By Russ and Tiña De Maris
You may have expected visits to the nation’s parks to have slid in 2020. With COVID-19 locking people away in their homes for several months, national park visits were down a bit. Still, statistics released by the National Park Service paint a fascinating picture of interest in the parks. They may also point to what to expect this year, and where.
The total number of visits to national parks in 2020? Some 237 million national park visits. Yes, that is down, and a considerable amount, some 28%. Much of that can be attributed to park closures and park restrictions brought about by the earth-engulfing pandemic.
But as people were sent home from schools and workplaces, for some, home became an unwelcome prison, rather than a haven. National park visits became a furlough for many. Some of the nation’s park units actually saw record numbers of visitors, even though they were closed part of the year. In total, 66 of the system’s 423 parks were shut down for two months or more. Others, featuring plenty of open air, stayed open.
“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall well-being,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”
Were you some of those who benefited your “physical and psychological health” with a national park visit? If you were, you may be included in one of these categories. Here’s a breakdown of the “top” statistics for the year.
Top Ten Most Visited National Parks
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park 12.1 million.
- Yellowstone National Park 3.8 million.
- Zion National Park 3.6 million.
- Rocky Mountain National Park 3.3 million.
- Grand Teton National Park 3.3 million.
- Grand Canyon National Park 2.9 million.
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park 2.8 million.
- Acadia National Park 2.7 million.
- Olympic National Park 2.5 million.
- Joshua Tree National Park 2.4 million.
Of course, there are more units managed by the National Park Service than just “National Parks” themselves.
Top Ten Most Visited National Park Service Sites
- Blue Ridge Parkway 14.1 million.
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area 12.4 million.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park 12.1 million.
- Gateway National Recreation Area 8.4 million.
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area 8 million.
- George Washington Memorial Parkway 6.2 million.
- Natchez Trace Parkway 6.1 million.
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park 4.9 million.
- Cape Cod National Seashore 4.1 million.
- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area 4.1 million.
What’s it all mean for you?
What does all of this mean for national park visits this year? If these numbers are any indicator, expect them to get even bigger in 2021. If you haven’t already made a reservation for a National Park campground, now’s the time to get your oar in the water. And if you haven’t, or can’t, make a reservation, when planning your visit to one of the national park units consider alternative places to stay on. We’ve found that National Forests are often near National Parks, and we have been able to stay on Forest Service lands when campgrounds at the parks were full-up.
If you’re into figures, here’s how things worked out on the nitty-gritty level.
- 237,064,332 recreation visits.
- 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours.
- 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation).
- Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits – Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits – down from 11 parks in 2019.
- 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15% of reporting parks) – down from 80 parks in 2019.
- 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30% of National Parks).
- 25% of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5% of all parks in the National Park System.
- 50% of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6% of all parks in the National Park System).
We’re almost out of breath!
Here’s the last of the statistical slicing for national park visits in 2020:
- Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26% decrease.
- 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020.
- Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019.
- Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System. Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020 – a position it has held since 1944. Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park – a position it held for 30 years – to the sixth most-visited. Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second-most visited – a position it has not held since 1947.
- Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Want more? For national summaries and individual park figures, visit the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics website.