the Mississippi and factor in vacation time contraints. Another factor is the proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Two birds with one stone.)

As far as footprint damage, I am guessing that most are simply passing through on the way to Dollywood or the Cherokee casino, never really visiting the park.

Grand Teton is a tricky one. It is very easy to visit without being counted. Unless you drive the "inner road" you don't even pass through an entrance station. You can even camp at Gros Ventre (the park's largest campground) without going through a gate. Also, it is not necessary to stop at any station if you enter from Yellowstone (sign always says, "Please Proceed, No Stop Required), and even the other stations to the inner road are often unmanned. Though I imagine that vehicles are counted by some sort of device, they can't record how many people are in a vehicle. Some of the park's best attractions are outside of any gate, including the Visitor Center, Gros Ventre, Mormon Row, Schwabacher's Landing etc.
Even at best I would think any of these figures are only educated guesses, because even in Yellowstone if you enter much before dawn or after dark there is no one at the gate.

Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River seems very low, considering that there are rafting companies that operate adjacent to Big Bend National Park. I know that the River levels are low, but I have spoken to several people who had rafted or were going to be rafting on it in 2009.

Additionally, there are many popular attractions in Big Bend National park that are alongside the river, so I am surprised at the miniscule visitation number. Maybe they are only counting individuals that travel a significant length of the river.

Great list. I always though that Yellowstone or Grand Canyon would definitely be at the top....but the Great Smokey Mountains....who knew?

Great Smoky Mtn. National Park is close to high population areas. Went this summer very crowded. If you dont leave early in the day you will be in a traffic jam on the Cades Cove road, this is only one way traffic. People were stopping to view and photograph wildlife. The only thing you can do is wait for everyone to move. Also the more popular hiking trails the eaiser ones also crowded before noon. Laurel Falls trail went about 1 in the afternoon passed about 150 people on their way back down. This is a free National Park; an entrance fee is never charged. This is probably another reason for the high attendance. I am sure they have a lot of school field trips from Tenn. and N. Carolina. It is a beautiful park. I believe it has more hiking trails than any other park (but not positive) This is a big draw for people who love to hike. Both days I went to the park I gave a $20 donation. It was worth so much more. All you cares seem to fade away while your here.

I watched the Ken Burns series on the National Parks and was somewhat disturbed over the amount of attention paid to Yosemite and Yellowstone when, indeed, there are less visitors to those parks combined than to the Great Smoky Mountains alone. At the end of the series I thought that had I thrown a dime into a bucket everytime I heard the word "Yosemite," I would have had to paint my house 10,000 times to get enough buckets.

It is obvious that we need more National Parks east of the Mississippi.

I had not known, however, that money from children was used to pay for some of the property to make the park. Creating the Smokies is about displacing a people, the Scot-Irish who had inhabited the mountains for upwards of 200 years. I have known many people who were forced to move out of the area to make the park.

Bill, it wasn't just the Scot-Irish who were moved out. The Cherokee were evicted as well, and their connection with the land went back much longer.

I think Zion is a side trip from Las Vegas for some people. Something to do once you've lost all your money...

As someone who has spent a lot of time in our wonderful NP system, the most visited Parks are crowded if You stay in Your car. Get out and WALK, and You will find peace and quiet even in GSMNP. The best way to see Cades Cove is to park and walk the loop. It takes a while, 3 to 4 hours, if You stop and observe and take pictures, etc. But if You drive in the crowds, it will take You almost as long, and You won't get the exercise or the piece of mind. I realize everyone can't do it, but I am 67yo, and it is still an easy walk. Zion IS crowded, but if You go to Colob Canyon, You will have a hard time finding a neighbor. Same with Yellowstone, get away from Old Faithful and a few other spots, and the crowds get sparce. Remember, there are 2.25 million acres in Yellowstone. So,if there are 2.25 million people there, each one has an acre or about 45,000 sq ft of space. Thanks GOD for our NPS, and be thankful for the Rangers that are as a whole, one of the greatest groups of people in the USofA.

Glad to say my wife and I were 2 out of 2526 who visited Salt River Bay in 2006! A beautiful place to visit...

Rap

Great Basin National Park is awesome! Hardly anyone goes there so it is a great place to get away from it all. There arent to many places to stay there but if you call ahead you can usually get one of the few motel rooms there. The Lehman Cave system is at Great Basin and is a great cave tour. The hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is an awesome hike with awesome views as well! It is definitely worth a trip for a few days!

I have been going to the Smoky Mtns. for over 50 years. Never get tired of them. Going to Cades Cove takes you back in time. It also gets you close to nature & the wildlife the Mountains have to offer. If you get frustrated with traffice being backed-up due to the wildlife & have to honk to possibly make people move, I suggest you don't go. The all the others that don't want the traffic try going earlier in the morning or later in the day when people are having dinner. On my last trip, I went out to the Cove four times & never was disappointed - even with all the traffic. The Smokies have a healing power & you feel so much better after being there. Can't wait for my next visit.

Yosemite's numbers would be far higher if they didn't have the restrictions put upon it. These numbers are skewed in terms of true love for a park, at least for that park.