Which National Park to Visit Based on Your Academic Interests

Are you ready? Whether you want to explore local places or plan a road trip, you’ll find a national park to suit your academic interests.

Summer is the perfect time to go camping and hiking in the great outdoors. There’s no better place to enjoy the outdoors than at one of the many national parks. But there are so many national parks out there that it can be very difficult to choose which one to visit.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could always go with the national park easiest to get to, but even then, it can still be hard to decide. Let your intellectual interests help you!

Here are some recommendations on what national park to go to—based on your college major or the academic pursuit most aligned to your interests. For some of us, it’s a long stretch into the distant past.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Biology: Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology: Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a world-renowned showplace of geology.

Geologic studies in the park began with the work of John Strong Newberry in 1858, and continue today. Grand Canyon’s excellent display of layered rock is invaluable in unraveling the region’s geologic history. Extensive carving of the plateaus allows for the detailed study of the Earth’s movements. Processes of stream erosion are also easily seen and studied.

The Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon into four plateaus of the Colorado Plateau Province. The Province is a large area in the Southwest characterized by nearly horizontal sedimentary rocks lifted 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archaeology: Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its Native American sites. With villages built into the cliffside and rocks painted with petroglyphs, it’s a place that has a strong connection to the people of the past.

What else would an archaeology major want in a national park? The visitor center also has the park’s museum and research collection—so there’s an added bonus.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Art: Petrified Forest

This national park is a great fit for a student of art. The part that should be most appealing to those interested in art isn’t the tree stumps preserved as stone, which the park is named for, but the Painted Desert.

Being surrounded by something so magnificently “painted” should make an artist feel right at home. In all seriousness, though, this national park is a beautiful and strange landscape that looks very little like anywhere else. If you want something new to draw or paint, this park might be the muse you’re looking for.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of where to go to begin discovering what the national parks have to offer. No matter what national park you choose to visit, you’ll be met with stunning sights and wonderful nature. You can’t go wrong with any of the national parks, so hopefully, this list has helped you choose.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Winding through the heart of the Great Smokies is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country and world to learn, practice and play in the whitewater.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the south end of the Park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, the super-cool hipster community of the south, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the street. And above all, this park is very beautiful. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

When it was first officially designated as a national park back in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains instantly became the premier outdoor playground in the eastern United States. Covering more than 522,000 acres of prime wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is home to a stunning array of wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and some of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A subset of the Appalachian Mountain Range, the Smokies feature seemingly endless scenic vistas which have helped make them one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Its breathtaking beauty has also made the park incredibly popular drawing more than 12 million visitors annually. To put things into perspective, that’s more than twice as many as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.

But don’t let those large visitation numbers deter you; there are still plenty of places to escape the crowds and find solitude inside the park. Whether you’re looking to take an amazing hike, set up camp at a remote location, or go on a beautiful drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered. This is everything you need to know before you go.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you would expect in an outdoor setting like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are many things to see and do. Visitors enjoy spotting wildlife, taking photos of the mountain landscapes, exploring historic buildings, and just soaking up the sights and sounds of the Smokies. Wildflower-covered meadows make excellent spots for a picnic lunch while the park’s scenic byways make excellent—if challenging—cycling routes as well.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other popular activities inside the park include fishing for trout and bass, horseback riding on many of the trails, and camping in one of the designated campsites. If you’re looking to pitch your tent or park you’re RV, the park has numerous places where you can do just that.

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. It’s kind of a driving safari as is the entire park.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. And during the off-season, you can actually capture an unobstructed shot of the road in the most visited U.S. National Park. Unbelievable!

It’s easy to lose an entire day or many days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window and surpassing views of wildlife, vistas, valleys, rivers, and roads. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains—there seem to be millions and billions and trillions of trees. It’s an odd feeling, being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees.

Hiking Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two popular activities in the park are hiking and backpacking. With more than 850 miles of trail to explore, visitors can spend weeks wandering the backcountry without ever walking on the same path twice. Some routes wander high along the mountain ridges, providing outstanding views as they go. Others meander past open meadows, through thick forests, and around towering waterfalls. Some are short and easy while others are long and difficult but each is unique and satisfying.

Hiking Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the best hikes in the park include the 2.7-mile walk to Rainbow Falls which is short but challenging and rewards travelers with stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall. The 4-mile long Chimney Tops Trail starts steep but provides some of the best views around while the trek to Alum Cave meanders through hardwood forest and under a stone arch on its way to a towering peak.

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 522,419 acres

Date Established: June 15, 1934

Location: Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a subsection of the Appalachian Mountains

Park Elevation: 876 feet-6,643 feet

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name:  The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Iconic site in the park: The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day.   

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Your Visit: The busiest time in the park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. To avoid large crowds and potential traffic jams, plan your visit for other times of the year. The weather is generally mild and the landscapes are majestic in all four seasons.

Autumn is an especially great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks especially on weekends and the changing color of the leaves is spectacular.

Entrance into the park is free all year round.

How to Get There: There are three entry points to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with the main entrance located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors will take Interstate Highway I-40 to Exit 407, turning south on TN-60. From there, continue to US-441, which heads straight into the park. Alternative entrances can be found in Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the park.

More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

Every U.S. National Park Ranked

Every single national park is worth visiting!

Good morning. Sending Virtual Raspberry Chardonnay Sonic Slushies to my readers in the Southwest where things are getting punishingly hot. 

  • 40 million people will experience temps of 100 degrees F or more in the coming days.
  • The low in Phoenix Tuesday night was 91 degrees. The low! Was 91!
  • Salt Lake City tied its all-time record at 107.
  • And even Palm Springs issued an excessive heat warning with a temp of 117 degrees.

But hey, look on the bright side. You could be a Diamondback fan. Losing 20 consecutive road trip games! Which must be some kind of record?

Keep in mind, it’s almost impossible to say that one is better than the next—there’s truly something special about each one of the national parks.

Did I rank the parks according to their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. I ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.

When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back—every single national park is worth visiting!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Visitors to Mesa Verde can retrace the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans who once lived in the park’s magnificent cliff dwellings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the U.S. with more than 4,500 found within its boundaries including Cliff Palace which contains 150 rooms.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Step back in time at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Steep canyon walls cradle hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins. A Navajo Indian community still inhabits the canyon floor herding sheep during the summer. Two self-guided drives follow the rims of the canyon. At the end of the South Rim Drive, take in the sights from the popular Spider Rock overlook featuring the park’s signature geological formation.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

A park that will please history buffs as well as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Water and wind over millions of years have carved the plateau into the park’s distinctive red rock pillars, called hoodoos, into the park’s series of natural amphitheaters. Bryce Canyon National Park awes visitors with spectacular geological formations and brilliant colors.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Many come to the southwest to visit the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Brilliant colors and unforgettable panoramas make it one of the most popular attractions in the U.S. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Discover the Spirit of Adventure in National Parks of Eastern U.S.

Explore the wild terrain of the Eastern U.S. with these stunning national parks

When one envisions a U.S National Park, one thought may take them west to Joshua Tree in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, or Arches in Utah. Those three are among the most iconic national parks in the United States but one does not need to travel across the country to observe the natural beauty, geological features, and unique ecosystems or to experience the numerous recreational opportunities a national park offers.

The mainland of the eastern United States features only 10 of the 63 national parks in the country but wherever a person might live east of the Mississippi River there is a park within a reasonable drive.

Continue reading to learn about the history and unique features of the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Congaree, and New River Gorge. Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, and Indiana Dunes are on my bucket list.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At 522,419 acres, the Smokies are among the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, the park features some of the highest mountains in eastern North America, including Clingmans Dome which at 6,643 feet is the highest point in the park, in Tennessee, and along the 2,192-mile Appalachian Trail. Chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt six years later, Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States and saw 12,095,720 recreational visits in 2020. The park is nearly 95 percent forested and more than 187,000 acres have been deemed “old growth forest” with many trees predating European settlement of the area.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has a large black bear population of around 1,500. Black bears inhabit all elevations within the park and while seeing a bear is exciting it is important to remember these bears are wild animals that can behave unpredictably. Willfully approaching within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear is illegal. Visitors should also keep watch for some of the more than 200 species of birds in the park including the black vulture, pileated woodpecker, and red-tailed hawk. Fishing is permitted year-round in the park, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass being among the most sought-after quarry.

Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic attractions in the park include Cades Cove, an isolated valley that was home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. Cades Cove still has a number of preserved log cabins, barns, and churches.

With 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads, the Smokies are a great place for hikers. Bicyclists can travel on most roads within the park but due to the steep terrain, narrow road surfaces, and heavy automobile traffic, many roads are not well-suited for safe and enjoyable bike riding. A notable exception is the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road which provides bicyclists with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and touring 19th century homesites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations in the park. Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are open year-round. All other campgrounds are open on a seasonal basis. Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical or water hookups in the park. Dump stations with potable water are located at Cades Cove, Cosby, Deep Creek, Look Rock, and Smokemont campgrounds. In addition, there is a dump station located across the road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, approximately six miles from Elkmont Campground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park was established almost 35 years after a freshman Virginia congressman named Henry D. Flood first introduced legislation to create a national park in the Appalachian Mountains. The 199,000-acre park located in Virginia was certainly worth the wait and today sees approximately 1.26 million visitors annually. Among Shenandoah’s most popular attractions is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the national park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A can’t-miss spot on Skyline Drive is Mary’s Rock Tunnel, a 610-foot long tunnel that was created by blasting through Mary’s Rock Mountain.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also home to dozens of waterfalls with the highest being 93 feet high and located near the Hogback Overlook. Hikers who traverse through the 9.5-mile White Oak Canyon Trail will have an opportunity to view six waterfalls including one that is 86 feet high.

The 5.8-mile Cedar Run Falls Trail is a tough but rewarding hike that has elevation gains of 1,000 feet per mile. Hikers will see several waterfalls and plenty of wildlife along the way. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds including the barred owl, red-tailed hawk, and Carolina chickadee.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All 70 streams within Shenandoah National Park are open for catch-and-release fishing. Thirty-two species of fish have been found in the park including trout and bluehead chub. Shenandoah also features more than 1,400 species of plants with cardinal flowers, marsh willow herb, and blue flag iris among the more common.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No trip to the park would be complete without taking in the beauty of Hawksbill Mountain on the border between Madison and Page counties. With an elevation of 4,050 feet, Hawksbill is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah and in both Madison and Page counties.

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with five campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah. All campgrounds are open seasonally from early spring until late fall. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Backcountry camping is also available.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Located in Richland County, South Carolina, Congaree encompasses more than 26,000 acres and preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. In addition to being immersed in trees, visitors can canoe, hike, fish, and camp in Congaree which was designated as a national park in 2003.

Canoeing on Cedar Creek is a great way to experience Congaree. The waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. There are ample opportunities to spot wildlife including river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and alligators.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether looking for a short hike or a longer trek into the backcountry, there are a number of trails for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on the trail, visitors may experience oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or a plethora of old-growth trees. Guests with a South Carolina fishing license may cast their line in the park and fish for bluegill, bowfin, catfish, bass, and sunfish among others.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree has two designated campgrounds—Longleaf and Bluff—with guests being permitted to stay for up to 14 days. The Longleaf campground which has 10 individual and four group camping sites is located adjacent to the park entrance. The Bluff campground has six individual campsites and it located on the Bluff Trail approximately one mile from Longleaf campground. Only tents are allowed in the campgrounds. However, the South Carolina State Park Service has a number of state parks in the region that can accommodate RVs. An important note to remember about Congaree is that no roads travel through the park and all activities require a certain amount of walking or canoeing.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia “almost heaven” in “Country Roads”. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it has one more notch on its belt with the designation of New River Gorge as America’s 63rd national park.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. The New River has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world. White-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles are among the wildlife regularly spotted here. The park provides visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the cultural history of the area and visit some of the historic sites within the park. There are many possibilities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience.

If you’re a big fan of whitewater rafting or climbing, you’re probably already familiar with the New. The canyon has 53 miles of whitewater—considered some of the best in the country—while climbers enjoy 1,500 routes on sandstone walls throughout the gorge. There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliff line on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread-out holds and spread-out bolts.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm.

—William O. Douglas, Justice, United States Supreme Court

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

Springtime in the Smokies

Springtime in the Smoky Mountains is a nature lover’s paradise

Spring is one of the most popular times to visit Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and it’s easy to see why. When the last traces of winter melt away the Smokies offer idyllic weather, beautiful greenery, and a variety of fun seasonal events and activities.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in America with over 11 million visitors a year. That is more than the number of visits of the next two national parks combined.

From photo-worthy vistas to outdoor recreation and everything in between, this most-visited national park offers something for everyone.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any season is a good one to visit the Smokies but spring is a favorite. Autumn is indeed beautiful but the roads and trails are crowded. In spring, the trees are budding and the wildflowers are popping through the ground at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On a springtime visit you’ll enjoy seeing the trees bud and blossom and the wildflowers. No place this size matches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s variety of plant and animal species. Here are more tree species than in Northern Europe, 1,500 flowering plants, over 200 species of birds, and 60 of mammals.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a world-renowned preserve of wildflower diversity—over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants are found in the park, more than in any other North American national park. In fact, the park is sometimes referred to as the “Wildflower National Park.” From the earliest hepaticas and spring-beauties in the late winter to the last asters in the late fall, blooming flowers can be found year-round in the park Trilliums of many varieties, violets, wild columbine, Fire Pink, Showy Orchis, Dutchman’s Britches, Squirrel Corn, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are just a few of the wildflowers that make their appearance in the spring.

A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals begins the yearly show. Ephemerals are so named because they appear above ground only in late winter and early spring, then flower, fruit, and die back within a short two month period. They emerge from February through April, and are gone (dormant) by late May or June.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This remarkable group of plants is adapted to the rhythm of the overstory trees. Ephemerals appear before deciduous trees leaf out when full sunlight is streaming to the forest floor. This is also a time when soil moisture is high and soil nutrients are plentiful due to the decomposition of tree leaves that fell the previous autumn.

The ephemerals exploit these conditions—they flower, fruit, and their above-ground parts decay before summer gets into full swing. The peak of spring wildflower blooming usually occurs in mid-April to early May at lower elevations in the park, and a few weeks later on the highest peaks.

Clingsman Dome,Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring ephemerals include flowers such as trillium (the park has 10 different species), lady slipper orchids, showy orchis, crested dwarf iris, fire pink, columbine, bleeding heart, phacelia, jack-in-the-pulpit, little brown jugs, and violets, to name just a few.

In summer the display continues with brilliant red cardinal flowers, pink turtleheads, Turk’s cap lily, small purple-fringed orchids, bee-balm, butterfly-weed, black-eyed susans, jewel weed, and many others.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By late summer and through the fall, goldenrod, wide-leaved sunflowers, tall ironweed, mountain gentian, monk’s hood, coneflowers, and numerous varieties of asters begin to bloom. Purple umbels of sweet Joe-Pye-weed stretch towards the sky and can reach heights of ten feet.

Trees and shrubs bloom throughout the year too. From February through April the flowers of red maples paint the mountains with a wash of brilliant red. Showy trees such as serviceberry, silverbell, flowering dogwood, redbud, Fraser magnolia, and tuliptree soon follow. Later in summer sourwood, a tree prized for the honey that bees produce from its small bell-shaped, white flowers, begins to bloom. The year ends with the yellow flowers of witch-hazel, which blooms from October through January.

Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Closer to the ground on shrubs, the small, bright yellow blossoms of spicebush begin to bloom in February and are soon joined by sweetshrub, dog-hobble, and flame azalea. The park is famous for its displays mountain laurel, rhododendron, and flame azaleas. The lovely pink and white flowers of mountain laurel bloom in early May through June.

Rhododendrons in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catawba rhododendron, which lives primarily at elevations above 3,500 feet, reaches its peak of bloom in June. Rosebay rhododendron is in bloom at the lower elevations in June and at mid-elevations during July. Flame azaleas bloom at the low and mid-elevations in April and May. On Gregory Bald the colorful display peaks in late June or early July. On Andrews Bald the peak is usually in early July.

Hiking Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get ready for the 71st annual Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Every year, you can be a part of the event and experience guided hikes that explore all sorts of nature in the national park—wildflowers, wildlife, culture, history, and more. This year’s Wildflower Pilgrimage will be May 8th- 16th and virtual. It’s a great way to see the Smoky Mountains, learn a little bit more about the history of the area and, of course, see all of the beautiful Smoky Mountain spring wildflowers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020

While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:

  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
  • 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
  • Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
  • Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
  • Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
  • Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
  • Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 by the numbers

  • 237,064,332 recreation visits
  • 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours
  • 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits—down from 11 parks in 2019
  • 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15 percent of reporting parks)—down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30 percent of National Parks)
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5 percent of all parks in the National Park System
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites

Blue Ridge Parkway (14,099,485)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (12,400,045)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Gateway National Recreation Area (8,404,728)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8,016,510)

George Washington Memorial Parkway (6,237,391)

Natchez Trace Parkway (6,124,808)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4,888,436)

Cape Cod National Seashore (4,083,505)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,068,529)

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Yellowstone National Park (3,806,306)

Zion National Park (3,591,254)

Rocky Mountain National Park (3,305,199)

Grand Teton National Park (3,289,638 million)

Grand Canyon National Park (2,897,098)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,755,628)

Acadia National Park (2,669,034)

Olympic National Park (2,499,177)

Joshua Tree National Park (2,399,542)

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit lesser-known national parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

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

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August

Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.

We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.

Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.

Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.

In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

The Top 10 National Parks to Discover this Spring

Spring is the best time to visit some of America’s most beautiful national parks

Deserts ablaze with lupine and paintbrush, rivers surging with snowmelt, high meadows lush with columbine and alpine sunflower, elk and deer venturing out of their winter hideaways with new babies in tow are a few of the many reasons to make a springtime pilgrimage to one—or many—of America’s national parks. Here we highlight 10 national parks that are particularly special to visit this spring.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Spring is the perfect time to head to the national parks. One park that’s awesome in spring is Sequoia, home to some of the largest trees in the world. It offers a beautiful forest where you can camp, hike, and explore all the awesome nature around. It is home to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume which you can take a short hike see along with several other cool tree stops along the way.

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August. Sequoia is definitely one not to be missed in spring!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

For many, springtime offers an opportunity for a first trip of the year. And if you are just getting back out there, the last thing you want is a crowded park. This spring, avoid the crowds and visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a unique and exciting adventure.  This park allows visitors to explore a world over 700 feet below the earth’s surface. Famous for protecting the third and seventh largest cave chambers in the world, Carlsbad Caverns holds a total of 116 caves—offers rooms of limestone, stalagmites, stalactites, cave pearls, and underground lakes.

Spring is a great time to visit Carlsbad Caverns as the bat population makes its presence known. Seventeen species of bats live in the park and many are present in April and May including Mexican Free-tailed Bats who emerge from caves in groups flying up and counter-clockwise for three hours. It’s an incredible sight.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Temperatures start to rise, flowers begin to bloom, and as the snow melts, hikers across the country begin to plan their first hikes of the season. Look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With over 800 miles of trails, the park offers beauty everywhere you look. Trails are available for walking, hiking, and mountain biking and lead to other fun activities like fishing and camping. During spring, trails are surrounded by blooming wildflowers—over 1,660 varieties, more than any other national park in North America. A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals appear in early spring, flower, bear fruit, and die within a short two-month period. These flowers include trilliums, orchids, violets, and iris and will bloom during March and April.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is at its best in spring as there is a minimal chance of thunderstorms that are present in the other seasons. The beauty of this spot is unparalleled as it has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world. Hoodoos are the beautiful, irregular, colorful rock columns you’ll see throughout the park. The main viewpoints are Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point.

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Few national parks strut their stuff as showily as Joshua Tree in spring when the park’s namesake trees send their enormous, space-age blossoms reaching for the sky. Those aren’t the only blooms, of course—visitors pour into the park to see the desert sands awash with colors so bright you’ll have trouble putting away your camera to explore.

But explore you must, because Joshua Tree’s otherworldly rock formations must be seen to be believed; there’s a reason Hollywood directors have set everything from westerns to sci-fi classics in these eerie landscapes. Joshua Tree can be accessed from two directions: Coachella Valley to the south and from the adjacent towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree to the north.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Photographers know to visit Arches National Park in spring when the ochre and vermillion formations of eroded sandstone appear more vivid by the surrounding greenery. Temperature is another reason to visit now as summer can be brutal in the southern Utah desert with temperatures heading north of 100 degrees starting in late May.

At just 80,000 acres, Arches is one of the most manageable of the southwestern red rock parks with its most popular features such as Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and the Windows Section accessible from the park’s main road. Temperatures in the spring are pleasant enough to make longer hikes like the 2-mile out-and-back to the rock towers of Park Avenue and the 7.2 Devils Garden Primitive Loop perfectly comfortable. For those who can’t get enough of red rock country, Canyonlands National Park, Arches’ larger but less-visited sister is just 40 minutes south of Moab.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In Shenandoah National Park the spring bloom is not limited to the slopes and meadows but paints the forests with watercolors as well with azaleas, trilliums, and wild geraniums blanketing the forest floor. The earliest blooms tend to be along the lower-elevation valleys of the Rose, South, and Hughes rivers and along Mill Prong while May is peak time for pink azaleas and June sees the arrival of mountain laurel. Further south, head for Linville Falls or hike the Linville Gorge Trail to fully immerse yourself in nature’s rhododendron garden.

The spring bird migration brings its fans looking for scarlet tanagers, cerulean warblers, and other colorful transients along Pocosin Trail. The Passamaquoddy Trail and Lewis Mountain are other popular spots for flowers, birds, and wildlife.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Spring is waterfall season in Zion when the Virgin River roars through the canyon and seasonal tributaries tumble down the canyon walls. The famed Emerald Pools are a wonder at any time of year but in spring the misty 110 foot cascade widens into a curtain of water that catches the light in a halo of rainbows. More waterfalls plunge from the 1,000-foot walls of Parunuweap Canyon.

Hiking is ideal this time of year when temperatures are in the 70s and the ochre and crimson cliffs are particularly photogenic against the bright green foliage of freshly green cottonwoods.

Just north of St. George, don’t miss the lava flows and Snow Canyon State Park where you’ll see the desert painted with wildflowers like desert chickweed, buttercup, and sand verbena.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Yellowstone isn’t the only national park where you can watch baby bison wobble along on their spindly new legs; Theodore Roosevelt National Park is bison central, charged with the mission to protect one of America’s most beloved—and most hunted—species from going extinct.

In addition to bison and other wildlife sightings the park celebrates all aspects of prairie life including the prairie crocus, abundant across these high plains just after snowmelt. And don’t forget the prairie dog—these highly social animals have their own gigantic “town” sprawling across acres of the park where they pop from their burrows to look curiously at visitors and call to their neighbors with dog-like barks. Late May and early June is when prairie dog babies first come out to play in the springtime sun.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

The cactus that gives Saguaro National Park its name has long been recognized as a symbol of American West but these giant plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. They are more than massive cacti but also shelters and reserves of water for much of the wildlife that calls this park home. And what season do these giant centerpieces bloom? You guessed it: spring!

Springtime brings with it the beauty of flowers. Deserts and saguaro forests burst with colors from blooming wildflowers like the gold Mexican poppy, red penstemons, and desert marigolds. Even trees, shrubs, and other cacti are in bloom including creosote bushes, chollas, and hedgehogs.

Bottom line

You’ll find plenty of the three W’s—wildflowers, wildlife, and water—when you visit these national parks in spring.

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake