According to numbers just released by the National Park Service (NPS), 237 million visitors went to America’s national parks in 2020. It’s actually 28 percent lower than 2019 because parks were closed part of last year. That said, let’s face it: 237 million people is still a lot of visitors.
“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall well being,” National Park Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge said in a statement. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”
Let’s take a closer look at the most-visited national parks last year. In the format David Letterman used for his Top 10 lists, we’ll count down to the most visited national park.
10. Joshua Tree National Park
Surrounded by mountains and considered part of the Mojave Desert, 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park is known for activities that include hiking and rock climbing as well as bird-watching, horseback riding, stargazing, and -- of course -- photography. For more on what to do at Joshua Tree, check out Wendy Lee’s best hikes and Vita Zakhu’s article with tips for visiting.
Pro Tip: The NPS just announced that March and April are usually the busiest time of the year at the park -- and officials expect high numbers of visitors this year. That means you can expect “limited parking, full campgrounds, and a line to get into the park.” To beat the crowds, NPS recommends visiting Joshua Tree Monday through Thursday. You should also plan to arrive before 10 a.m.
9. Olympic National Park
Situated in the mountains, Olympic National Park offers something unique: a variety of ecosystems. Indeed, it includes subalpine, coastal, temperate rainforest, and lowland forest ecosystems.
In the summer months, the park is known for its boating, fishing, camping, day hikes, backpacking, and wildlife watching. The winter months, on the other hand, offer opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain climbing.
Pro Tip: In a piece on her solo trip to the Olympic Peninsula, Robyne Stevenson explains why you won’t want to miss the whale watching here.
8. Acadia National Park
Known as the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” Acadia National Park had 2.7 million visitors, down from 3.4 million visitors in 2019.
What’s so special about Acadia National Park? Visitors to the 47,000-acre Atlantic coast recreation area -- which is primarily on Maine's Mount Desert Island -- can see and enjoy 27 miles of historic motor roads, 158 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of carriage roads.
While at the park in the summer, visitors can bike, hike, birdwatch, swim, stargaze, and -- as you would expect -- boat. In the winter, you can hike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, ice fish, and skijor.
Wait. What’s that? Skijoring is what you call it when a person on skis is pulled by dogs.
Don’t worry if you are pressed for time, Cindy Barks explains how you can spend a day in Acadia National Park here.
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, or CVNP, is a 33,000-acre area along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland, Ohio, and Akron. In 2020, CVNP had 2.8 million visitors. That number was up, perhaps due to people trying to stay close to home, from the previous year’s attendance of 2.2 million visitors.
The park includes a stretch of the Cuyahoga River, as well as forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands. One of the main attractions is the Towpath Trail, which follows the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The trail, which is open 24 hours, is hard-packed, making it accessible for people using wheelchairs, bicycles, and strollers, too.
The park is also known for its Beaver Marsh marshland restoration area and the extremely popular Brandywine Falls. The 60-foot waterfall is accessed via a partially accessible boardwalk.
6. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park had 2.9 million visitors in 2020. That number was down from six million visitors in 2019.
Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles of the Colorado River, which explains why boating and rafting are favored activities here. The park is also known for its hiking, backpacking, and, due to the exceptional vistas, photography and sightseeing.
There’s even a Grand Canyon Skywalk, a 10-foot wide glass bridge that extends 70 feet out over the rim of the Grand Canyon. To learn about the skywalk, and for a first-person account, consider Cindy Barks’s reflections on whether the Grand Canyon Skywalk is worth the trip here.
Pro Tip: Almost 90 percent of the people who visit the Grand Canyon do so from the South Rim on the Arizona side of the canyon. To avoid the crowds, visit the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
5. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park features 310,000 acres of valley floors, mountain meadows, alpine lakes, and peaks of the Teton Range. In 2020, the park had 3.3 million visitors, down slightly from 3.4 million visitors in 2019.
Located in northwestern Wyoming -- north of the town of Jackson, and south of Yellowstone National Park -- Grand Teton National Park is known for hiking, backcountry exploring, climbing, and mountaineering. For more on hiking in Grand Teton National Park, check out Sara Broers’ article 9 Wonderful Hikes In Wyoming here.
Pro Tip: Watch for large animals on the road. Elk, bison, mule deer, and pronghorn frequently migrate at night and may be difficult to see. What’s more, moose use roads as travel corridors.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park -- about a two-hour drive from Denver -- encompasses 76 mountains, each over 10,000 feet high. In 2020, the park had 3.3 million visitors, which was down noticeably from the 4.7 million visitors in 2019.
Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its 355 miles of hiking trails, where you can see bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and other wildlife. Robin O’Neal Smith breaks down more in 13 Reasons To Put Rocky Mountain National Park On Your Bucket List.
Pro Tip: Park officials note that the park is busiest in the summer and fall. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can expect long lines and wait times at entrance stations, full parking lots, congested roads, and busy trails. The park recently announced it won’t be using a reservation system this year.
3. Zion National Park
Zion National Park, which includes the 15 mile-long Zion Canyon, had 3.6 million visitors in 2020 -- down from 4.5 million in 2019.
While the park is known for rock climbing and river trips, its hiking trails are fantastic. The trails are even broken down into classes: easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes.
Two of the most popular trails in the park include Angels Landing and The Narrows. Visitors need to be properly prepared for both. These aren’t the type of hikes you wake up and just decide to tackle, so be sure to check out Cindy Bark’s advice (linked over each hike’s name) for experiencing both.
Pro Tip: I, unfortunately, learned this lesson the hard way. When park officials say “Parking is usually full by 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.,” they mean it. Don’t let your whole day’s schedule be thrown off by an inability to find parking.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Yellowstone National Park is one of America's premier wilderness areas. Last year, Yellowstone National Park had 3.8 million visitors, which was a drop from four million visitors in 2019.
Yellowstone, as you may know, encompasses more than 2.2 million acres and has more than 900 miles of hiking trails. Hiking, indeed, is a popular activity here, as is wildlife watching, biking, photography, and camping -- both in campgrounds and in the backcountry.
Pro Tips: Everyone wants to see Old Faithful Geyser, and for good reason. However, I believe no trip to Yellowstone is complete without seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River -- including both the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. For more on what to do in Yellowstone, check out Sage Scott’s article 11 Best Things To See And Do In Yellowstone National Park.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
In 2019, 12.5 visitors went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While that number dropped to 12.1 million visitors in 2020, let’s repeat: 12.1 million people went to the park.
While the park may have a Tennessee address, it actually straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. What can you see at Great Smoky Mountains National Park? More than 500,000 acres of forest, wildlife, more than 1,500 flowering plant species, and what the park calls “cascading waterfalls.”
Oh, and there are more than 800 miles of hiking trails. For more about the hiking, check out Bree Liddell’s article on eight beautiful Smoky Mountain hiking trails here.
If you like to watch wildlife, you definitely need to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Observing wildlife is one of the most popular things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains,” National Parks Foundation notes. “With a wide variety of animals, including approximately 1,500 black bears, the park is a biologist’s paradise.” In fact, so-called bear-jams, when visitors pull over to get a look, are well known in the park. Also, with 12 million visitors, bring your patience. Traffic can be an issue.
So, now that you know which national parks were most visited last year, which ones will you visit this year? Get planning with all our U.S. National Park content here.
Editor’s Note: The NPS information presented in the first paragraph of this article can be found here.