The Top 10 Most-Visited National Parks
In 1904, twelve years before the National Park Service Organic Act was signed and the National Parks Service was officially created, American park rangers began documenting the number of visitors to the national parks. Then, 120,000 people came through the gates of the 11 nationally designated lands.
In just over a century, that number has skyrocketed. In 2015, more than 307 million people visited the service's 410 sites, which include 59 parks as well as historic sites, parkways, lakeshores, memorials, and recreation areas. It was a record-breaking year for national parks, and attendance was up 4.9 percent over the previous year's total.
But where do visitors tend to flock? Read on for the most-visited national parks. Who knows, you may even feel inspired to head on a outdoorsy vacation to celebrate the National Park Service's 100th anniversary!
No. 10 Glacier National Park
If someone tells you to take a hike, head directly to Montana’s Glacier National Park where 700 miles of trails wind through the forest-covered mountains. Approximately 2.3 million outdoor enthusiasts visited the park last year and undoubtedly many brought their cameras along, as Glacier is known as a photographer’s paradise (their Instagram feed is a must-follow).
In winter, visitors can cross-country ski over the park’s many trails and, if they’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Summers are filled with fishing enthusiasts making the most of the park's numerous lakes as no licenses are necessary. Other popular activities include taking a boat cruise across Lake McDonald and driving (or biking) the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects the east and west sides of the park.
For accomodations, camping options abound, or check into the Many Glacier Hotel on the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake. Looking for an international adventure? Pack your passport and head to the Canadian side of the park to check into Purcell Mountain Lodge, one of the best high-altitude hotels in the world.
No. 9 Acadia National Park
Tucked into Maine’s rugged coastline, Acadia National Park has helped the state earn its title as America’s Vacationland. Over 2.8 million visitors poured onto Mount Desert Island, or the two smaller neighboring islands that make up the state’s only national park, to walk among the towering pine trees, hike Cadillac Mountain, bike along the carriage roads, or simply watch the waves crash onto the rocky beach beneath the lighthouses.
To visit the park, land at the nearby Hancock County Airport, or drive up from Boston or Portland, hopping between lobster shacks in the coastal towns along Route 1. There’s no lodging within the park itself, so plan to camp (and be sure to catch the sunrise), or book a hotel on the nearby Schoodic Peninsula or in Bar Harbor.
No. 8 Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park isn’t the only reason for outdoor lovers to flock to Wyoming’s wild western border—the mountains of the Grand Teton National Park have their own draw as well. Last year, 3,149,921 visitors hiked, floated, biked, and drove through the destination taking in the impressive scenery, dramatic vistas, and rich cultural history of the landmark that was established by John D. Rockefeller.
Hike through Paintbrush Canyon to Holly Lake, float along the Snake River, canoe across String Lake, or take in some of America’s best bird watching as you hike along the park’s 200 miles of trails.
There are plenty of places to camp, but if you think that the great outdoors are made even greater with the addition of a hot shower and huckleberry pancakes, book a room at the Jenny Lake Lodge.
No. 7 Olympic National Park
Fly to Seattle and take the ferry to the Olympic National Park to bask in the lush, damp greenery of the Olympic National Forest. Last year the park saw 3,263,761 visitors who spent their days winding along Hurricane Ridge, kayaking on the Elwha river, hiking, biking, or climbing, and then unwinding in the mineral-rich waters of the natural hot springs at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort.
There’s a lot to see in the park, but save time to visit the nearby lavender farms in the always-sunny town of Sequim.
No. 6 Zion National Park
If you’ve ever wanted to explore a subway tunnel, head straight to Zion National Park. A total of 3,648,846 visitors came to the southwest corner of Utah last year to explore the canyons, red cliffs, waterfalls, and hanging gardens that make up the area.
Zion is an outdoor sport lovers paradise filled with opportunities for rock climbers and canyoneers eager to scale the red slot canyon’s cliffs. Scared of heights? Acrophobes can float down the Virgin River, take a scenic drive along the Kolob Canyons Road, or hike trails like Angels Landing and the Narrows.
Book a historic 1920s cabin at the Zion Lodge and kick back in front of the fireplace or relax on the front porch after a long day hiking (and Instagramming) the Emerald Pools.
For something entirely different, visit Zion when nearby Cedar City hosts the Utah Shakespeare Festival, to couple culture with nature.
No. 5 Yellowstone National Park
Wildlife watching is one of the park's biggest draws with wolves, grizzlies, bison, elk, coyotes, and bald eagles all living in the protected lands. Visitors can also stroll the boardwalks above the steaming thermal pools of the Mammoth Hot Springs, bike along the Old Gardiner Road, cross-country ski, boat on Yellowstone Lake, explore the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and backcountry hike in bear country.
There are plenty of places to camp in the park, like the Bridge Bay Campground, near the park’s Natural Bridge, or opt to stay in one of the area's many historic lodges to fully relax after a long day of exploring.
No. 4 Yosemite National Park
It’s no surprise that Yosemite made the top 10 list with its myriad waterfalls, lakes, and scenic vistas. Whether braving the sheer face of the famed Half Dome, trekking to Bridal Veil falls, kayaking on Mirror Lake, or skiing through Badger Pass, there are plenty of activities for adventure lovers of all stripes.
In spring or fall, visitors can hike into one of the five High Sierra Camps and in winter, skiing sleepovers can be held at the Glacier Point Ski Hut. If you prefer to camp indoors, state in style at The Ahwahnee or, starting this year, visitors can check into the brand-new Rush Creek Lodge, the first new resort in the area in 25 years.
No. 3 Rocky Mountain National Park
For the first time in history, over four million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park in 2015 for activities like hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and some of the best wildlife watching around. Over 60 species of mammals call the park home, including Bighorn, Elk, and Mule Deer, in addition to countless birds and other critters. If you prefer to watch for animals from the inside of your car, the park has plenty of options for drivers, including the sweeping vistas on the Trail Ridge Road, which crests over 12,000 feet.
There are no hotels in the park, so be prepared to camp under the stars for a true backcountry experience. Day visitors looking for a thrill can stay at The Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park (if they dare).
No. 2 Grand Canyon National Park
The painted desertscape of Grand Canyon National Park drew 5.5 million visitors last year. To join the crowds, take a tour by rail or go the DIY route by hiking along one of the many trails that wend through the dry land. While even a picnic lunch would be memorable when surrounded by a six million year old geological wonder, for a truly special occasion, book a table at El Tovar Dining Room overlooking the Canyon’s North Rim.
Stay in style at one of the many of the luxury hotels in nearby Sedona or if you prefer a more rustic place to lay your head, check out the underground digs at Grand Canyon Caverns or Phantom Ranch, the only non-campground place to stay below the Grand Canyon’s rim.
No. 1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park
In 2015, more than 10.7 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which sits on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. And while the Smoky Mountains are beautiful in any season, we recommend going in the springtime, when the flowers are in bloom, or in fall, when the leaves are changing.
Pitch a tent in the woods or hiking along the Appalachian Trail. Or, if you prefer your nature to come with a comfortable bed and a five-star meal, head to Blackberry Farm, a Relais and Chateaux property with on-site gardens and a catalog of outdoor activities ranging from horseback riding and fly-fishing to kayaking and birdwatching. Even though you’re on vacation, wake up early to see the mountains namesake "smoke" when the fog rolls off the range.