National parks are among the United State’s greatest treasures. Indeed, there are more than 400 national park sites in the U.S., including those in American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
It isn’t just U.S. citizens who visit those parks either. Every year, people travel from around the world to visit units managed by the National Park Service (NPS). In fact, in 2021 alone, 297 million people visited U.S. national parks, according to the NPS. What’s more, since the NPS began tracking visits in 1904, just under 15.4 billion people visited a national park.
Interestingly, while there are 423 parks in the National Park System, not all of them are parks like Yosemite National Park or Yellowstone. That’s because the NPS also manages national preserves, monuments, memorials, historic sites, seashores, battlefield parks, recreation areas, and parkways.
National recreation areas, by the way, 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 locations in the National Park System. Furthermore, the two most-visited national parks of all time aren’t technically parks.
Keep reading to learn more about the two most-visited places in the National Park System.
Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina, Virginia
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds for 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains, is often called “America’s Favorite Drive.” The area surrounding the actual road includes eight campgrounds, 369 miles of hiking trails, 14 designated picnic areas with tables, and numerous scenic overlooks 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, according to the NPS. Amazingly, since 1941, when the NPS first began logging visits for the area, Blue Ridge Parkway has received more than 947.7 million visits. That makes it the all-time most visited national park, according to Nexstar Media Wire.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers what can only be called “spectacular” views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but there’s much more to the area. 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 2021, 13.7 million people visited Golden Gate, the NPS explains.
It’s interesting to note, however, that Golden Gate was established by Congress in 1972, and opened to the public in 1973. Since then, more than 682 million people have visited Golden Gate. So, even though it is a relatively young park unit, it is the all-time second-most visited national park unit, according to Nexstar’s analysis.
Other Popular Units
It isn’t really surprising that the third most-popular unit of the NPS is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nexstar notes. It is, after all, just a relatively short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Great Smoky.
While there, 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.
Since 1931, Great Smoky has had 583.5 million visitors, according to the NPS. In 2021 alone, more than 14 million people visited the national park.
The next all-time most visited national park units are Natchez Trace Parkway, which has seen more than 474.6 million visitors since 1953, according to the NPS, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which has had more than 450 million visitors since 1937, according to the NPS, Nexstar notes.
Finally, if you’re curious about the all-time most-visited national parks after Great Smoky, Grand Canyon National Park ranks second with 231.5 million visits since it was established, according to the NPS. After that, Yosemite National Park has received 208.7 million visits since it was established, followed by Rocky Mountain National Park, which has had 201.5 million visits in its history, Nexstar notes.
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