National parks are among the most stunning, amazing, scenic, and beautiful places in the USA that you must see. Today, almost 150 years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872, there are 59 national parks with various natural landmarks, attractions, and features.
Exploring natural parks is becoming increasingly popular in the United States in recent years. The National Park System attracted nearly 331 million visitors in 2017 (the actual number of visitors is 330 882 751, 85 451 798 or 25.8% of them are those who have visited various national parks). They spent an astounding 1.45 billion hours enjoying the beauty of nature. Ten years earlier, in 2008, the number of recreation visits was roughly 56 million smaller (274 852 949 recreation visits, national parks welcomed 63 281 512 or 23% of all visitors), while the number of hours spent was 1.21 billion.
Analyzing the table below, we see that the Top 10 most popular national parks were responsible for more than half of all annual visitations to national parks between 2008 and 2017. The most visited national park in the USA was Great Smoky Mountains National Park with nearly 10 million annual visitations on average – more than the second (Grand Canyon) and third (Yosemite) most popular national parks combined. The least-visited national park was Cuyahoga Valley with 2.36 million annual visitations on average. Actually, Cuyahoga Valley was the only national park in the Top 10 that attracted fewer visitors in 2017 than in 2008 – their number decreased by more than 600 000 or 21%. The number of annual visitations to Rocky Mountain and Zion skyrocketed in the last ten years as both parks saw an increase of nearly 70% in the 2008-2017 period.
Source: National Park Service Statistics
Most Visited National Parks in the US
So, the average number of annual recreational visits for the 10 year period between 2008 and 2017 for each of the Top 10 most popular national parks in the USA is the following:
Cuyahoga Valley NP – 2.36 million visitors
With 2 359 884 visitors on average, Cuyahoga Valley NP was the least visited national park among the Top 10 in the US between 2008 and 2017. The park is the only one in this list that actually had fewer visitors in 2017 than ten years earlier in 2008. The decrease was roughly 20% (600 000 people) as the number of those who visited Cuyahoga Valley in 2008 was way bigger than the number for 2017.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park covers 33 000 acres (134 square km or 52 square miles). Located in northeastern Ohio, the park is in close proximity to large urban areas. Cuyahoga Valley is home to many different ecosystems such as wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and ponds as well as rivers and streams.
Over 200 km (125 miles) of hiking trails, ranging from easy to challenging, are available in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Acadia NP – 2.6 million visitors
The second least visited national park was Acadia with more than 2.6 million visitors on average. It welcomed 3 509 271 visitors in 2017, 6% more than the number of people who had visited it a year before. The increase in the annual visitations for the 2008-2017 period exceeds 69% as the park attracted almost 1.5 million more visitors in 2017 in comparison to 2008.
Located on the North Atlantic Coast in the state of Maine, the park’s size is more than 46 000 acres (186 square km or 72 square miles) encompassing mountains, lakes, ponds, trails, fabulous vistas, and several campgrounds. There are many different animal species because of Acadia’s various habitats. However, the richness and diversity of habitats considerably decrease the chances of seeing large animals such as bears or moose since they require large areas.
Most restaurants, accommodations, and shops are open between mid-May and mid-October as the peak season is July-August when huge crowds of people gather from all over the country. September and October are probably the best time of the year to visit Acadia: fewer people, fewer bugs, less fog, and an explosion of color. In autumn, the leaves create lovely color combinations that make the park’s forests look even more beautiful (the peak usually comes in mid-October).
There are 200 km (125 miles) of hiking trails in Acadia that vary from easy to rugged. Other popular activities include bicycling, boating, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, and birdwatching (peregrine falcons, hawks, and Red Crossbills are among the 338 species of birds that can be found in Acadia). Winter hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing, as well as ice fishing, are among the most popular activities in the winter.
Grand Teton NP – 2.82 million visitors
Grand Teton National Park was the eighth most visited national park in the United States between 2008 and 2017 with an average number of 2 824 532 visitors a year. The increase in the annual recreational visits for the 2008-2017 period exceeds 33% as it attracted more than 3.31 million visitors in 2017.
Established in 1929 (though Grand Teton National Park formed its current boundaries in 1950), the national park is like Yellowstone’s kid brother. Grand Teton National Park is situated in Wyoming and encompasses approximately 310 000 acres (1250 square km or 484 square miles). Diverse landscapes dominate the park – the magnificent mountains of the Teton Range, Snake River Valley, towering peaks, diverse and abundant forests, shimmering lakes and waterfalls.
Grand Teton National park has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, environment, and wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might see birds of prey like bald eagles and ospreys or large mammals such as moose, elk, and bison. Bears are roaming throughout Grand Teton year-round, so restrain yourself from hiking solo and especially from hiking at night. It’s recommended to travel in groups of three or more, carry bear spray, never store food and garbage in tents, and be prepared for close encounters. You can also see different wildflowers and birds.
You can explore over 320 km (200 miles) of trails (you don’t need a permit for day hikes in the Grand Teton, though overnight camping requires a permit) throughout the park. High altitude hiking and rapid weather changes are typical for the area. Mountains can be dangerous so you need to be prepared in advance for the various heat and cold-related conditions that you might be facing there. Best time to visit the national park is from mid-June on because the spring there is often too chilly, rainy/snowy, and muddy. Except for hikers and campers, the Tetons are also a very popular place for mountain climbers, skiers, and snowboarders.
Olympic NP – 3.14 million visitors
Next on this list is Olympic National Park. It welcomed 3 137 907 visitors annually on average in the 2008-2017 period, which made it the seventh most visited national park in the country. It attracted more than 3.4 million visitors in 2017, which is a 10% increase in the annual visitations in comparison to 2008.
Located in the state of Washington, Olympic National Park covers 922 650 acres (approximately 3750 square km or 1440 square miles) and is open all year. The park offers unmatched diversity as there are several different ecosystems that coexist on the territory of the park. You can enjoy rain forests with giant trees, temperate old-growth forests with Douglas fir and western hemlock, snow-capped mountains, green meadows, and wild coastline with sandy and rocky beaches.
The huge biodiversity is a consequence of the different conditions. Deer, elk, black bears, mountain goats, and marmots are a small part of the mammals living in the park. The Olympic coast is part of the whale trail so in April-May and October-November you can view whales. There are also over 300 species of birds and various species of fish (including all five species of Pacific salmon). Thanks to the abundant precipitation and mild maritime climate, Olympic harbors a wide variety of wildflowers and other plants (more than 1400). The best way to help preserve the wilderness is to apply the basic rules for low-impact hiking or the so-called “leave no trace” techniques.
Backpacking is a very popular activity in the national park with more than 800 km (500 miles) of backcountry trails. Each year approximately 50 000 go camping and many more take day hikes. Plan your day hike before you hit the trail and be prepared for changing weather. Other popular activities include boating, fishing, and tide-pooling. There are also various ranger-led programs. Keep in mind that even though most areas in the park are accessible in the winter, many facilities are closed at that time of the year.
Zion NP – 3.23 million visitors
With more than 3.23 million visitors on average, Zion National Park was the sixth most popular national park in the US between 2008 and 2017. The increase in the annual visitations for this period exceeds 67% as it attracted more than 4.5 million visitors in 2017 compared to a little less than 2.7 million in 2008.
Utah’s first national park, Zion occupies 148 000 acres (600 square km or 230 square miles) and encompasses 1500 meters (5000 feet) of elevation change. Zion is a great place to reconnect with nature – its visitors (the park is packet Aril to October) often marvel over the beauty of the park and its splendor. The many spectacular vistas inside the park include narrow side canyons, domes, blocky massifs, colored rock formations, lovely waterfalls, and crystal springs.
The flora and fauna are very diverse – 85% of Utah’s wildlife and plants are found on the territory of the national park. More than 1000 species of plants, 291 species of birds, and 78 species of mammals occupy the national park in ranging environments, microclimates, and habitats. Mule deer, elks, chipmunks, ringtail cats, black bears, and mountain lions are among the mammals that can be seen in Zion. Even though mountain lions can pose a threat to humans, keep in mind that they are extremely rare so close encounters are very unlikely.
Hiking in Zion can be a very pleasant and enjoyable experience (you don’t need a permit for day hikes except for The Narrows day hike; overnight stay requires a permit). However, it requires advance planning and preparation for strenuous hikes. You can choose among a lot of hiking trails: from nice easy hikes to moderate and strenuous wilderness trails. Canyoneering, birding, bicycling, backpacking, camping, and rock climbing are among the most popular activities in Zion National Park. Beware for summer thunderstorms and flash floods. They’re common in Zion and can be very dangerous.
Rocky Mountain NP – 3.45 million visitors
Rocky Mountain National Park was the fifth most popular national park in the States between 2008 and 2017. Nearly 3.45 million people annually flocked for the scenic grandeur, watchable wildlife, and recreational opportunities. The park attracted 4 437 215 visitors or almost 61% more people visited Rocky Mountain in 2017 than in 2008.
Situated in the state of Colorado, the national park occupies 265 000 acres (1070 square km or 415 square miles) encompassing spectacular mountain environments. A world of extremes, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the highest national parks in the USA (with elevations from 2396m to 4346m and sixty peaks over 3600m high). It has a lot to offer: massive landforms capped in brilliant white rising sharply from the valley floors, alpine tundra, glossy and lustrous lakes, tumbling waterfalls, meandering rivers, glacial cirques, wildflower-filled meadows, and fascinating ecosystems attract crowds of people from all over the world.
You can explore over 480 km (300 miles) of hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. Trail conditions are always changing so while planning your hike check out the weather forecast as well as the current avalanche forecast to make sure that the conditions are conducive to hiking. Other popular summer activities include camping, fishing, rock climbing, wildlife viewing, bicycling, and horse riding. Winter is a great time to visit the wilderness of the national park. At that time of the year, Rocky Mountain is imbued with magic and spectacular stillness. Just layer up your clothing (wind and waterproof outer layer is a must when in the mountain well as carrying clothing able to provide enough insulation in cold conditions), get comfortable and reliable boots, and you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, wildlife watching (winter is a good time to look for elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes).
Yellowstone NP – 3.6 million visitors
Quite a popular destination for American and foreign hikers, adventurers and ordinary tourists, Yellowstone attracted just over 3.6 million visitors on average making it the fourth most popular national park in the last ten years. The increase in the annual recreational visits between 2008 and 2017 exceeds 34% as it attracted nearly 4.12 million visitors in 2017.
Yellowstone encompasses 2.2 million acres, which is roughly 8900 square km or 3440 square miles. Located primarily in the state of Wyoming (96% of its territory is situated in The Cowboy State, 3% in Montana, and the rest 1% is in Idaho), Yellowstone is a symbol of the great outdoors with its magnificent views, geographical wonders such as skyscraping mountains, deep canyons, incredible waterfalls, and glacial lakes. Yellowstone’s geothermal features such as geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and steam vents are the result of a still-active supervolcano located beneath the park.
Famous for its exotic ecosystem, Yellowstone offers a huge variety of wildlife including many birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals. The park is home to 67 different mammals – from large animals like bears, wolves, mountain lions, elk, moose, and bison to smaller creatures such as otters, foxes, chipmunks, and squirrels. You can also find beautiful wildflowers and more than 1100 species of other wild plants with attractive appearances and overpowering fragrances.
There are 1450 km (900 miles) of trails available for hiking and backpacking on the territory of the park. Many of them are suitable for day hiking as well as for multi-day trips (you don’t need a permit for day hikes in Yellowstone), though, try to avoid solo hiking and off-trail hiking. The wildlife, as well as the weather conditions, can be really unpredictable so make sure to check out available backcountry guidebooks, outdoor websites, hiking blogs, and online forums to gain as much valuable information prior to your hike or camp as possible. This will help you better plan your trip and avoid (or at least mitigate the results of possible) dangerous situations and unpleasant surprises. Camping in Yellowstone can be dangerous because of the abundance of bears there. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. Just make sure that you’re properly prepared and you’ll be safe.
Yosemite NP – 4 million visitors
Yosemite National Park welcomed 3 996 500 visitors annually on average in the 2008-2017 period, which made it the third most popular national park in the US. It attracted more than 4.3 million visitors in 2017, which is a 26% increase in the annual recreation visitations in comparison to 2008 (when the park was visited by 3 431 514 people).
Thanks to the “Father of the National Parks” John Muir and other conservationists, Yosemite became a national park in 1890. The park covers 747 956 acres (over 3000 square km or 1200 square miles) of beautiful mountainous scenery, including granite cliffs, deep valleys, giant sequoia groves, countless waterfalls, and clear streams. Its biological diversity is also impressive. Though famous for its natural wonders, Yosemite is not only rocks, plants, and animals. For example, there are many historical places with regional and/or national significance.
There are at least 1300 km (800 miles) of trails in Yosemite National Park available for hiking and backpacking. Camping is also extremely popular. Permit reservations may be made in advance for a small fee. Permits are available at no charge from the ranger station or visitor center nearest the departure trailhead. Keep in mind that some trails in Yosemite are subject to quotas for overnight travel during peak season. Considering the elevation range of nearly 3500m (from 648m to 3,997m) it is no surprise that rock climbing, bouldering, and mountaineering are an important part of Yosemite. El Capitan – probably one of the most popular destinations for rock climbing in the world – is in Yosemite. Boating, fishing, mountain and road biking, and winter sports, are also among the most popular activities in Yosemite National Park.
Grand Canyon NP – 4.9 million visitors
With nearly 4.9 million visitors on average, Grand Canyon National Park was the second most popular national park in the US between 2008 and 2017. It attracted more than 6.25 million visitors in 2017, which means a 41% increase in the annual recreational visits for the whole ten-year period.
Established one hundred years ago, in 1919, the national park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. Grand Canyon is located in Arizona and occupies approximately 1.22 million acres (4930 square km or 1900 square miles). The canyon average depth is over 1.6 km, while the elevation of the North and South Rim is 2400m (8000 feet) and 2100m (7000 feet) respectively.
Grand Canyon is not only scenic drives and dramatic views, but it’s also home to an impressive range of wildlife (including 20 endemic animal species). More than 370 species of birds, 91 species of mammals, 58 species of reptiles and amphibians, 18 species of fish, and nearly 8500 species of invertebrates live in the national park. The flora consists of 1750 species of plants including four endemic species and more than 200 exotic species.
Hiking is the most popular activity within the park and is open year-round. There are numerous opportunities for those who like hiking on well-maintained trails and for those who prefer hiking on more rugged and less-traveled trails. The unique combination of environment, climate, and challenging terrain make hiking the Grand Canyon markedly different from hiking elsewhere so keep this in mind when planning your trip. Hiking in the park can be very enjoyable, though, it can also bring some unexpected dangers. Beware of summer thunderstorms between July and September and hike smart. These storms can be dangerous, even deadly, especially if there is no shelter or you’re hiking close to the canyon edge.
Great Smoky Mountains NP – 9.95 million visitors
Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few national parks that do not charge an entrance fee. It was the most visited national park in the United States with 11 338 893 visitors in 2017. The park welcomed almost 10 million visitors annually between 2008 and 2017. Despite those numbers, the park is still one of the most pristine natural areas.
The National Park was officially established in 1934. Situated along the Tennessee-North Carolina line, the park covers 522 427 acres (2114 square km or 816 square miles). It encompasses magnificent mountains with sixteen summits above 1800m (6000 feet), beautiful forests with an incredible diversity of species, fish-bearing streams and rivers, and abundant waterfalls. There’s a huge variety of plants and wildflowers. With more than 1600 flowering and 4000 non-flowering plants, Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their great biological diversity. There is a wide variety of animals including more than 200 species of birds, 80 types of reptiles and amphibians (including 30 salamander species), 65 species of mammals (including black bears, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, chipmunks, etc.), and 67 native fish species.
There is plenty to see and do in the park – from hiking and backpacking to sunrise watching. Every mountaintop in the park is an amazing place from which to watch a sunset or sunrise or just to feast your eyes on the forests and the rivers beneath your feet. The panoramic views are worth the effort to go atop any one of the Smokies ten tallest peaks so don’t hesitate if you have a chance to do it.
1370 km (850 miles) of trails available for hiking and backpacking welcome more than 400 000 hikers annually. Some 113 km (70 miles) of the Appalachian Trail are on the territory of the park. Other popular activities include camping, picnicking, wildlife viewing, auto touring, bicycling, and horse riding.
Parks and recreation facilities provide opportunities for an outdoor vacation filled with beautiful landscapes, scenic natural wonders, magnificent geological formations such as great mountains, spectacular canyons, spouting geysers, majestic waterfalls, giant trees, and endless trails.
Each one of the Top 10 most popular national parks in the US has its own charm and merits and deserves a visit. Make it a part of your 2019 travel plans and you can’t go wrong.