Last Updated on September 25, 2023
Parks are not exactly new recreational locations, but their popularity skyrocketed following the cabin fever most people suffered due to the pandemic.
In fact, statistics from the National Park Service revealed that there were over 311.9 million visits recorded last year, almost 75 million more than the total visits for 2020. The most visited parks make up a sizable chunk of these recreational visits, so let’s delve into the 15 most visited parks in the United States. What makes them so popular, and what kind of activities can visitors enjoy during their stay?
15. Bryce Canyon (2.35 million)
Bryce Canyon is extremely popular for its hoodoos, which are unique natural rock formations that look like spires. Because of its many beginner-friendly hiking trails, it’s one of the best outdoor family vacation spots. There is even a Junior Ranger program that allows kids of all ages to explore, learn, and receive patches for their activities.
Travelers that want a convenient but immersive experience can take on the 18-mile scenic loop that can top things off with a canyon overlook. This part makes for a wonderful sunset viewing or some stargazing at night.
14. Olympic (2.4 million)
Olympic National Park was essentially started to preserve the forests that were quickly being logged to oblivion as urban structures expanded. That’s why it still has one of the largest protected sections of ancient forestry. The trees stand proudly and intersect with time and history in every branch.
It also has a great alpine region that is lined by the grand Olympic Mountains and glacial peaks that look like they’re straight out of a storybook. Its one-million-acre coverage makes for an extensive and diverse range of ecosystems that appeal to different types of adventurers.
13. Hot Springs (2.6 million)
Hot Springs National Park is a great destination for those that want to enjoy the natural brush in a very relaxed way. Different trails weave through a variety of local flora and fauna, with picnic areas and ranger tours. It is the only national park with a brewery and has the even more unique feat of using thermal spring water as the main ingredient for every drink.
Hot Spring is also relatively accessible as it has many paved trails that make traversal easier for those with some mobility concerns.
12. Grand Teton (2.8 million)
Grand Teton lives up to its name when travelers gaze upon the Teton Range that fills the horizon overlooking the park. The park has the very interesting distinction of being the only one with a functional airport. The Jackson Hole airport has undergone a lot of recent renovations halting operations, but it’s still a pretty cool site to see in the midst of all the natural splendor. For those that just want the full nature experience, the park is known for its many lakes and stunning wildlife.
11. Indiana Dunes (2.8 million)
There are plenty of cheap romantic getaways in Indiana, and both the national and state parks in the area are perfect for outdoorsy couples that want a reason to cuddle up in nature.
The air of romance is strong because of scenic trails perfect for sunset hikes, stunning panoramic views to watch in the morning, and peaceful spots that are great for stargazing. There are multiple beaches for water activities and picnicking, too. Of course, visitors can’t go wrong with the park’s amazing dunes that can be climbed for a more exhilarating experience.
10. Glacier (2.9 million)
If abundance is the code that needs to be cracked, then Glacier National Park has the key. The park has more than 20 glaciers, over 762 lakes, countless herds of mountain goats, one of the longest scenic drives with the Going-to-the-Sun road, and around 350 manmade structures that are registered as Historic Places.
With this much to see and do, Glacier is a dream for explorers both young and old. An article on the positive impact of travel on kids by Love Holidays notes that active engagement with the world around them significantly improves their brain development, which is a large part of why so many activities here cater to families.
9. Cuyahoga Valley (2.91 million)
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a hotbed of travelers from different states. This is largely due to how close it is to tons of affordable family getaways in Ohio, making it the perfect stop to make a trip memorable.
The park is right by the Cuyahoga River, which has been famous for being a pivotal place for the modern steel industry and the surging ‘70s movement to fight the ecological crisis. The entire area is packed with major moments in history, and many tourists find themselves marveling at how the river still carries many remnants of the civil war and the industrial boom decades later.
8. Joshua Tree (3 million)
Joshua Tree is a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, with distinctive trees that envelop every visitor in an unforgettable and enthralling way. Many visitors go here early in the morning while temperatures are still comfortable, and the way the sun streams through the trees makes hikes feel like a trek to another dimension. The trees here are hard to find anywhere else, so you’ll know right away when you spot them.
The park is divided into two deserts that feel remarkably different from each other, so the effort of checking both sections out is worth it.
7. Yellowstone (3.29 million)
What makes Yellowstone National Park so special and timelessly popular is the fact that it rests on a dormant volcano. This rich geological activity makes it ripe with hot springs and geysers that are unmatched by other places.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior’s blog on Yellowstone, half of the world’s hydrothermal features are found at this park. The number goes over a whopping 10,000 that don’t just cover geysers but also travertine terraces, mud pots, and fumaroles. The steam and colors that you see here alone are worth the trip, but there are also majestic herds of bison and over 67 species of mammals that make their home here.
6. Yosemite (3.66 million)
Yosemite in California is the sixth most popular National Park in the United States as of 2023. It spans 750,000 acres famed for its majestic granite cliffs, waterfalls, crystal-clear streams, and giant sequoia groves. Yosemite is the most popular in the summer, so much so that traffic congestion and parking have become a concern.
However, visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter is a great alternative, especially since 95% of its lakes, mountains, and meadows are designated wilderness. And its landscape becomes utterly magical when covered in snow.
5. Acadia (3.9 million)
Because of its location, Acadia National Park is very popular for skiing in the winter and kayaking and whale watching in the summer. With plentiful coast to explore, visitors can just bask in the ambiance or engage in all manner of outdoor activities. Bar Harbor is also a very popular attraction that many people go to for lobster dishes.
4. Rocky Mountain (4.3 million)
Situated in North-Central Colorado is the Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s mostly known for its alpine lakes, towering mountains, and rich wildlife. In 1976, the Rocky Mountain was designated by UNESCO as one of the first World Biosphere Reserves.
It has five geographical zones within the park, namely the moose and big meadows, the alpine region, wilderness, the heart of the park, and waterfalls and backcountry. Because of the variety in these regions, there’s never a shortage of recreational activities.
3. Zion (4.69 million)
While Yosemite’s features are all slate gray, Zion is a reddish color. Its unique canyon walls are made up of Navajo Sandstone that was eroded by the Virgin River over thousands of years. Zion National Park is a fantastic place to go canyoneering. You can navigate its geographies, such as Zion Canyon, the Narrows, and Kolob Canyons, in a variety of technical ways. For the less adventurous, there are also friendlier trails like the Emerald Pools Trail and the Narrows riverside walk.
Make sure to prep yourself if you’re planning to go on a major holiday like Memorial Day, as the park sees huge crowds during these times. The Salt Lake Tribune even reports that Zion National Park considers closing entrance gates for Memorial Day weekend as crowds can get unmanageable.
2. Grand Canyon (4.7 million)
The Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona comes in second place – after all, it is one of the Wonders of the World. With its unmatched geography, the park attracts casual sightseers and extreme adventurers alike. You’ll likely want to go hiking to the peak of Mooney Falls, camping in the Havasupai Reservation, and of course, rafting down the Colorado River. Vehicle-accessible lookout points are also pretty popular, including Point Imperial, Roosevelt Point, and Cape Royal.
1. Great Smoky Mountains (12.9 million)
The Great Smoky Mountains, or the ‘Smokies’, is the most-visited National Park in the US by a long shot with over 12.9 million visitors in a year. There are many reasons why it’s so popular, particularly being one of the most accessible parks in Ohio and a quick eight-hour drive from Cleveland. It’s also along the way of the popular Appalachian Trail.
Huge crowds tend to hit their peak here in the summer months and in October when the fall foliage looks its best. It’s up to you if you want to brace yourself for the crowds or opt to visit on a different month instead.
Any of these popular parks are suitable starting points, as they are equipped to accommodate families and those who aren’t accustomed to navigating the outdoors yet. And for anyone looking to dodge the crowds for some peace and quiet, there are nearby spots that might be less crowded, such as the Little River Canyon National Preserve, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, and many others.