Stir-crazy from the pandemic, visitors poured into US national parks and related sites last year—especially the marquee names. Visitation to the National Park System approached 300 million, rebounding from 2020 levels, but the bulk of those visitors headed to just 25 of the 423 units, the National Park Service (NPS) announced last week.
“It’s wonderful to see so many Americans continuing to find solace and inspiration in these incredible places during the second year of the pandemic,” Park Service Director Chuck Sams said. “We’re happy to see so many visitors returning to iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are hundreds more that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Whatever experience you’re looking for in 2022, national parks are here to discover.”
According to Park Service figures, the system saw 297.1 million recreation visits in 2021—an increase by 60 million over 2020—but 148.2 million of those visitors were counted in just 25 parks. Indeed, visitation records were set at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and a number of other parks.
NPS to visitors: Let’s spread it out
In trying to encourage visitors to expand their travels in the park system, the Park Service suggests visitors “create your own circle of discovery. A visit to Redwoods State and National Parks offers a great opportunity to explore Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.”
If your 2022 trip will take you to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also consider Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, and Obed Wild and Scenic River.
Related: The National Parks Saw Record Crowds in 2021: Where Do We Go From Here?
When in Utah for a visit to the Mighty Five, don’t miss Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument.
If you want to really avoid the crowds and be alone with nature, Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska had only 11,540 recreational visits in 2021. Even by Alaska standards, this place is remote.
As you plan your travels, the Park Service urges you to take advantage of the search feature on the NPS website to search by state, activity, and topic, as you might find a hidden gem or two. Also, download the NPS App from the iOS App Store or Google Play Store to find up-to-date information about all 423 national park sites.
Related: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022
Inside the 2021 visitation report
- Forty-four parks set a record for recreation visits in 2021
- Six parks broke a visitation record they set in 2020
- Blue Ridge Parkway remained the most-visited park in the National Park System
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park set a visitation record in 2021 and passed 14 million recreation visits for the first time
- Five parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Alagnak Wild River (Alaska), Camp Nelson National Monument (Kentucky), Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument (Mississippi), Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada), and World War I Memorial (District of Columbia)
- In 2021, some parks operated with limited capacities or indoor space restrictions but most were open to visitors. Seven parks—all of them historic sites in urban areas—remained closed throughout 2021 due health and safety concerns related to COVID-19
- Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.43 billion in 2019 to 1.36 billion in 2021, a 5 percent decrease
2021 by the numbers
- 297,115,406 recreation visits
- 1,356,657,749 recreation visitor hours
- 12,745,455 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
- Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Eleven parks had more than five million recreation visits—up from seven parks in 2020 and equal to the number of parks in 2019
- 73 parks had more than one million recreation visits (19 percent of reporting parks)—up from 60 parks in 2020 and down from 80 parks in 2019
- 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top eight most-visited parks (2 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
- 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 25 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
25 most visited parks in the National Park System
1. Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.9 million
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.1 million
3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 13.7 million
4. Gateway National Recreation Area: 9.1 million
5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 7.6 million
Related: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022
6. George Washington Memorial Parkway: 6.8 million
7. Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.4 million
8. Lincoln Memorial: 5.8 million
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.5 million
10. Zion National Park: 5 million
11. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: 5 million
12. Yellowstone National Park: 4.9 million
13. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.5 million
14. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.4 million
15. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: 4.3 million
16. Acadia National Park: 4 million
17. Cape Cod National Seashore: 4 million
18. Grand Teton National Park: 3.9 million
19. World War II Memorial: 3.7 million
20. Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 3.6 million
21. Yosemite National Park: 3.3 million
22. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: 3.3 million
23. Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 3.2 million
24. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.2 million
25. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: 3.1 million
Top 10 national parks
Of the 423 sites in the entire system, only 63 of them are actually designated a national park. These are the most visited national parks of 2021:
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.16 million
2. Zion National Park: 5.03 million
3. Yellowstone National Park: 4.86 million
4. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.53 million
5. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.43 million
Related: Why America Needs More National Parks
6. Acadia National Park: 4.06 million
7. Grand Teton National Park: 3.88 million
8. Yosemite National Park: 3.28 million
9. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.17 million
10. Glacier National Park: 3.08 million
Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
—Wallace Stegner, 1983