America's 20 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked
The best of the best places to get outside.
Just like enneagrams and zodiac signs, there’s a national park for everybody, whether you’re looking to inch your car through a bison herd, scale colossal mountain peaks, traverse craggy desert expanses, or just straight-up take a great bath. And with the ongoing pandemic keeping the Great Outdoors at the forefront of travel in the US, the increasing popularity of our most prevalent parks doesn't look like it'll slow down anytime soon.
Using the most recent data available, we've sifted through the 20 most popular parks—which, in total, saw more than 237 million visitors this past year—and ranked them according to scenic beauty, unique features, accessibility, pure wow factor...and just a little personal bias. It should be noted that this is not a list of the best national parks of all 63 period, but rather a ranking of the most well-attended. America’s least-visited national parks are often quieter not because they’re boring or uncool, but because they’re difficult to get to. (For example, 2020’s least-visited park, Alaska's Gates of the Arctic, would handily trounce many of the places on this list if it wasn’t so far north that, you know, polar bears were a serious issue.)
Utah reigns supreme as the state with the most national parks in the top 20, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement of the state’s unrivaled beauty, we don’t know what is. While Capitol Reef National Park may not be as A-list as Zion or Bryce Canyon, it’s risen enough in popularity to become the 20th most-visited national park, seeing just shy of 1 million visitors last year. Clearly, the secret is out, so you’d best visit now to marvel at the park’s stunning canyons, bridges, domes, and cliffs before it reaches Arches levels of traffic. There are 15 immersive hiking trails to explore, along with 4WD road tours, rock climbing, and mountain biking. Park-goers can also harvest fruit from cherry, apple, and peach orchards in the Fruita Historic District come summer.
Upgraded from its status as a national river at the tail end of 2020, America’s newest national park, New River Gorge, immediately vaulted itself into the top 20 with 1 million visitors last year. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the park is a veritable Grand Canyon of the east, with a roaring whitewater river that zigzags through a gorge so green and lush it almost appears to glow. Here, you can embark on a mountain hike where panoramic views lie at every turn; defeat your fear of heights atop the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, the third-highest bridge in the US; or try an adrenaline-pumping rafting trip along the 53 miles of river accessible by raft and kayak. Just be prepared for super-soaked rapids as high as Class V.
When Indiana Dunes was upgraded from a national lakeshore to a national park in 2019, some folks scoffed: How could a beach bookended by power plants with the Chicago skyline looming in the distance be in the same category as Yellowstone? But consider that this sleeper hit—the 11th most popular park in the country, with 2.3 million visitors—boasts more biodiversity than not only Yellowstone but almost all other national parks. Within Indiana Dunes’ 25 miles, you’ll discover a stunning array of terrains, from surprisingly steep dune hikes and pristine Lake Michigan shorefront to prairies, swamps, and marshy wetlands that look more Louisiana than Indiana. For nearby Chicagoans and Indiana residents in urban areas, the park is a welcome escape for hiking, camping, biking, swimming, kayaking, fishing, and, most of all, birdwatching: more than 350 avian species have been spotted here.
At this point, Joshua Tree—America’s 10th most-visited national park—is so ubiquitous as a Coachella-related destination, it’s easy to forget that it's more than just one big Instagram thirst trap. Long known as a weekend getaway for college kids from LA and celebrities with second homes in Palm Springs, Joshua Tree seems to become more and more beloved every year—as evidenced by its 2.4 million visitors in 2020, many of whom flock to the impressive rock faces for climbing or hit the trails to hike amongst the park’s namesake twisted trees. The dry, arid desert is also home to 501 archaeological sites, a quirky town of the same name, and eclectic goodies like UFO-shaped homes and ghost towns-turned-music venues. And camping among the rugged geological features—to say nothing of the stargazing—is something everyone should do at least once in their life.
Zion’s visitation numbers have ballooned in recent years: in 2020, it clocked in as the 3rd most-visited national park with 3.6 million visitors. That being said, you might be wondering why such a fan-favorite park is ranked so early on this list. Nothing against the all-consuming majesty of this place—the park is so otherwordly that it was modestly renamed after the City of God—it’s just that Utah’s most popular park can be frustratingly crowded, fairly inaccessible, and relatively limited in terms of activities.
Still, backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling. The slot canyons here, set off by rust-red rocks and waterfalls (don’t miss Weeping Rock), are undeniably iconic, and Angel’s Landing is one of the most universally recognized hikes in the US (though please watch your footing). Really, the key to enjoying Zion is to find moments when the crowds have thinned, whether that means visiting during winter or simply checking out the park’s lesser-known hikes.
It’s no Coachella Valley, but Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley is certainly skyrocketing in popularity these days: it recently shot up from 13th to 7th most-visited national park with 2.8 million tourists. That’s a LOT of people chasing waterfalls. There’s some very pretty nature here, despite part of the park being a former Superfund site: Caves, forests, interesting rock formations, and waterfalls abound (Brandywine Falls is especially gorgeous), as do hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails and chances to canoe and kayak on the Cuyahoga River.You’ll definitely want to enjoy a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, an old-fashioned train that roves through the heart of the park with themed excursions like wine tasting rides and murder mystery dinners. Plus, entrance is free, which might explain at least part of the visitation uptick.
Tennessee, North Carolina
As predictably winning as Adele at any given Grammy Awards, Great Smoky Mountains is always No. 1 for visitation, and this past year was no exception. More than 12.1 million visitors (that’s the total population of Belgium, for reference) came here, more than three times as many visitors as its nearest competitor. Those numbers are inflated by a few different factors: it’s located near several sizable cities and notable attractions (Dollywood!), so people tend to pass through on their way to somewhere else. Oh, and entry also happens to be free.
Convenience aside, you could do a lot worse than this vast Appalachian wonderland, which teems with wildlife and epic sunset/sunrise vistas. The Clingman’s Dome observation tower offers incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range, and there are a ton of swimming holes scattered throughout. To really cap things off, you can pick your fill of wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and loads of other lesser-known berries while you’re hiking around.
The glaciers of Rainier create an iconic backdrop for the Seattle skyline, an epic photobomb that easily steals the show from the Space Needle. The hiking options on this 14,410-foot peak are so challenging and diverse that aspiring Everest climbers use them for training. But don’t worry: you don’t need to be half mountain goat to trek across lava fields overgrown with a million shades of green, roam past waterfalls and glaciers, and, in the summertime, wander fields of truly spectacular wildflowers. You can also enjoy the sights from the comfort of your car with a drive up to the 6,400-foot elevation Sunrise Point. Last year, Mount Rainier held steady as America’s 18th most-visited national park, bringing in 1.2 million visitors.
When you practically share a border with Yellowstone, you’re bound to get overshadowed a bit. But if Yellowstone is the Beyonce of national parks, Grand Teton is at least the Kelly Rowland. Sure, it might not have the distinctive hydrothermal features of Wyoming’s star park, but its scenic elements—mountains, waterfalls, lakes, fall foliage, glaciers—are every bit as enthralling, not to mention way less crowded (3.3 million visitors in 2020, making it 5th most visited). You can catch a boat ride across Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls (or hike around the lake—it’s flat, easy, and gorgeous). For a more immersive trek, take a raft tour of the meandering Snake River, where whitewater rapids and cutthroat trout fishing are popular. Plus, the park benefits from its proximity to the bucolic Jackson Hole, where skiing and bougie restaurants abound.
Utah continues to brag with Bryce Canyon, the 15th most-visited national park in the US with 1.5 million visitors in 2020. Routinely cited as one of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of natural amphitheaters, as well as spire-shaped tent rocks, which are some of the most distinctive geological features you’ll ever see in your life. Orange-tinted and whimsical, they resemble sky-scraping creamsicles when draped in snow. Speaking of which: Bryce Canyon also hosts an annual four-day astronomy festival because the stargazing is incredible here too, and especially in winter. Other top views include those from Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, which, as you may have guessed, are best visited at sunrise and sunset.
The Montana mecca that is Glacier National Park is impossibly scenic, but as you’ve probably heard, climate change is happening, and the park’s namesake glaciers are melting faster than an ice cream cone on a hot sidewalk. For the time being, though, there are still 25 active and beautiful glaciers in the park, which stretches beyond the US border and into Canada. Make sure you take a quintessential drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road (fun fact: this road is in the opening credits of The Shining, and weirdly enough, this won’t be the only Shining reference on this list). Glacier lost a few visitors (1.3 million, to be exact) in 2020, bringing in 1.7 million people to land its spot as the 13th most visited park in the US.
Shenandoah National Park brought in an impressive 1.7 million visitors in 2020, enough to move it up from 20th most visited to 14th. Clearly, the fact that a former park ranger here holds the world record for being struck by lightning has not deterred fearless visitors from exploring the fantastic waterfall hikes or from traversing Skyline Drive, a 105-mile stretch of road that winds its way over the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering staggering views and a few scenic points that’ll take you above the cloudline. You can hike parts of the Appalachian Trail here, as well as a number of shorter, less exhausting routes; try the trails around Rose River or South River Falls.
The fact that Yosemite isn’t the number one most visited park might come as a shock. But make no mistake: despite a dip in visitation—Yosemite ranked as the 12th most visited park last year, down from 4.4 million visitors in 2019 to 2.3 million in 2020—this place has everything.
There’s cultural fun like the Yosemite Music Festival and the Sierra Art Trails. You can climb, you can hike, you can stargaze, you can swim in or raft down the Merced River. There’s El Capitan, the largest slab of granite in the world, which won’t grab you as a notable superlative until you see it for yourself. There’s utterly-staggering Half Dome, scenic Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. And, to take in the park's majesty all at once, just make a stop at Tunnel View, a vantage point from which you can see almost all the highlights simultaneously.
First of all, we’d like to note that historic Hot Springs—the 16th most-visited park of the year, with 1.3 million visitors—technically predates Yellowstone, which is widely credited as our oldest national park. A trip here affords the unique opportunity to take an old-timey bath, drink beer brewed with thermal water, and fuel up for a hike on Hot Springs Mountain with bacon cinnamon rolls in tow.
While you can’t bathe in the purportedly healing (but way too hot) waters of the eponymous hot springs, you can and should bathe at various establishments on the nearby Bathhouse Row. The ornate vintage tubs will have you feeling like a mobster in the Roaring 20s, especially if you follow your soak with a drink at the Ohio Club, a saloon built in 1905 that was a popular watering hole for gangsters. Hot Springs is also the first national park to contain a brewery, one that made history as the first of its kind to make beer with thermal hot springs water. All of these more urban components make this one of the most accessible national parks in the country.
The oldest national park east of the Mississippi and the biggest tourist attraction in Maine, Acadia has the bonus of being in close proximity to very charming New England towns. When not obscured by the thick fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice, the park’s top-shelf views include Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak in the park and the first place in the US to see sunlight each morning. It has 125 miles of hiking trails, most of which are dog-friendly, not to mention serene campgrounds and some surprisingly underrated beaches. If you visit in the summer months, hit historic Jordan Pond House for a popover, and hang out in nearby Bar Harbor, where lobster rolls are as omnipresent as churros in Disney World. Acadia was our 8th most-visited national park of 2020, with 2.7 million visitors.
Despite the fact that Grand Canyon is also one of seven natural wonders of the world, its visitation numbers took a hit last year—down from just under 6 million visitors in 2019 to 2.9 million in 2020, making it the 6th most-visited. Regardless, there’s no denying the unparalleled awe of this place. Take a Grand-Canyon-via-Las-Vegas tour, try out the park's rad zip line, raft some of the world’s most challenging rapids on the Colorado River, or just take in the view from the Skywalk observation deck. And, if you’re really looking for a challenge, head down to the canyon floor to complete a multi-day hike from one rim of the park to the other—a 24-mile journey.
The hallmark of America’s 9th most-visited park (2.5 million annual explorers!) is its biodiversity. Along with some of the country’s best hiking trails, don’t miss the ultra-vibrant green of the Hoh Rainforest, the only temperate rainforest in the contiguous United States; from there, you can also reach the absolutely colossal, 2.6-mile-long Blue Glacier. Throw on some water shoes and go tide-pooling at Kalaloch’s Beach or the Hole in the Wall; pop a squat by the royal-blue Lake Crescent and watch for otters; and, if you visit in winter, go for a ride down the slopes of Hurricane Ridge.
The 17th most-visited park with 1.2 million gawkers, Arches is so popular that the park occasionally has to cut off entry for a few hours when the roads get crowded. It’s not hard to see what’s driving the fanfare: This high-desert geologic wonderland is one of the most surreal, alien-looking landscapes in America.
For starters, the park contains the world’s largest concentration of sandstone arches. The Delicate Arch is the most iconic, but it’s just one of 2,000+ stunning formations, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion: Keep an eye out for Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, Turret Arch, and The Windows. Don’t forget to take advantage of hiking trails like the Devil’s Garden; located at the very end of the main park road, it exemplifies the immersive adrenaline of the park, with hands-on bouldering and slot canyons that make the luminous landscape feel like Mother Nature’s playground.
Visiting the fourth most-visited national park is an essential Colorado experience. Here, you’ll find bugling elk, some of the most epic hikes on the continent, and even the hotel that inspired The Shining (we told you it was coming!). You must drive the “Highway to the Sky,” the highest continuous paved road in the country, which will take you above the treeline into Alpine Tundra, a virtually flora-free landscape so elevated you’ll feel like you’re on the very top of the Earth.
Visit all the little Rocky Mountain towns; go for an overnight camping trip; spot wildlife like porcupines, pikas, moose, and the occasional mountain lion if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it). Split by the Continental Divide, which dictates the direction in which rainwater will flow, the western side of the park is more lush and green, while the eastern side is arid, scrubby, and more mountainous. There are a whopping 150 lakes—really!—and 359 hiking trails within this park, plus more than 60 mountain peaks above 12,000 feet. No wonder some 3.4 million people flocked here last year.
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
We’d suggest a drum roll, but the fact that our favorite national park is America’s first—and arguably its most iconic—might not come as a huge surprise. Yellowstone was the 2nd most visited park last year with 3.8 million guests, and for good reason: there are really no words to properly describe the mesmerizing beauty of this wild place. But hey, we’ll try.
Goin all weather and all seasons, Yellowstone boasts peerless geological features you’ll find nowhere else on Earth: kaleidoscopic hot springs as colorful as a Lisa Frank folder, enormous, cascading waterfalls, geysers so popular they command crowds as energetic as mosh pits, and the largest high-elevation lake in North America. Larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, this colossal park overwhelms with things to do and see, including some of America’s most intimidating wildlife, like bison, wolves, and grizzly bears. The cherry on top? It’s also wonderfully accessible to all manner of explorers since many of the park’s most iconic attractions can be enjoyed on a scenic drive.
Kastalia Medrano is a freelance journalist and avid traveler. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.