Stir-crazy from the pandemic, visitors poured into US national parks and related sites last year – and they especially paid calls to the marquee names.
Roughly 297.1 million total visits were recorded in 2021 by the National Park Service, which released an in-depth visitation report on Wednesday.
The NPS said that last year’s visitation increased by 60 million over 2020. That’s when Covid-19 closed facilities in most parks for at least part of the year. Across the entire National Park System, the numbers still remained below pre-pandemic totals.
However, it was a different story for the best-known sites, which were inundated with visitors. Forty-four places actually set a record for recreation visits in 2021.
Of 423 sites in the National Park System, the top 25 got more than half of the system’s total number of visits.
These were the top 10 for 2021, which includes national parks but also parkways, recreation areas, memorials and related sites (figures are rounded off):
1. Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.9 million
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.1 million
3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 13.7 million
4. Gateway National Recreation Area: 9.1 million
5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 7.6 million
6. George Washington Memorial Parkway: 6.8 million
7. Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.4 million
8. Lincoln Memorial: 5.8 million
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.5 million
10. Zion National Park: 5 million
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which covers 469 miles in the Appalachians of North Carolina and Virginia, kept its title of the most-visited site in the system.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park set a visitation record for 2021, passing 14 million recreation visits for the first time, NPS said in its report.
Of those 400+ sites in the entire system, only 63 of them are actually designated a “national park.” These are most visited national parks of 2021 (figures are rounded off):
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.16 million
2. Zion National Park: 5.03 million
3. Yellowstone National Park: 4.86 million
4. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.53 million
5. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.43 million
6. Acadia National Park: 4.06 million
7. Grand Teton National Park: 3.88 million
8. Yosemite National Park: 3.28 million
9. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.17 million
10. Glacier National Park: 3.08 million
If you want to really avoid the crowds and be alone with nature, Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska had only 11,540 recreational visits in 2021. Even by Alaska standards, this place is remote.
Long lines and closed signs sometimes greeted visitors at the most popular sites last year. This prompted the Park Service to impose new systems to control crowds. For instance, Arches National Park in Utah is rolling out a timed entry program, with reservations set out three months in advance.
Along with measures to regulate crowding at the most popular places, the NPS is also trying to steer people toward the parks that aren’t setting records.
“It’s wonderful to see so many Americans continuing to find solace and inspiration in these incredible places during the second year of the pandemic,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams in the report.
“We’re happy to see so many visitors returning to iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are hundreds more that should be on everyone’s bucket list.”
One idea the NPS is encouraging: visit a cluster of parks on the same vacation.
In one example, a family might be considering a visit to the extremely popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee). The NPS said they could also divert to these other relatively nearby spots that might be less crowded:
• Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (Georgia and Tennessee)
• Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia)
• Little River Canyon National Preserve (Alabama)
• Carl Sandburg National Historic Site (North Carolina)
• Obed Wild and Scenic River (Tennessee)