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 (28 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 2021 visitation data (released in February 2022), 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 2021
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Zion National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Acadia National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Indiana Dunes National Park
- Glacier National Park
The 10 Least Visited National Parks in 2021
- 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!
In this post, I promote travel to national parks, nearly all of which are the traditional and/or sacred lands of many Native American and Indigenous groups. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in May 2021 and updated in February 2022 with the new year’s visitation data.
The 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2021
Everyone wants to know: what are the most-visited national parks?
The answer for 2021? Pretty much the same ones as every other year! While there were obviously some disruptions to the top 10 in 2020, before that, the top 10 most visited national parks was consistent from 2017-2019. In 2021, the list looks a little different than pre-pandemic, but not by much!
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||2021 Rank||2020 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 – 14.1 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. After a small decrease in 2020, Great Smoky Mountains recorded a record number of visitors in 2021 – 14,161,548 people – the highest ever!
2. Zion National Park, UT – 5.0 million
Zion National Park – easily one of my favorite national parks – saw some five million people visit in 2021; 5,039,835, to be exact. This is a 40% increase from 2020, and even a 12% increase above 2019.
Zion is consistently in the top five most-visited parks, and has been adjusting their access management plan accordingly to help preserve the natural resources here but still allow as many people to access it as safely as possible.
3. Yellowstone National Park, WY – 4.9 million
Some National Parks are just popular – pandemic be damned! Yellowstone, like Great Smoky Mountains and Zion, is one of those parks. There was only a 5% drop in visitation from 2019 to 2020, and that completely disappeared this year – visitation was up 21% in 2021 over 2019 levels. 4,860,242 made the long journey to remote Yellowstone last year; I hope to be one of those counted on my own travels in 2022.
4. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ – 4.5 million
Despite the fact that it takes the #4 spot in 2021, Grand Canyon National Park still hasn’t recovered to its pre-pandemic visitation levels. Visitation dropped a whopping 52% from 2019 to 2020; while it began to recover in 2021, it was still only 76% of that 2019 level last year (4,532,677 visitors, compared to an average of about six million for the four years prior to the pandemic).
All the numbers aside, the Grand Canyon is still stunning, and it’s still a great time to plan a trip – perhaps even more so this coming year as the park didn’t spike way above past visitation levels like other parks.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park, CO – 4.4 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. After a tough 2020, RMNP has returned to 95% of its pre-pandemic visitation levels, and 4,434,848 people made the mountainous journey to explore this park in 2021. 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.
6. Acadia National Park, ME – 4.0 million
I love Acadia National Park! I was lucky to visit in 2019; I was one of the 3.4 million people that year. After a tough year in 2020, Acadia took a jump up the top 10 list for 2021. 4,069,098 people visited Acadia last year, a 52% increase over the previous year – and an 18% increase over pre-pandemic levels.
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 as a way to get some fresh air during the ongoing pandemic.
7. Grand Teton National Park, WY – 3.9 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 dropped a few spots down the list in 2021, due to the visitation increases at some other parks. Despite this, Grand Teton saw a record year, with 3,885,230 visiting the park – the highest ever recorded.
7. Yosemite National Park, CA – 3.3 million
After losing its spot in the top 10 during 2020, Yosemite National Park is back among the ranks of the most-visited parks in 2021. This is in line with (non-2020) years past, when Yosemite regularly ranks highly on the list.
With 3,287,595 people making the journey to the Sierra Nevada’s Yosemite region, the park saw decent recovery from the pandemic’s impact – but is still below pre-pandemic levels by about a third of normal visitation. This is likely the result of California’s more stringent pandemic protocols, which discouraged out-of-state travelers from visiting.
9. Indiana Dunes National Park, IN – 3.2 million
After being named a national park in 2019, Indiana Dunes has seen visitation only go up and up. While it didn’t make the top 10 in 2020, it cracked the list in 2021 as 3,177,210 people visited this waterfront park in the upper Midwest. Visitation was likely aided by the fact that Indiana Dunes is an easy drive from one of the country’s biggest cities (Chicago) and a number of other major and secondary cities are within driving distance too (including my new home city of Cleveland!).
10. Glacier National Park, MT – 3.1 million
Glacier National Park typically makes the top 10 list, but fell off in 2020 when travel slowed. It’s back this year though, as 3,081,656 people visited the park despite its remote location in northern Montana… then again maybe it’s the escaping people which drove visitors (except for there being roughly 9,000 of them each day!). Glacier is also back to pre-pandemic levels, like many parks on this top-10 list.
Which Parks Dropped Off the Top 10 List in 2021?
While many of the most-visited national parks in 2020 were the same as years past, there were a few movers and shakers that joined the list last year – and some who dropped off this year:
- Joshua Tree National Park, CA (3.0 million) – Joshua Tree normally sits just outside the top 10, each year; it lost last year’s spot as other parks saw more visitors returning. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite national parks and a great adventure in southern California.
- Olympic National Park, WA (2.7 million) – Another park I love and have visited several times, Olympic National Park is normally a staple of the top 10 list each year; Indiana Dunes’ rising popularity has taken its place. Don’t let that stop you from planning a trip!
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2.6 million) – Mr. V and I were two of the 2,575,275 people who visited Cuyahoga Valley in 2021, but that wasn’t enough to keep it in the top 10. This is a very cool urban national park – yes, it’s a thing here in northeast Ohio!
Alas, these parks may or may not reclaim their spots in the top 10 next year. Now onto the …bottom 10!
The 10 Least Visited National Parks in 2021
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. Glacier Bay National Park, AK – 90,000
After a devastatingly low visitation year in 2020 due to virtually no tourism operations in Southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park saw some recovering in 2021. 89,768 people visited – which is still just 13% of pre-pandemic levels, but up hugely over the 5,748 who visited last year.
As cruising is set to return to Alaska in 2022, I expect Glacier Bay will jump back up to its normal spot in the middle of the pack by the time I update this post next year!
9. Dry Tortugas National Park, FL – 84,000
Dry Tortugas National Park shares a similar story with many of the other parks that make the list for least-visited; it is remote and can only be reached by plane, so was less visited last year as a result (even though Florida’s restrictions were a joke).
However, despite this hurdle, Dry Tortugas reported its best visitation year ever in 2021: 83,817 people visited the park. While this isn’t much compared to many other parks, it’s still a big leap for a little park that’s hard to reach.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK – 50,000
Hey, whaddya know: I was one of the 50,189 who visited Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – the largest national park – in 2021! I made a short stop as part of my John Hall’s Alaska tour in August, and it left me eager to return… maybe in 2023?
While Wrangell-St. Elias saw good recovery from 2020, visitation is still below pre-pandemic levels. Given some other Alaska national parks saw record visitation years (more on that in the next section), I’m not sure how to explain this; maybe Canada’s closed borders discouraged many of the self-drive Alaska visitors who can take their cars on the road that reaches the park…
7. Isle Royale National Park, MI – 29,000
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 26,410 people visited, wheres only 6,493 did so in 2020; 25,844 visited in 2021, bringing visitation very nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
6. Katmai National Park, AK – 25,000
Katmai National Park was one of the few parks to see a decrease from 2020 to 2021, and I’m frankly baffled about how to explain this. Alaska has had a very libertarian stance toward the pandemic, so it wasn’t restrictions, and there were plenty of Alaska travelers keen to visit last year (if my traffic on this site is any indication!)… I’m really not sure what explains the 52% drop that resulted in only 24,764 people visiting in 2021. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in 2022!
5. Lake Clark National Park, AK – 18,000
Lake Clark National Park, which neighbors Katmai and also draws visitors for bear-watching, did not follow its neighbor’s lead in visitation. Instead, the number of people who made the flight to Lake Clark is up from 2020, to 18,278 in 2021. I’m really not sure why Katmai is so down when Lake Clark is up… this is a great mystery in the data!
4. North Cascades National Park, WA – 18,000
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.
However, apparently Seattleites weren’t out hiking – or maybe more accurately, Washington saw fewer out-of-state visitors, which explains the park’s drop in visitation from 2020 to 2021. Just 17,855 people made the journey to this part of Western Washington, a 42% drop (even greater than the impact of the pandemic!).
3. Kobuk Valley National Park, AK – 12,000
Remote Kobuk Valley National Park is hard to reach, like so many Alaska national parks. Despite that, some 11,540 people made the journey, which almost brings the park back to its pre-pandemic visitation levels. Given that you must take several flights to reach this park, it’s clear that the die-hard Alaska adventurers weren’t bothered by wearing a mask when it came to planning a trip.
2. National Park of American Samoa – 8,500
Making sense of the data for the National Park of American Samoa is tricky: the park’s data in the five years pre-pandemic was: 14,000, 29,000, 69,000, 29,000, and 60,000 visitors respectively. So while the past two years – 4,819 visitors in 2020 and 8,495 visitors in 2021 – is obviously low, it’s hard to know what the “new normal” looks like with regard to visitation or travel to American Samoa, especially for an island so far from the continental U.S.
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park, AK – 7,400
Last, but certainly not least, Gates of the Arctic National Park retained its spot as the least-visited national park in the U.S. (6 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), Gates of the Arctic continued to see lower-than-usual visitation, with just 7,362 people making the journey in 2021. This is about 76% of pre-pandemic levels, so this isn’t too bad compared to some other parks.
Other Fascinating Facts about National Park Visitation in 2021
When I examined the 2021 National Park Visitation numbers, I also noticed a few other interesting data points. I always like to share these findings because I figure you, like me, find statistics about national park visitation interesting – or you wouldn’t still be reading!
Here are some of the fascinating facts about national parks and visitation in 2021 that I discovered:
- The National Park Service has been gathering visitation data since 1904! Since then, the national parks have received 4,248,867,504 visitors.
- 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.)
- 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 increase of 89% in visitation from 2020 to 2021. That shows what pandemic recovery looks like, at least in this part of the travel sector.
- The vast majority of parks saw increased visitation in 2021, but seven national parks – Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Crater Lake, Cuyahoga Valley, Katmai, Lassen Volcanic, North Cascades, Shenandoah, and Voyageurs – saw less visitation this year than last. I’m not really sure what explains this, as they vary geographically and in proximity to urban areas.
- 32 of 63 national parks saw higher visitation in 2021 than in 2019. It was no exaggeration when people said it seemed like everyone went to the national parks last year! (We visited several: Pinnacles, Great Basin, Capitol Reef, and Cuyahoga Valley!)
- 19 national parks recorded their highest visitation ever in 2021. This ranges from the most-visited national park (Great Smoky Mountains) to the one of the least-visited (Dry Tortugas), spans coast-to-coast, and includes one Alaska national park (Kenai Fjords).
Do you have other questions about visiting the national parks, the most and least visited national parks, or visitation data from 2021? Let me know in the comments!