Crowds at the Grand Canyon

National Park Visits in the US Have Increased 75% in 40 Years

If your family is anything like mine, most of our vacations include at least one National Park. This is actually why I created Parks & Trips – I wanted a place to share the road trip ideas that I’ve accumulated throughout the years.

Vacations to National Parks have always been popular, but have become increasingly more so over the last decade. Some of this is of course how close to a National Park you live, but they’ve also become magnets for the Instagram crowd for their amazingly beautiful vistas. I decided to analyze yearly National Park Service data to see if any trends or interesting visualizations could be found.

The numbers did not disappoint.

Yearly Visitation Numbers Have Steadily Increased

The National Park Service (NPS) only provides visitation data starting in 1979. The park system has been around since 1916.

Since 1976, total recreation visits to our National Parks have increased by 75%. Visits steady rose throughout the 80’s and 90’s until they peaked 1997. That year started a slight decline that only quickened with the 9/11 events of 2001. Starting in 2001 and until 2013, visitation numbers basically held steady. While there was a slight downturn and subsequent recovery, 2001 and 2013 numbers were basically unchanged.

I’ve tried to find the reason for the sudden revival of interest in visiting our National Parks starting in 2014, but I have not been able to. The US economy did enter a 2-year period of success that year, but that would hardly account for such an increased demand to see our nation’s parks.

Significant Years

  • 1989-90 – Acadia’s precipitous drop off was not actually what it seems. That year, administrators decided to change their counting method to improve its estimates.
  • 1990 – The 1990–91 recession severely hampered the ability to travel for many Americans. From July 1990 to March 1991, the US economy shed 1.623 million jobs. Unemployment peaked at 7.8% in July 1992.
  • 2001 – The terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC and Shanksville, PA caused many to forgo travel for the next couple of years. The downturn of visitation numbers actually started a few years prior, but the visitation losses became much more pronounced starting in 2001.
  • 2013-14 – A 16-day government shutdown in the middle of prime vacation time caused 2013’s total visitation numbers to be muted. By 2014 the park system’s numbers rebounded to hit a record at the time. This started a steep increase in visits to all NPS sites, until…
  • 2020 – The COVID pandemic and associated lockdowns caused a steep 25% decline in National Park visitation that lasted only a year. By 2021, people were ready to get back outside, and ended up beating 2019’s record number by almost 1.5% (1,241,073 visits).

It’s Not Only National Parks

According to data released in early 2021 by the NPS, National Parks only account for around 30% of the total visitations across all NPS sites. National Parks—which occupy over 56 million acres across our country—are the largest slice of the pie, but National Recreation Areas (NRAs) are right behind them with 20% of the total visits. National Parkways, National Historical Parks and National Seashores round out the top five.

In fact, the most visited property within the NPS system is The Blue Ridge Parkway. It actually has over 1.7 million more visitors per year than the Smoky Mountains.

RankParkDesignationState(s)Visits
#1Blue Ridge National ParkwayParkwayNC,VA15,948,148
#2Great Smoky Mountains National ParkNational ParkNC,TN14,161,548
#3Golden Gate National Recreation AreaNational Recreation AreaCA13,712,614
#4Gateway National Recreation AreaNational Recreation AreaNY,NJ9,060,807
#5Lake Mead National Recreation AreaNational Recreation AreaAZ,NV7,603,474
Most visited NPS sites in 2021

The Most Visited National Parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Best Months: April, May, June & September
Hours: It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Entrance Fee: Free

Learn More…

Starting in 1979 (the earliest date we have data for, but likely for much longer than this), the Great Smoky Mountains has been the most visited National Park, and it hasn’t been close. We created the racing bar chart below to illustrate how different National Parks have changed in popularity over the years.

In the last 42 years, the Smoky Mountains have never relinquished their top spot. Ranking from second-place on down have changed throughout the years, but this little national park situated between Tennessee and North Carolina has always been the favorite. As of today, its visitation numbers are almost triple that of its closest competitor.

We visited about ten years ago, and I will say, the place is great. The free access certainly helps boost numbers, but so does the fact that it is kind of by itself in the area. A few new National Parks (Gateway Arch, Cuyahoga Valley, New River Gorge) have been added in the general area over the last decade or so, but none are nearly as impressive as the Smokies.

Acadia was in second place until the Grand Canyon overtook it in 1990. The Grand Canyon has held onto that second place spot until it gave way to Yellowstone in 2020 as all National Park visits took a hit. Zion the assumed the silver position last year.

Maybe the most interesting thing in the chart is how 1979 and the rankings of the early 80’s were. While Zion is one of the most popular National Parks today, that was not the case four decades ago. Zion’s visitation numbers were nearly tied with the Badlands, Hot Springs and Mammoth Cave. While two of those three parks are certainly worth visiting (we’re looking at you Hot Springs…), none should have been on the level of Zion. If I had to guess, this probably had something to do with the fact that Zion wasn’t near any major city, and flights weren’t as affordable as they are today.

US National Parks by Visitation & Rank for 2021

RankParkState(s)Visits
#1Great Smoky Mountains National ParkNC,TN14,161,548
#2Zion National ParkUT5,039,835
#3Yellowstone National ParkID,MT,WY4,860,242
#4Grand Canyon National ParkAZ4,532,677
#5Rocky Mountain National ParkCO4,434,848
#6Acadia National ParkME4,069,098
#7Grand Teton National ParkWY3,885,230
#8Yosemite National ParkCA3,287,595
#9Indiana Dunes National ParkIN3,177,210
#10Glacier National ParkMT3,081,656
#11Joshua Tree National ParkCA3,064,400
#12Olympic National ParkWA2,718,925
#13Cuyahoga Valley National ParkOH2,575,275
#14Hot Springs National ParkAR2,162,884
#15Bryce Canyon National ParkUT2,104,600
#16Arches National ParkUT1,806,865
#17New River Gorge National ParkWV1,682,720
#18Mount Rainier National ParkWA1,670,063
#19Shenandoah National ParkVA1,592,312
#20Capitol Reef National ParkUT1,405,353
#21Hawai’i Volcanoes National ParkHI1,262,747
#22Badlands National ParkSD1,224,226
#23Death Valley National ParkCA,NV1,146,551
#24Gateway Arch National ParkMO1,145,081
#25Saguaro National ParkAZ1,079,786
#26Sequoia National ParkCA1,059,548
#27Everglades National ParkFL942,130
#28Canyonlands National ParkUT911,594
#29Haleakalā National ParkHI853,181
#30Theodore Roosevelt National ParkND796,085
#31White Sands National ParkNM782,469
#32Wind Cave National ParkSD709,001
#33Biscayne National ParkFL705,655
#34Crater Lake National ParkOR647,751
#35Great Sand Dunes National ParkCO602,613
#36Petrified Forest National ParkAZ590,334
#37Big Bend National ParkTX581,220
#38Kings Canyon National ParkCA562,918
#39Mesa Verde National ParkCO548,477
#40Mammoth Cave National ParkKY515,774
#41Redwood National ParkCA435,879
#42Kenai Fjords National ParkAK411,782
#43Lassen Volcanic National ParkCA359,635
#44Carlsbad Caverns National ParkNM349,244
#45Pinnacles National ParkCA348,857
#46Virgin Islands National ParkVI323,999
#47Channel Islands National ParkCA319,252
#48Black Canyon of the Gunnison National ParkCO308,910
#49Guadalupe Mountains National ParkTX243,291
#50Voyageurs National ParkMN243,042
#51Denali National ParkAK229,521
#52Congaree National ParkSC215,181
#53Great Basin National ParkNV144,875
#54Glacier Bay National ParkAK89,768
#55Dry Tortugas National ParkFL83,817
#56Wrangell-St. Elias National ParkAK50,189
#57Isle Royale National ParkMI25,844
#58Katmai National ParkAK24,764
#59Lake Clark National ParkAK18,278
#60North Cascades National ParkWA17,855
#61Kobuk Valley National ParkAK11,540
#62National Park of American SamoaAS8,495
#63Gates of the Arctic National ParkAK7,362
data provided by nps.gov