These are the 10 most-visited national parks in the US
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
In the last few years, while travel came to a standstill everywhere else in the wake of the pandemic, America’s national parks got an unexpected boost. Wary of crowded airports and other forms of transportation, families and individuals alike hopped in their cars and journeyed to these beautiful outdoor spaces for their annual vacations instead.
The fresh air, scenic views and wide-open spaces seemed just the place to de-stress and unplug from the world for a while. However, the increase in popularity has in many cases led to a need for more advance planning than in the past, with hotels and campsites filling up and advance reservations becoming a requirement, sometimes even for hikes.
Here are the 10 most-visited national parks last year according to the National Park Service, and why you too should explore the beauty that can be found in our own backyard.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Number of visitors: 14.1 million
Renowned for its staggering biodiversity, epic scale and unrivaled accessibility from major U.S. cities, year after year the Great Smoky Mountains reign as America’s most-visited national park. This gorgeous stretch of wilderness straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and offers something for everyone. Hikers can traverse scenic trails abundant with plant and animal life, adventure seekers can tube down the Pigeon River, and those who like to combine outdoor pursuits with more touristy attractions can enjoy a day at Dollywood.
Zion National Park
Number of visitors: 5 million
Zion National Park is the poster park for increased demand. Over the last decade this majestic, red-rock park located in southwest Utah has seen around a 60% increase in visitors. It’s no wonder. Home to steep sandstone cliffs, narrow canyons and forest trails along the Virgin River, it’s one of the most compelling areas in the country. There are trails suited to both seasoned and novice hikers, and the park’s signature rock formations can be easily accessed via the Canyon Scenic Drive shuttle.
Zion is also known for having some of the best rock climbing in the U.S., which is great news for all the adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies out there. The park’s popularity means that you’ll now need to enter a lottery for one of its most memorable hikes, Angels Landing.
Yellowstone National Park
Number of visitors: 4.9 million
Established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, composed of more than 2 million acres of land. It draws travelers the world over to iconic sights like Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Prismatic Spring. Nature lovers converge on the extensive network of hiking trails that traverses the park’s spectacular topography.
This cherished preserve is best known for its extraordinary geological features, such as geysers and hydrothermal features — at least 10,000 percolating geysers and steaming hot springs, as well as mud pots, fumaroles and travertine terraces. Dubbed the “Serengeti of North America,” the park is also home to the country’s largest herd of wild buffalo, as well as grizzlies, bison, wolves and large flocks of migrating birds.
Grand Canyon National Park
Number of visitors: 4.5 million
Located in Arizona, the sheer size of Grand Canyon National Park is enough to gawk at but its high rims, deep ravines and the winding Colorado River below are bound to leave a lasting impression as well. It’s no surprise that visitors from around the world have been coming to the park for more than a century. The Grand Canyon is larger than Rhode Island and the views from the North Rim and South Rim are simply stunning. Plan on at least a couple of days to explore.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Number of visitors: 4.4 million
With more than 300 miles of hiking trails featuring stunning views of some of the country’s tallest peaks, 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to visit during any season. It’s the highest park in the U.S. and a great place to spot majestic wild elk, especially in mating season. The elevation ranges from less than 8,000 feet to more than 14,000 feet above sea level, with diverse ecosystems to match. Within the park are breathtaking alpine lakes and there’s prime wildlife viewing, especially of elk and bighorn sheep.
Acadia National Park
Number of visitors: 4 million
Acadia National Park, located right off the Atlantic on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, features secluded beaches, long shorelines, inlets, bays, forests, mountains, lakes and ponds. On top of the plethora of natural features and ecosystems you’ll find here, Acadia’s dark skies are perfect for viewing stunning starry nights.
Grand Teton National Park
Number of visitors: 3.9 million
This national park is located just outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an area especially popular during the winter when ski fever takes over the region. The Tetons are an outdoor lovers paradise, known for mountaineering, hiking and camping as well as kayaking and canoeing during the summer. Nothing beats escaping the madness of the ski resorts and snowshoeing or cross-country skiing your way through this beautiful national park when the snow has just fallen.
Yosemite National Park
Number of visitors: 3.3 million
Yosemite, located in California’s scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains, is known for its towering ancient sequoias, epic hiking, abundant wildlife and beautiful vistas. What makes Yosemite so appealing (and busy) is that its signature features are easily accessible and available pretty much year-round.
The park’s legendary icons will be familiar, even to those who have never visited: Yosemite Falls (North America’s tallest waterfall), the granite monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan, and the breathtaking 650-foot Bridalveil waterfall.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Number of visitors: 3.2 million
Located in Indiana on the south shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes became America’s 61st national park in 2019. The calling card is the 15,000-acre park’s diversity of landscapes – woods, dunes, prairies and wetlands. Shaped by glaciers, the dunes rise as high as 192 feet, and some are open for hiking. Indiana Dunes is a birdwatchers paradise with more than 350 confirmed species. There’s also opportunity to swim in the lake and play on the beach.
Joshua Tree National Park
Number of visitors: 3 million
The paradigm for a North American desert landscape, the hauntingly beautiful Joshua Tree National Park preserves vast stands of spiny yucca trees, desert sands, fantastical rock formations and Native American artifacts that span 5,000 years of human history. Spring and fall see the most visitors, with daytime temperatures in the low 70s. The park has become especially popular with experienced and novice rock climbers who scale its boulders, as well as stargazers drawn to the brilliant clear skies of this designated Dark Sky Park.
Featured photo by Shutterstock.
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