As COVID-19 restrictions loosened from the height of the pandemic in 2020, Americans eagerly hit the road in 2021 to take in the beauty of one of the nation’s 423 national parks located in the U.S. and its territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.
The National Park Service counted 297 million recreational trips to its sites in 2021, an increase of 25.3% or 60 million visits, from the previous year. The agency attributes the rise to a fewer COVID-19 protocols that opened the parks to more visitors. However, NPS points out that the number of visitations has yet to fully recover from pre-pandemic levels. (Not interested in parks? Here are the strangest tourist attraction in every state.)
When they decide to go to a national park, Americans certainly have plenty of beautiful and historic options from which to choose. Of the 423 sites, only 63 have National Park designations — and some of these parks prove to be more popular than others.
To determine the most visited national parks, 24/7 Tempo reviewed statistics from the NPS’s Annual Park Ranking for Recreation Visits in 2021, listing all 63 national parks in order of recreational visits. NPS defines a recreation visit as one done purely to enjoy the park. A school trip, therefore, would be considered a recreation visit. Visits to the 63 national parks totaled about 92 million in 2021. The percentage of visits to each park is of that total.
Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains topped out as the most visited park by a large margin. Its 14 million million visitors gazed at its rolling mountains and abundant plant and animal life.
Although the Great Smoky Mountains is located in the South, the Western U.S. placed four parks in the top five. Second place Zion National Park in Utah had more than 5 million visitors. Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado each welcomed more than 4 million visitors in 2021.
If you’re looking for a national park a little less crowded, try the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. It had 7,362 visitors. But those who went saw a virtually unchanged landscape. Just be prepared to make your own way without any trails or roads if you go visit. Here are the national sites no one wants to visit anymore.
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