Misty mountains, prismatic geysers, idyllic beaches, and towering spires – the national parks across the U.S. is a protected collection of some of the most naturally stunning and geologically diverse places in the world. I’ve been fortunate to visit many of them (24 of 63 and counting!) and love writing about my travels to each one (plus tips on how you can visit.)
In addition to being a writer, I am also a data nerd. As I’ve begun writing more about national parks across the American West (and beyond), I wanted to share some of the interesting stats and facts I’ve discovered. Using the 2020 visitation data (released in February 2021), I built a spreadsheet and crunched the numbers to share the lists of most-visited and least-visited national parks across the country.
The 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2020
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Zion National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Acadia National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
The 10 Least Visited National Parks in 2020
- Gates of the Arctic National Park
- National Park of American Samoa
- Lake Clark National Park
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Isle Royale National Park
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
- North Cascades National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park
- Katmai National Park
These lists might surprise you – or they might not, depending on how much you know about the different parks and how the pandemic affected different parts of the country. In this post, I’ll dive into more detail about the top 10 lists for each category, including the numbers and hypotheses for why some parks lost so much visitation, whereas others stayed the same – and some even saw more visitors! Dive into the data with me to learn about the most visited and least visited national parks!
The 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2020
Everyone wants to know: what are the most-visited national parks?
The answer for 2020? Pretty much the same ones as every other year! Popular parks stayed popular despite the pandemic; I share below which popular parks dropped off the “normal” top 10 list too.
Here’s a chart showing how each of the most visited national parks ranked compared to 2019, so you can get a sense for how the list moved around.
|National Park||2020 Rank||2019 Rank||Change|
|Great Smoky Mountains||1||1||–|
And here’s more detail about each park and their 2019 vs 2020 visitation.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN – 12.1 million
Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in the country – as it has been for decades! This is because it’s one of the national parks closest to major metropolitan areas all along the east coast. Despite a small decrease in visitation in 2020 vs 2019, Great Smoky Mountains still welcomed 12,095,720 people last year. That’s an incredible number – considering how much travel decreased in general.
2. Yellowstone National Park, WY – 3.8 million
Some National Parks are just popular – pandemic be damned! Yellowstone, like Great Smoky Mountains, is one of those parks. There was only a 5% drop in visitation from 2019 to 2020; 3,806,306 million people visited sights like the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful last year. This means that if you’re holding out for a year with fewer crowds, it’s unlikely to happen and now’s the best time to plan a trip.
3. Zion National Park, UT – 3.6 million
Zion National Park – easily one of my favorite national parks – saw more modest decreases; 20% fewer people visited in 2020 compared with 2019. This was a dramatic drop from 4.5 million people to just 3,591,254 – though it undoubtedly didn’t feel much less crowded than usual. Zion is typically one of the top national parks visited every year though, and this reduction didn’t actually affect its final ranking (in fact, it moved up one spot from two years ago!).
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, CO – 3.3 million
I’ll be honest: the list of the most popular national parks surprises me every year. Having visited so many parks myself, I am occasionally surprised to learn that a park I consider “pretty good” is super popular – and Rocky Mountain National Park is one of them. Even though it saw a 29% decrease from 2019 to 2020, RMNP still received 3,305,199 visitors last year! These numbers are undoubtedly aided by the park’s proximity to Denver and other Colorado cities – and Coloradan’s love of the Great Outdoors!
Pro-tip: The other three Colorado national parks – Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison – fall in the middle of the pack, but make a great Colorado national parks road trip together with RMNP.
5. Grand Teton National Park, WY – 3.3 million
Though I’ve never been to either, I consider Grand Teton National Park the “little sister” of Yellowstone – so it’s no surprise to me that both consistently make the top 10 list for most-visited national parks. Grand Teton actually moved up the list in 2020, due to the visitation drops at some other parks; like Yellowstone it had only a 3% drop from 3.4 million people in 2019 to 3.3 million (3,289,638) visitors last year.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ – 2.9 million
Unlike Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton that held pretty steady in visitation, Grand Canyon National Park saw a huge drop from 2019 to 2020 – while almost six million people visited two years ago, only 2,897,098 visitors made the journey to this beautiful corner of Arizona last year. For context, Grand Canyon hasn’t seen numbers that low since 1985!
I’m guessing this is in part due to the way the pandemic was portrayed in Arizona – it certainly stands out in my mind as somewhere it was “really bad.” I say that, but Mr. V and I were two of those 2.9 million visitors as part of our honeymoon road trip across the southwest!
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH – 2.8 million
I’m so excited to see Cuyahoga Valley National Park on the list of most-visited national parks in 2020 – we just moved to the Cleveland area and are planning a visit soon! Because of its proximity to urban areas, CVNP is usually pretty popular (top 20 each year) but rose into the top 10 because of decreased visitation elsewhere and increased visitation to the park itself. In fact, visitation rose a whopping 23% from 2019 to 2020, and 2,755,628 people visited last year! (More on the parks that saw increased visitation below…)
8. Acadia National Park, ME – 2.7 million
I love Acadia National Park! I was lucky to visit in 2019 – I was one of the 3.4 million people that year – and am pleased that it held a spot on the top 10 parks in 2020 too. That’s despite a 22% drop in visitation, to just 2,669,034 people. And given that Acadia is a pretty seasonal park (typically open from May to September or so), it seems that many New Englanders were keen to explore their nearest national park despite the pandemic.
9. Olympic National Park, WA – 2.5 million
In the other corner of the country, Olympic National Park also drew big crowds in 2020 despite a 23% drop in visitation from the previous year. 2,499,177 people made their way to Washington’s Olympic peninsula to explore the park, perhaps many did so as part of an Olympic peninsula road trip, as I suggest!
10. Joshua Tree National Park, CA – 2.4 million
Joshua Tree National Park usually sits on the edge of the top 10 list for most visited national parks, consistently in the #11 spot for the past several years. This small park is perfect for exploring between 1 day and 3 days, and easily visited from Los Angeles and the rest of California. After almost 3 million people visited in 2019, the park did see a decrease – about 20% – in 2020. “Just” 2,399,542 people visited last year, which is still an impressive amount of folks who want to see funky trees, rock formations, and epic night skies!
Which Parks Dropped Off the Top 10 List in 2020?
If the list moved around a bit, you might be curious which parks are normally on the Top 10 list of most visited parks and dropped of in 2020.
Looking from 2010 to last year, there are three national parks that normally make the list but saw huge visitation drops in 2020:
- Yosemite National Park – One of the original national parks, Yosemite is close to the San Francisco Bay Area and intense California/Bay Area lockdowns contributed to a big 49% drop in visitation.
- Glacier National Park – Up in northern Montana, Glacier also saw a big drop in visitation (44%). This may be due to reduced domestic travel as a whole.
- Gateway Arch National Park – Though it didn’t actually receive national park status until 2018, Gateway Arch has always been popular. It saw a whopping 76% drop in visitation last year, probably because the park experience is indoors and was closed most of the year.
If you’re curious about which other parks saw big the biggest drops in visitation, I have more on that toward the end of the post.
The 10 Least Visited National Parks in 2020
As interesting as the list of most visited parks is, I actually found the data about the least visited national parks more interesting! Or maybe being on the list makes me want to visit them even more… (I love an underdog, uncrowded park, like Great Basin, which normally makes this list!)
Here’s one fact to kick this off: 90% of this list of least visited national parks is the same as it has been for the last 12 years. The least-visited national parks are pretty much stable, despite the pandemic.
10. Katmai National Park, AK – 52,000
Many of Alaska’s remote national parks regularly make the list of least-visited parks; Katmai National Park (and neighboring Lake Clark, further down this list) is one of them since it requires taking a flight to reach the park. The park saw a 49% decrease in visitation in 2020 from roughly 84,000 people to just 51,511. This was undoubtedly due to issues reaching the park due to pandemic restrictions. The Alaskan grizzly bears probably wondered where everyone was!
9. Dry Tortugas National Park, FL – 49,000
Dry Tortugas National Park shares a similar story with Katmai; it is hard to reach, so was less visited last year as a result (even though Florida’s restrictions were a joke). Visitation fell 39% for Dry Tortugas from about 79,000 in 2019 people to 48,543 in 2020. Even so, this park typically makes the least-visited list, so continues to be uncrowded even in a “normal” year.
8. North Cascades National Park, WA – 31,000
Accessibly by car during the summer months, I’m consistently surprised that Washington’s North Cascades National Park isn’t more popular. After all – it’s only a two-hour drive from Seattle, and Seattleites love to get out and go hiking! (And so many of those those gorgeous Instagram photos from the PNW are taken in this park!)
Visitation fell 20% for North Cascades from about 38,000 in 2019 to 30,885 last year. As those numbers suggest, this isn’t one of the most popular national parks – again, I find that surprising!
7. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK – 17,000
I am so excited: I’m going to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park this year – as part of an Alaska tour in August! Like other Alaska parks further down this list, Wrangell-St. Elias saw some of the biggest visitation losses: a whopping 76% drop! That means that the 16,655 people who visited in 2020 had an incredibly uncrowded experience compared to the roughly 75,000 who visited the year before.
6. Kobuk Valley National Park, AK – 11,000
11,185 might sound like a tiny number of people, but very few visitors head to Kobuk Valley National Park in a normal year (typically around 15,000) so this was a very “normal” visitation drop in 2020. This remote Alaskan national park is also hard to reach, but there were still some hardy folks willing to make the trek!
5. Isle Royale National Park, MI – 6,500
Isle Royale National Park is located north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I have family – so I’m excited to get up there now that we’re living in the Midwest. As its name suggests, this park is reachable by boat, so the pandemic definitely reduced visitation. In 2019, some 26,000 people visited, wheres only 6,493 did so in 2020; that’s a big 75% drop that probably made this beautiful island even more enjoyable.
4. Glacier Bay National Park, AK – 5,700
Glacier Bay National Park (which I am also visiting this year, in September!) represented the single biggest visitation drop of any national park. 99% fewer people visited in 2020 compared with 2019 – the park normally receives over half a million visitors (672,000+ in 2019) and received just 5,748 last year. This is primarily due to the fact cruise ships weren’t sailing, which is the main way to visit Glacier Bay. Luckily the park’s visitation numbers will start to recover this summer now that cruises are restarting.
3. Lake Clark National Park, AK – 4,900
Many people don’t realize it, but the Alaskan grizzly bears that draw crowds to Katmai National Park are only there for a short time – and then move on to neighboring Lake Clark National Park. This park is also only accessible by plane, so visitation took a big hit in 2020. Normally roughly 15,000-20,000 people fly to Lake Clark annually (17,000 in 2019), but only 4,948 people did so last year.
2. National Park of American Samoa – 4,800
Like many island communities, American Samoa locked down hard when the pandemic began. This was the right call for public health, of course, but it unsurprisingly had a substantial impact on visitation to the one national park here. National Park of American Samoa saw a 92% drop in visitation, from roughly 60,000 in 2019 to just 4,819 people in 2020. Hopefully this gave the locals a chance to explore their paradisiacal park!
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park, AK – 2,900
Last, but certainly not least, Gates of the Arctic National Park retained its spot as the least-visited national park in the U.S. (5+ years and counting!)
Hard to reach in a normal year (usually by air taxi; my blogger friend Nicole has a well-researched guide to visiting if you want to make the journey), most people decided it wasn’t worth it in 2020 – or couldn’t arrange a flight due to the pandemic. Visitation fell 73%. In 2019, roughly 10,500 people visited this far northern park, but only 2,872 did so last year.
Other Fascinating Facts about National Park Visitation in 2020
When I examined the 2020 National Park Visitation numbers, I also noticed a few other interesting data points. I assumed that all national parks lost visitors last year because people were staying home – but it wasn’t an even distribution.
Some National Parks were hit hard – including 6 of the 10 parks with the lowest visitation last year. But some National parks also grew in visitation. Whether it was people exploring closer to home – or just taking advantage of the fact we could really only visit domestic destinations (like the Virgin Islands), the list of parks that grew and shrank are pretty interesting!
National Parks that Lost the Most Visitation in 2020
- Glacier Bay National Park – 99% loss
- American Samoa National Park– 92% loss
- Denali National Park– 91% loss
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – 78% loss
- Gateway Arch National Park – 76% loss
- Isle Royale National Park – 75% loss
- Gates of the Arctic National Park – 73% loss
- Lake Clark National Park – 71% loss
National Parks where Visitation Grew in 2020
- Lassen Volcanic National Park – 5% growth
- Indiana Dunes National Park – 7% growth
- Voyageurs National Park – 13% growth
- Shenandoah National Park – 17% growth
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park – 23% growth
- Virgin Islands National Park – 26% growth
Here are some other fascinating facts about national parks and visitation in 2020.
- The National Park Service has been gathering visitation data since 1904!
- Five national parks have complete data going back to 1904: Yellowstone (1872), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), and King’s Canyon (1940). (The year in parentheses is the year each one became a park.)
- One of my favorite national parks, Denali, received 7 visitors in 1922 – the first year they collected visitation data. Too cute!
- Becoming a national park typically boosts visitation – but not always! For the 23 parks with enough data, 34% actually saw fewer visitors in the five years following recognition as a national park.
- National parks saw an average drop of 32% in visitation from 2019 to 2020. That’s a measurable way to understand the impact of the pandemic on travel!
- Every state with more than one national park saw visitation drops. These ranged from 4% (Wyoming) to 58% (Alaska).
- California still has the highest number of national parks (9), followed by Alaska (8), and Utah (5). Despite this, you’d have to combine visitation from all of California’s and Utah’s parks to have more visitors than Great Smoky Mountains. That’s one popular park!
- The newest national park (as of December 2020), New River Gorge National Park (WV), received over a million visitors last year!
Do you have other questions about visiting the national parks, the most and least visited national parks, or visitation data from 2020? Let me know in the comments!