America's 25 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked
Arguably the best idea America ever had was the national parks system. More than 300 million people visit every year, pouring over $35 billion into the national economy. You should be one of them! Many parks offer free entrance days -- for some, every single day is a free entrance day -- and if you want to go all out, an $80 annual pass gets you and a friend unlimited access to all the national parks for the entire year.
But which park to visit? There are currently 62 national parks in America. To help narrow the playing field, we have thusly ranked what are, per the National Parks Service’s 2018 data (the most recent available), the 25 most-visited. Spreadsheets were involved!
Now, it should be noted that America’s least-visited national parks are often the least-visited not because they are uncool, but because they are geographically inconvenient for most Americans to reach -- like 2018’s least-visited park, northern Alaska's decidedly kick-ass Gate of the Arctic. By the same token, Great Smoky Mountains wins “most-visited” year after year on a technicality: basically, people have to drive through it a lot just to get from Point A to Point B (still, it's a lot more gorgeous than your average highway by a longshot). But while it is widely known that there is nothing journalists love more than to put things in numerical order according to how good they are, we do not love it enough to do 62 things. We will be doing 25 things.
Did we rank these 25 parks according to their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or level of adventure contained therein? Yes. A little personal bias? Of course. But we're confident we properly ranked them from great to best. Let’s begin.
25. Gateway Arch National Park
Coming in at America’s 14th most-visited national park of 2018, with 2,016,180 visitors, is Gateway Arch. It’s one of the newer additions to the national park roster. Formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Gateway Arch National Park represents an incredible modernization of St. Louis that blends the urban world with the natural. The Gateway Arch museum records the region’s history of slavery and Westward expansion; the arch itself has defined the St. Louis skyline for more than 50 years (and yes, you can take a tram to the top.)
To be clear, all of these things are great -- the reason Gateway Arch ranks last here is not because it is not an exceptional site, but because it’s not an exceptional site by national park standards. Aside from being teeny, it’s ultimately an urban space no matter how many trees get planted nor green highways unveiled. The NPS still hasn’t really explained why, exactly, Gateway Arch was redesignated as a national park, which usually protect unique or vulnerable ecosystems. You should definitely visit Gateway Arch; it’s just not your place for backcountry camping or hiking or any of the things we visit national parks to do.
24. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga was the 13th most-visited park of 2018 with 2,096,053 visitors. At 33,000, acres there is some very nice-looking nature here, despite part of the park being a former Superfund site -- waterfalls, caves, forests, interesting rock formations, plus hiking and biking and horseback riding trails. Brandywine Falls is an especially gorgeous spot. You’ll definitely want to enjoy a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and you can also canoe and kayak on the Cuyahoga River. Plus, entrance is free. All that being said, Cuyahoga Valley doesn’t necessarily bring anything to the table that you can’t already get at any other national park; thus, we’re lukewarm about it. Tell us if you know things about it that we don’t!
23. Shenandoah National Park
A former park ranger here holds the world record for being struck by lightning -- seven times. (This wasn’t factored into Shenandoah’s ranking one way or the other, but it seems worth mentioning regardless.) There are some fantastic waterfall hikes in this park, and the Skyline Drive -- a 105-mile stretch of road wending its way over the Blue Ridge Mountains -- is as good a scenic drive as it gets. You can hike parts of the Appalachian Trail here, and of course there are a number of shorter, less exhausting routes too; try the trails around Rose River or South River Falls. Shenandoah was our 20th most-visited park in 2018, bringing in 1,264,880 visitors.
MORE: Obviously, Skyline Drive is prime leaf-peeping territory…
22. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef was the 22nd most-visited park of 2018 -- 1,227,627 visitors. Most of the meager attention that gets paid to Capitol Reef -- it’s competing with four other national parks in the state of Utah alone, to say nothing of the excellent state parks and national monuments -- revolves around the Waterpocket Fold, a unique 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. But you don’t have to be a geology nerd to enjoy what this park has to offer. A fun and overlooked feature of Capitol Reef is that it contains orchards where, during the appropriate season, you can go and harvest fruit. Not only can you hike up to Cassidy Arch, one of the park’s more recognizable features, but also rappel down. You should hike to both the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. There’s also some great stargazing to be done here -- the International Dark Sky Association designated it a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park, which means good views and little light pollution.
MORE: The best stargazing this winter is in Utah
21. Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier, capped off by glaciers, is an iconic backdrop in the Seattle skyline. The hiking options on this 14,410-foot peak are so challenging and diverse that aspiring Everest-climbers use them for training. But you don’t have to gear up for something quite so involved as all that to enjoy trekking across lava fields overgrown with a million shades of green, cut through with waterfall and glaciers and, in the summertime, some really spectacular wildflowers. You can also enjoy the sites without even leaving your car with a drive up to the 6,400-foot elevation Sunrise point. Mount Rainier was America’s 18th most-visited national park of 2018, bringing in 1,518,491 visitors.
20. Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs was our 19th most-visited national park in 2018, with 1,506,887 visitors. Hot Springs, like Gateway Arch, is smallish, urbanish, but it’s still actually pretty cool -- it predates Yellowstone, which is widely credited as our oldest national park. And while you can’t bathe in the purportedly healing (but much too hot) waters of the eponymous hot springs, you can and should bathe at various establishments on the nearby Bathhouse Row. It’s more urban components also make it one of the most accessible national parks we have. Hot Springs is one of the do-not-miss items when you visit Arkansas. Also, it’s free!
19. Haleakala National Park
There are probably very few places on earth better for taking a bike ride at sunrise than the 24th most-visited park (1,044,084 visitors at last count). And if you’re the sort of person who enjoys the prospect of climbing into an active volcano, then Haleakala certainly checks a box that other national parks do not; the 10,023-foot Haleakala Mountain is your spot. There are also bamboo forests and gorgeous freshwater pools, though swimming is unfortunately not recommended. Haleakala also enjoys the distinction of having more endangered species there than any other national park in America.
18. Zion National Park
Zion’s visitation numbers have ballooned in recent years -- in 2018 it came in as the 4th most-visited national park, with 4,320,033 visitors. Zion’s die-hards will no doubt protest its placement so early in this list, but it can be fairly inaccessible and limited in terms of activities on offer. Backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling, depending on which direction you try to tackle it from. 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. The key to enjoying Zion, though, is to visit in the wintertime when the crowds have thinned -- and to check out all the hikes that aren’t Angels or The Subway.
MORE:The best hikes in Zion National Park aren’t where you think they are
17. Acadia National Park
Primarily known for being very pretty, Acadia has the bonus of being in close proximity to very beautiful and very charming New England towns. It’s the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, and has long been the biggest tourist attraction in the state of Maine. 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, the Porcupine Islands, and Bar Harbor. It has 125 miles of hiking trails, not to mention serene campgrounds and some surprisingly underrated beaches. Acadia was our 7th most-visited national park of 2018, with 3,537,575 visitors.
MORE: Make Acadia a stop on an unforgettable Maine road trip
16. Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes became a national park just last year, which according to National Park Service data has ... not stopped it from being the 15th most-visited park in 2018 with 1,756,079 visitors. Let us explain -- prior to February 2019, the park was called Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which is what that visitation number was originally recorded for. Its new national park status has already markedly increased its visitation, so we can probably expect it to be even higher in the NPS ranking next year. For our ranking, however, it’s coming in solidly at the middle of the pack -- there is much to see in Indiana Dunes, but its most remarkable features aren’t ones that scream at you visually in the way that, say the Grand Canyon’s do. Here you have to look closer -- this 25-mile-long park hugging the southern shore of Lake Michigan spans woods, dunes, beaches, prairies, bogs, swamps, and marshy wetlands. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in the country. Opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, swimming, kayaking, and fishing abound, and Indiana Dunes is a particularly rich destination for birdwatching. Look out for the occasional sinkhole.
MORE: Indiana Dunes is also home to the state's creepiest urban legend…
15. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This one contains two active volcanoes, including the world’s largest active volcano, which as you might recall was really going off a couple of years back. But Hawaii Volcanoes has since reopened and been pulling people back in by the thousands. You can take a scenic drive around the Crater Rim, or pack up your gear and hike through the exquisite Mauna Loa Backcountry. A ton of scientific research is conducted around this park, too -- parts of it are basically our closest analog to the surface of Mars. Hawaii Volcanoes was the 24th most-visited national park for 2018, seeing 1,116,891 visitors.
14. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains is always No. 1 for visitation, and 2018 was no exception -- 11,421,200 visitors, which is almost twice as many as its nearest competitor (farther down on this list). This park’s visitor numbers are inflated by the confluence of a couple of factors, namely that Smoky Mountains is located close to a number of sizable cities and other attractions (Dollywood!) and also happens to be free to explore. Basically, a lot of people just drive through here on their way to somewhere else. However that’s not Great Smoky Mountains’ fault and should be no reflection of its character. The Clingman’s Dome observation tower offers truly incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range, there are a ton of swimming holes (that you can actually swim in!) scattered throughout, and 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.
13. Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is impossibly scenic, but as you’ve probably heard we have some climate change going on right now, and the park’s namesake is rapidly melting. There are still 25 active glaciers in Glacier, which stretches out of the US and into British Columbia and Alberta. Make sure you take a leisurely drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, and that you also have a designated driver for later when you hit up the variety of good breweries sitting just a few minutes outside the park borders. Glacier brought in the 10th most visitors in 2018, with a total of 2,965,309.
MORE: Glacier is one of America's best places for an epic solo trip
12. Olympic National Park
The hallmark of this national park is its biodiversity -- you’ve got rainforest, beach, glacier, and some of the country’s best hiking trails winding through all of the above. The temperate rainforest here is the only one in the contiguous United States. Don’t miss the absolutely shocking greenness of the Hoh Rain Forest. Throw on some water shoes and go tidepooling at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 or Mora’s Hole in the Wall, or both. Plus in the winter you can ski at Hurricane Ridge.
11. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is an hour from Yellowstone, and for this reason it is often overshadowed. It doesn’t have the distinctive hydrothermal features of its more famous neighbor, but its scenic elements -- mountains, waterfalls, lakes, fall foliage, all that stuff, plus glaciers -- are every bit as scenic, not to mention usually less crowded. You can catch a boat up to Hidden Falls, or take a raft tour of the gorgeous Snake River. Cutthroat trout fishing is extremely popular here, and it has the added bonus of being close to Jackson Hole. Yes, the park’s name does refer to boobs.
10. Bryce Canyon National Park
Routinely cited as one of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of naturally formed amphitheatres and spire-shaped features called hoodoos that are some of the most distinct-looking geological features you’ll ever see in your life. There’s an annual four-day-long astronomy festival because, yes, the stargazing is incredible here too. Top views include Sunrise Point and Sunset point, which, as you may have guessed, are best viewed at sunrise and sunset.
9. Joshua Tree National Park
Long known as an LA getaway where college kids form after-after parties post-Coachella, Joshua Tree seems to become more and more beloved every year. Climbers in particular enjoy the wide variety of rock faces available to them here. The dry, arid desert is notably home to 501 archaeological sites, and camping among the rugged geological features and famously twisted Joshua Trees -- to say nothing of the stargazing -- is something everyone should do at least once.
8. Arches National Park
Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. The one you see in all the pictures is Delicate Arch, but it’s really just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park -- Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, Turret Arch, The Windows, it goes on. Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.
7. Rocky Mountain National Park
Visiting this park is without question one of the essential Colorado things you gotta do. You must drive the “highway to the sky” -- the highest continuous paved road in the country, where you can climb above the treeline without leaving your car. You must visit all the little Rocky Mountain towns. You must go camping and look for porcupines and pikas and maybe a distant mountain lion if you’re lucky. 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 150 lakes -- really -- and 359 hiking trails within this park, plus more than 60 mountain peaks above 12,000 feet.
6. Badlands National Park
If we were factoring Twitter accounts into this ranking, Badlands would be a strong contender for Number 1. One of the coolest, if bittersweet, things to know about Badlands -- nothing in this South Dakota park is off limits. The park’s features are already eroding, and since you’re not going to make the erosion worse than it already is, you’re free to get your finger oils all over it. Climb up all over that shit and scoot back down on your butt. Maybe you’ll find some dinosaur bones scattered between the bison and bighorn sheep.
5. Death Valley National Park
This park marks the lowest point in the western hemisphere -- 282 feet below sea level. The eerie sailing stones of Death Valley move on their own, dragging themselves across the desert floor according to forces (ice panels and wind) invisible to our eye. And while you might not necessarily expect it from a place with a name like Death Valley, this park can, in certain spring seasons, foster massive striking explosions of wildflowers. A must-see is Zabriskie Point, from which you can view some of the most stunning and colorful rock formations in California. And we are once again in prime star-gazing territory -- expect to see all arms of the Milky Way when you reach Harmony Borax or the peerless Ubehebe Crater.
4. Sequoia National Park
The iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree is no more, but we’ve still got General Sherman -- the biggest tree in the world, weighing in at 275 feet tall and 60 (60!) feet wide. We’ve also got the underground stalactites and stalagmites of the Crystal Cave system. This is a park where you go to be fully immersed in nature; most of it isn’t accessible by car, only by horseback or on foot. Speaking hypothetically, if you were looking for a place to take mushrooms for the first time, hypothetically, and wanted to watch extremely large trees twist and breathe, then this would not be a bad place. Hypothetically. You might also spot a black bear or two. Those are real.
3. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Oh, y’all wanted a twist? Number 1 in your hearts it may remain, but according to our algorithms, Yellowstone is Number 3 with 4,115,000 visitors. To be clear, we have the utmost respect for Yellowstone -- we made a massive travel guide for it and I nearly died testing its best hiking trails! Imminently beautiful in all weather and all seasons, Yellowstone boasts peerless geological features you’ll find nowhere else. It’s also perfectly accessible to all manner of folks -- many of the park’s most iconic attractions can be seen on a scenic drive.
MORE: Check out Thrillist’s ultimate guide to Yellowstone
2. Grand Canyon National Park
At 6,380,495 visitors in 2018, Grand Canyon would have the top spot but for the Great Smoky Mountains loophole. There’s a whole mess of things you should not do when visiting the Grand Canyon, but there are many, many more things you should do -- that rising number of activities is why this park just barely edged out Yellowstone. You should take one of those Grand-Canyon-via-Las-Vegas tours. You should try out that rad zip line they have there now. You can even (if you’re experienced!) hike the canyon itself from one end to the other, which will take you a couple of days. You can raft some of the world’s most challenging rapids on the Colorado River. Or just take in the view from the Skywalk observation deck.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite simply has everything. There’s cultural stuff like the Yosemite Music Festival and the Sierra Art Trails. There’s El Capitan, the largest slab of granite in the world, which doesn’t necessarily grab you as superlatives go, until you see it for yourself. There’s Half Dome, and Glacier Point, and the tallest waterfall in North America. There’s Tunnel View, from which vantage point you can see almost all the park’s highlights simultaneously. You can climb, you can hike, you can stargaze, you can swim in the Merced River -- or, better, rent a raft and float your way down. Yosemite was the 6th most-visited national park in 2018, with 4,009,436 visitors.
MORE: How to see Yosemite’s ‘Firefall,’ a waterfall that looks like it’s on fire