Visitation levels at U.S. national parks fell in 2020 due to park closures and other pandemic-related restrictions. Last year, however, visitation surged as COVID-19 vaccination rates increased, even if some parks still limited capacity.
The National Park Service (NPS) recently announced that 297 million people visited U.S. national parks in 2021, an increase of 60 million from the 237 million visits logged in 2020.
“It’s wonderful to see so many Americans continuing to find solace and inspiration in these incredible places during the second year of the pandemic,” Chuck Sams, director of the NPS, said in a statement.
Interestingly, 44 national parks set records for visitation in 2021. What’s more, three parks had more than 10 million visits, 11 parks logged more than 5 million visits, and 73 parks had more than a million recreation visits.
There are 423 parks in the National Park System. Some of those are indeed national parks, but the NPS also manages national preserves, monuments, memorials, historic sites, seashores, battlefield parks, recreation areas, and parkways.
If you aren’t familiar with the designation, national recreation areas include lands and waters set aside for recreational use by acts of Congress. Meanwhile, national parkways are scenic roads as well as land and waters on both sides of the road.
Here’s why those designations are important: National parkways, recreation areas, monuments, and memorials are some of the most-visited units in the National Park System.
So, with that in mind, let’s get to it. Here are the top 20 most visited U.S. national parks in 2021.
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina, Virginia
Known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway winds for 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area surrounding the actual road features eight campgrounds, 369 miles of hiking trails, 14 designated picnic areas with tables, and numerous scenic overlooks with tables where people can also picnic or simply enjoy the scenery.
In 2021, 15.9 million people visited Blue Ridge Parkway, making it the most-visited U.S. national park. That number not only surpasses the 14 million visits logged for 2020, it’s one million more visits than the 14.9 million logged in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains visitors discover more than 800 miles of hiking trails, what the park calls “cascading waterfalls,” and more than 500,000 acres of forest where visitors can see a wide variety of wildlife — including approximately 1,500 black bears and more than 1,500 flowering plant species.
Great Smoky Mountains is an easy drive from Atlanta, Charlotte, Asheville, Knoxville, Nashville, and Washington, D.C., which helps explain its popularity. In 2020, for instance, the park had 12.1 million visitors, which set a new attendance record. In 2021, Great Smoky Mountains set another attendance record with 14.1 million people visiting the park.
3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers visitors spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but there’s much more to the area. That’s because Golden Gate, which includes 80,000 acres of land extending both north and south of the Golden Gate Bridge, features 37 distinct parks, such as Muir Woods National Monument and Alcatraz Island. Golden Gate, which supports 19 distinct ecosystems and is home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species, also features more than 130 miles of trails and 1,200 historic structures.
In 2020, 12.4 million people visited Golden Gate, which was down significantly from more than 15 million in 2019. Last year, however, visitation climbed to 13.7 million people.
4. Gateway National Recreation Area
New York, New Jersey
Gateway National Recreation Area was established in 1972, offering a national park service experience to an urban audience. The area, which is made up of 27,000 acres reaching from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Breezy Point in New York City, is home to numerous historic sites and natural areas. Visitors travel to the park for archery, running and walking trails, bicycling, bird watching, camping, and, since there’s a waterfront, boating, fishing, and swimming. There are also numerous sports fields.
In 2021, 9.1 million people visited Gateway. While that’s up from 8.4 million visits in 2020, it’s still slightly less than its all-time high number of visitors — 9.4 million — in 2019.
5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
The most popular attractions at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, America’s first and largest national recreation area, are Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Since the 1.5 million-acre area includes mountains, canyons, valleys, and the two lakes, people visit to swim, boat, canoe and kayak, hike, bicycle, camp, and fish.
Lake Mead logged 7.6 million visitors in 2021. Interestingly, that’s still less than its 8 million visitors in 2020, although it is up from the almost 7.5 million visits registered in 2019.
6. George Washington Memorial Parkway
Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia
The George Washington Memorial Parkway was designed for recreational driving but it also commemorates important events in American history and preserves habitats for local wildlife. Along the way, visitors see Arlington Memorial Bridge and Avenue, which acts as a ceremonial entrance to Washington, D.C. from Virginia. However, the parkway also includes Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, Fort Hunt Park, Fort Marcy, Jones Point Park, and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. As you would expect, visitors can canoe and kayak in the Potomac River, and hike, walk, run, and watch birds in the numerous parks.
In 2021, 6.8 million people visited the George Washington Memorial Parkway. That number is up from 6.2 million visits in 2020 but is less than the nearly 7.5 million visits in 2019.
7. Natchez Trace Parkway
Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile recreational road and scenic drive that roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” — a historic trail used by Native Americans, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and others. Today, people can enjoy a scenic Natchez Trace drive, as well as hike, bike, ride horses, and camp along the parkway. Popular attractions include Jackson Falls and Fall Hollow waterfalls, and numerous historic spots such as the Gordon House and Pharr Mounds, a complex of eight dome-shaped mounds built by Native Americans 1,800–2,000 years ago.
Somewhat surprisingly, Natchez Trace Parkway saw 6.4 million visitors in 2021. Not only was that more than the 6.1 million visitors logged in 2020, it also surpasses the 2019 tally of 6.3 million visitors.
8. Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial is, of course, home to the statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting and thinking. The statue is 19 feet tall, 19 feet wide, and is sized such that if Lincoln were standing, he would be 28 feet tall. The memorial itself, which is modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is 190 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 99 feet tall. The memorial is also home to carved inscriptions of Lincoln’s second inaugural address and his Gettysburg address. Steps up to the memorial begin at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, one of the most-recognizable sites in Washington, D.C.
In 2021, 5.8 million people visited the Lincoln Memorial, nearly twice the number of visitors in 2020. Again, and perhaps not surprising, the number is still down noticeably from the nearly 7.9 million visitors in 2019.
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Gulf Islands National Seashore’s 12 areas include historic forts, picnic areas, trails, and campgrounds. From Cat Island, Mississippi, the seashore stretches 160 miles east to the Okaloosa Area east of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The seashore’s areas on the Florida side include historic sites and beautiful beaches, which are known for swimming, bicycling, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, beach combing, bird watching, boating, and camping opportunities. Meanwhile, the Mississippi areas are home to a historic fort and beautiful barrier islands, so people also visit to go swimming, bicycling, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, beach combing, bird watching, boating, and camping.
In 2020, 4 million people visited Gulf Islands. That number soared in 2021 to 5.5 million visits, which is just short of the 5.6 million visits logged in 2019.
10. Zion National Park
Zion National Park, home to the 15-mile-long Zion Canyon, is world famous for its rock climbing, river trips, and hiking trails. In fact, two of the park’s most-popular hiking trails are the Narrows and Angels Landing. Angels Landing — a one-way, 5.4-mile-long trail with an elevation change of 1,488 feet — offers a harrowing view of the Zion Canyon 1,500 feet below. The trail is so popular that, beginning April 1, 2022, everyone who wants to take the Angels Landing hike will need a permit. And the only way to secure a permit is to be awarded one through a lottery run by the NPS.
In 2019, 4.5 million people visited Zion. That number fell to 3.6 million visitors in 2020, but it soared to 5 million visitors in 2021. That number set a new park attendance record.
11. Chesapeake And Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Washington D.C., Maryland, West Virginia
Stretching about 184 miles from Georgetown in Washington, D.C to Cumberland, Maryland, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is home to the remains of the historic C&O Canal. Visitors travel here to learn about the canal’s role in western expansion, transportation, engineering, the Civil War, immigration, industry, and commerce. However, since there is a 184-mile towpath, visitors also travel there to bike, camp, fish, hike, ride horses, and picnic. Some of the hiking trails even link up with national and regional hiking trails.
In 2021, 5 million people visited Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, increasing marginally from 4.9 million visitors in 2020 and barely less than the 5.1 million visits logged in 2019.
12. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Yellowstone is one of several national parks that logged record-breaking attendance in 2021. That’s because 4.9 million people visited the park last year, which was over one million more visitors than in 2020. That number even topped the 4 million visits in 2019.
Here’s why the park is so popular. Yellowstone, which is the nation’s oldest national park, draws visitors from around the world to see thermal features such as the Old Faithful geyser, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and wolves, bears, and other wildlife. The park, which was established on March 1, 1872, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, encompassing more than 2.2 million acres and over 900 miles of hiking trails.
13. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon is another national park famous around the world for its hiking, backpacking, and, due to truly magnificent vistas, photography and sightseeing. Since there are also 277 miles of the Colorado River within the park’s boundaries, boating and rafting are also extremely popular activities. There’s even an entire industry located just outside the park’s boundaries dedicated to boating, rafting, and guided expeditions.
In 2019, before the pandemic, 6 million people visited the Grand Canyon. Then, partly due to park closures, that number fell to 2.9 million visitors in 2020. While still below the 2019 number, visitation at Grand Canyon increased noticeably in 2021 to 4.5 million.
14. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, which sits just outside Estes Park, Colorado, and is a 2-hour drive from Denver, amazingly is home to 76 mountains which are all more than 10,000 feet high. The park is also known for its 355 miles of hiking trails. Visitors frequently see bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and other wildlife here.
In 2020, Rocky Mountain had 3.3 million visitors, which was down significantly from 4.7 million in 2019. In 2021, however, visitation nearly rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers. That’s because 4.4 million people visited Rocky Mountain last year.
15. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
New Jersey, Pennsylvania
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area gets its “Water Gap” name because the Delaware River cuts through a large ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in the area. It then runs 200 miles to Delaware Bay and empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Wilmington, Delaware. The area includes 70,000 acres, with more than 150 miles of trails and 40 miles of the Middle Delaware River. The park is known for numerous waterfalls, including Raymondskill Falls, the tallest waterfall in Pennsylvania, as well as Silver Thread and Dingmans Falls.
In 2019, 3.37 million visitors traveled to the Delaware Water Gap, and in 2020, it received nearly 4.1 million visitors. Then, in 2021, that number grew to 4.3 million visitors.
16. Acadia National Park
Acadia is a 47,000-acre recreation area on the Atlantic Coast just about 50 miles from Bangor, Maine. Visitors to the park, which the NPS calls the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” travel to see and enjoy 27 miles of historic motor roads, 158 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of carriage roads. In the summer, the most popular activities are biking, birdwatching, swimming, stargazing, and boating, while the most-popular winter activities are hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Acadia is another national park that set a new attendance record last year. That’s because 4 million people visited Acadia in 2021, up from the 2.7 million visits logged in 2020, and even surpassing the 3.4 million tally logged in 2019.
17. Cape Cod National Seashore
Cape Cod National Seashore has 40 miles of pristine sandy beaches, as well as marshes, ponds, and uplands that support diverse species. Then again, it’s also known for numerous lighthouses, cultural landscapes, and even cranberry bogs. There are plenty of walking and biking trails. Located in eastern Massachusetts on Cape Cod, the national seashore also features numerous swimming beaches and places for boating.
In 2021, Cape Cod National Seashore had 4 million visits, slightly down from 2020 and only down about 78,000 visits from the 2019 total.
18. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is another park that set a new attendance record in 2021. In 2019, a record 3.4 million visitors traveled to Grand Teton. And yet, in 2021, the park set a new attendance record of just under 3.9 million visitors.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Grand Teton, which is home to 310,000 acres of valley floors, mountain meadows, alpine lakes, and stunning peaks of the Teton Range. It’s no surprise then that the park, located south of Yellowstone, is well known for its hiking, backcountry exploring, climbing, and mountaineering opportunities. It’s also noted for its wildlife viewing because visitors frequently see elk, moose, bison, mule deer, and pronghorn.
19. World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial, which was dedicated on May 29, 2004, was commemorated to honor the 16 million U.S. armed forces members who served during World War II, the 405,399 who died, and the millions of people who supported the war effort from home. The memorial, which is adjacent to the Washington Monument in the National Mall, features 24 bronze bas-relief panels that explain America’s experience in World War II. A wall of 4,048 gold stars reminds visitors of the Americans who died during the war.
Last year, 3.7 million people visited the World War II Memorial. Not surprisingly, that number easily tops the 1.9 million visits in 2020 but is still less than the 4.8 million visits logged in 2019.
20. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just north of the Lincoln Memorial, is known for what’s simply referred to as “The Wall,” which holds the names of 58,318 men and women who died in combat, or are listed as missing in action, etched onto its black surface. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial also includes the Three Servicemen, a bronze statue of three servicemen dressed in combat gear looking at The Wall. In a grove of trees nearby, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which honors over 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam War, is a sculpture of three nurses and one wounded soldier.
In 2021, 3.6 million people visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Again, in a familiar pattern, that number is up from the nearly 1.6 million visits tallied last year but is still below 2019’s count of almost 4.6 million visitors.
Be sure to visit the rest of our U.S. National Parks coverage, including: