15 Best National Parks in the U.S. You Should Visit
Year after year, visitors flock to America's national parks to bask in the country's incredible natural beauty. In 2020, the National Park Service recorded over 237 million visits across sites like the Blue Ridge Parkway — the most popular with over 14 million visits last year — and national parks. From sea to shining sea, the U.S. contains a stunning array of diverse landscapes, from dramatic canyons and vast deserts to snowy mountain peaks and verdant valleys. When it comes to choosing the best national parks in the U.S., we think the visitor numbers speak for themselves.
While all 63 national parks are worth visiting, the top 15 most-visited ones are truly some of the nation's best, with bucket-list destinations like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite making the cut. Of course, if you want to avoid the crowds, you can always check out the least-visited national parks. They offer all of the beauty with a fraction of the visitors, so you have room to roam.
Here are the top 15 most-visited national parks in the U.S.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Number of Visits: 12.1 million
Coming in at the top spot with a whopping 12.1 million visits, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country's most-visited national park. Crossing North Carolina and Tennessee, this park is known for its wildlife, waterfalls, and fog-covered mountains. It's worth visiting year-round for scenic views and outdoor activities like hiking, but the park really shines in autumn, when its trees put on a vibrant display of red, orange, and gold foliage.
2. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Number of Visits: 3.8 million
The world's first national park, Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, and in 2020, it recorded 3.8 million visits. Throughout its 2.2 million acres, visitors can find a range of unique hydrothermal attractions, including Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful geyser, and Grand Prismatic Spring, as well as waterfalls, lakes, and wildlife.
3. Zion National Park, Utah
Number of Visits: 3.6 million
Utah is home to some of the country's best national parks, including Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Canyonlands, but Utah's first — and most popular — national park is Zion National Park. Dramatic cliffs and canyons shape this impressive landscape, and visitors can enjoy hiking, climbing, biking, birding, and stargazing during their time here.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Number of Visits: 3.3 million
Covering 415 mountainous square miles, Rocky Mountain National Park is the fourth most-visited. Here, visitors can spot a variety of wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, moose, bats, and many others (all from a safe distance, of course), and explore the park's many hiking trails. Rocky Mountain National Park also has a number of scenic drives for visitors who want to see the park's alpine forests, wildflower-covered meadows, and more without leaving their cars.
5. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Number of Visitors: 3.3 million
The jagged peaks of the incredible Teton Range tower above Grand Teton National Park, the second Wyoming park to make the list. (Consider visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone in one road trip.) Incredible mountains meet alpine lakes and lush valleys at this national park, where visitors can enjoy mountaineering, hiking, boating, and fishing. Keep an eye out for bison, elk, beavers, moose, and more wildlife when you visit.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Number of Visits: 2.9 million
Often referred to as one of the world's natural wonders, the immense Grand Canyon is a breathtaking sight, so it's no surprise that Grand Canyon National Park is the one of the country's most-visited national parks. Visitors can spend their days here hiking along the canyon's walls, rafting down the Colorado River, taking in the views on a scenic car or train ride, and learning about Native American culture and history.
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Number of Visits: 2.8 million
Located between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers plenty to see and do, including hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, golfing, and fishing. Explore the Towpath Trail following the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal, or hop aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad to watch the scenery (and wildlife like eagles, deer, beavers, and otters) pass by.
8. Acadia National Park, Maine
Number of Visits: 2.7 million
Located on Maine's rocky Atlantic coastline, Acadia National Park saw nearly 2.7 million visitors in 2020. Visitors can explore the park by car on 27 miles of historic motor roads or by foot on 158 miles of hiking trails. Most of the national park is located on Mount Desert Island, where visitors will find the scenic Park Loop Road and picturesque trails perfect for bird-watching just a short distance from the charming town of Bar Harbor.
9. Olympic National Park, Washington
Number of Visits: 2.5 million
Over in the Pacific Northwest, Olympic National Park draws millions of visitors each year. Within its nearly one million acres of park land, visitors will find a number of unique landscapes and ecosystems to explore, like temperate rain forests, a rocky Pacific coastline, and high mountain peaks, including Mount Olympus. Stargazing, hiking, boating, and more are among the park's popular activities.
10. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Number of Visits: 2.4 million
Known for its stunning desert landscape and namesake Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park recorded nearly 2.4 million visits in 2020. Visitors can hike or bike through the unique scenery, go rock climbing or horseback riding, or stay after dark for incredible views of the night sky (Joshua Tree is a designated International Dark Sky Park, so it's the perfect place to go stargazing).
11. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Number of Visits: 2.3 million
Located about an hour from Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park recorded over two million visits in 2020. In its 15,000 acres, visitors will find sandy beaches and 50 miles of trails along dunes, forests, and wetlands.
12. Yosemite National Park, California
Number of Visits: 2.3 million
One of the oldest national parks in the U.S., Yosemite National Park is also one of the most visited. It’s known for the towering granite formations of El Capitan and Half Dome as well as the waterfalls, wildlife, and ancient sequoias that you can find in the park. Spring is the best time to visit to see the waterfalls in their full form, although the park is open year-round. Plan to camp overnight in Yosemite to fully immerse yourself in this incredible park.
13. Glacier National Park, Montana
Number of Visits: 1.7 million
Glaciers, lakes, mountains, and meadows fill the picturesque landscape at Glacier National Park in Montana.The iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road is a must-visit; the road partially closes during the winter due to the weather, but it's typically fully open in June or July, and if you visit during the summer, be sure to keep an eye out for wildflowers.
14. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Number of Visits: 1.7 million
Shenandoah National Park drew over a million visitors to its more than 200,000 acres in 2020. Park highlights include the scenic Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains, and over 500 miles of hiking trails that lead to summits, waterfalls, and more.
15. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Number of Visits: 1.5 million
Known for having the largest concentration of hoodoos (tall, thin columns of rock) on Earth, Bryce Canyon National Park — the second most-visited national park in Utah — offers some truly incredible views. During the day, visitors can drive to the most popular viewpoints or go for a hike along the rim, and come nightfall, it's all about stargazing — Bryce Canyon is also an International Dark Sky Park.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.