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 63 national parks with various natural landmarks, attractions, and features (there were 62 national parks in 2020).
Exploring natural parks is becoming increasingly popular in the United States in recent years. Mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Park System attracted a bit more than 237 million visitors in 2020 (the actual number of visitors is 237 064 332, 67 931 703 or 28.66% of them are those who have visited various national parks as the last time such a small number of people visiting the National Park System was registered in 1981). They spent 1.06 billion hours enjoying the beauty of nature. Ten years earlier, in 2011, the number of recreation visits was roughly 42 million bigger (278 939 216 recreation visits, national parks welcomed 65 266 499 or 23.4% 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 2011 and 2020. The most visited national park in the USA was Great Smoky Mountains National Park with nearly 11 million annual visitations on average – more than the second (Grand Canyon) and third (Yosemite) most popular national parks combined. The least-visited national park of the top 10 was Glacier with 2.49 million annual visitations on average. Four of the national parks including Grand Canyon and Yosemite attracted fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2011 – their number decreased by more than 1.4 million or 33% and 1.7 million or 43% respectively. The number of annual visitations (excluding the extraordinary 2020) to Zion skyrocketed in the last ten years as this park saw an increase of nearly 60% in the 2011-2019 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 2011 and 2020 for each of the top 10 most popular national parks in the USA is the following:
Glacier NP – 2.49 million visitors
With 2 487 676 visitors over the 10 year period on average, Glacier NP was the least visited national park among the top 10 in the US between 2011 and 2020. The park nearly doubled its visitors between 2011 and 2017 whose number increased from a bit more than 1.85 million to more than 3.3 million. However, in the next three years, it recorded 2.97 mln in 2018, 3.05 mln in 2019, and a mere 1.7 million visitors in 2020. The decrease between 2020 and 2019 was a huge one – roughly 44.3% (1 350 975 people) as the number of those who visited Glacier in 2019 was way bigger than the number for 2020. Apparently, the COVID-19 pandemic and all the restrictions that were in place played a key role in this. That there are still some restrictions so make sure that you acquaint yourself with the new regulations.
Covering about a million acres in northwestern Montana, Glacier National Park is an astounding place where the earth’s forces have left their imprints on the landscape with rugged mountains, pristine forests, spectacular glacier-carved basins, and waterfalls. It’s definitely a perfect place for those seeking wilderness and solitude.
Unfortunately, over the course of the last century, the number of glaciers in Glacier NP has shrunk from more than 100 in 1910 to 26 active glaciers today. Moreover, every glacier in the park is melting at an alarming rate affecting the entire ecosystem. And Glacier preserves some of the nation’s wildest country. The fauna is composed of 71 species of mammals (including large and/or animals such as bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions, elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep), 276 species of birds (among them ospreys, bald and golden eagles, harlequin ducks, and northern hawk owls), native and invasive species of fish, as well as several species of reptiles and amphibians call Glacier home. The flora consists of 30 species that are endemic to the region as well as more than 1100 other species of plants.
Over 1180 km (734 miles) of trails make the Glacier National Park a hiker’s paradise. It is a place for adventurous visitors who are not afraid to explore the idyllic backcountry havens, impressive mountains, and century forests with huge hemlocks and western red cedars. But that’s not all. White-water river rafting, horseback riding, fishing, kayaking, and boating are among the most popular activities in Glacier National Park.
Acadia NP – 2.89 million visitors
The second least visited national park among the top 10 was Acadia with approximately 2.89 million visitors on average. It welcomed 2 669 034 visitors in 2020, 22.35% less than the number of people who had visited it a year before. The increase in the annual visitations for the 2011-2020 period (excluding the number for 2020) is almost 45% as the park attracted around 1.05 million more visitors in 2019 in comparison to 2011.
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 (the period when you will need a park entrance pass) 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 254 km (158 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 – 3.07 million visitors
Grand Teton National Park was the eighth most visited national park in the United States between 2011 and 2020 with an average number of 3 069 628 visitors a year. The increase in the annual recreational visits for the 2011-2020 period exceeds 27% as it attracted more than 3.29 million visitors in 2020 in spite of the unusual situation.
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. For additional information about the various activities, explore the park brochures.
Olympic NP – 3.10 million visitors
Next on this list is Olympic National Park. It welcomed 3 102 604 visitors annually on average in the 2011-2020 period, which made it the seventh most visited national park in the country. It’s one of those parks that attracted a comparatively constant number of visitors per year as the differences between two consecutive years were never larger than 10% except for 2020 when there was a drop of 23% in the annual visitations in comparison to 2019 (2 499 177 vs 3 245 806).
Located in the state of Washington, Olympic National Park covers nearly a million acres (922 650 acres to be exact which is 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. It’s important to 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 – 3.66 million visitors
With more than 3.66 million visitors on average, Zion National Park was the sixth most popular national park in the US between 2011 and 2020. The increase in the annual visitations for this period exceeds 60% as it attracted nearly 4.5 million visitors in 2019 compared to a little more than 2.8 million in 2011. The 2020 visitation tops 3.59 million.
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.
Yellowstone NP – 3.80 million visitors
Quite a popular destination for American and foreign hikers, adventurers and ordinary tourists, Yellowstone attracted nearly 3.8 million visitors on average making it the fifth most popular national park in the US in the last ten years. The increase in the annual recreational visits between 2011 and 2020 exceeds 12% as it was even higher between 2019 and 2011 when it attracted 4.02 mln and 3.4 mln visitors respectively.
Yellowstone encompasses 2.2 million acres or 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.
Rocky Mountain NP – 3.85 million visitors
Rocky Mountain National Park was the fourth most popular national park in the States between 2011 and 2020. More than 3.85 million people annually flocked for the scenic grandeur, watchable wildlife, and recreational opportunities. The park was one of the most seriously affected by the coronavirus pandemic as it attracted 3 305 199 visitors in 2020 compared to 4 670 053 a year before that. For the whole 2011-2020 period (excluding 2020), the national park visitation registered an increase of 47%.
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 2396 m to 4346 m and sixty peaks over 3600 m 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).
Yosemite NP – 3.96 million visitors
Yosemite National Park welcomed 3 959 522 visitors annually on average in the 2011-2020 period, which made it the third most popular national park in the US. It’s among the parks that attracted way fewer people in 2020 – a 49% decrease in the annual recreation visitations in comparison to 2019 (when the park was visited by 4 422 861 people). As a result, Yosemite NP dropped off the list with the top 10 most visited national parks in 2020. Additionally, the difference between the number of visitors in 2011 (when the number of visitors topped 3.95 million) and 2020 was nearly 1.7 million! As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect park operations, here’s what you can expect in 2021.
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 – 5.10 million visitors
With more than 5.1 million visitors on average, Grand Canyon National Park was the second most popular national park in the US between 2011 and 2020. It attracted less than 2.9 million visitors in 2020 or less than half of the number for 2019 (when 5 974 411 outdoor lovers visited the iconic US national park). The annual recreational visits for the whole ten-year period increased by 39% from 2011 to 2019.
Established more than 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 1.20 million acres (4931 square km or 1904 square miles). The canyon’s 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 450 species of birds, 91 species of mammals, 58 species of reptiles and amphibians, 18 species of fish, and nearly 1450 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 – 10.76 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 12 095 720 visitors in 2020. The park welcomed almost 11 million visitors annually between 2011 and 2020 (in this period, the visitation increased by 1/3 from 9 to 12 million). 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) divided almost evenly between the two states. 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 2021 travel plans and you can’t go wrong.
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