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Some National Parks aren’t as crowded as they were before pandemic

Maybe some of the national parks in the U.S. aren’t as crowded as you thought. The U.S. National Parks Service just released its official annual visitation statistics for 2021, and some of the results are surprising.

Several parks across the nationwide national parks system had visitation numbers in 2021 that were below pre-pandemic levels.

Of the total 423 parks in the National Park System, just 25 received more than 50 percent of the system’s total 297.1 million recreation visits in 2021. Last year’s visitation increased by 60 million over 2020 when COVID-19 shuttered facilities in most parks for at least part of the year.

“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 new National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. “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. Whatever experience you’re looking for in 2022, national parks are here to discover.”

Sams said national parks visitors looking to avoid the crowds should consider “cluster visits.” Having a “cluster park plan” is akin to having a Plan B should the more popular places be overrun when you arrive. By visiting the lesser-known parks during the peak times at the popular places, you can keep the fun going and have a better chance of seeing everything the National Parks have to offer.

For instance, the Parks Service said a visit to the popular Redwoods State and National Parks in California offers a great opportunity to explore Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

When in Maine for a visit to Acadia National Park, you could also plan a visit to Saint Croix Island International Historic Site and one of America’s newest national monuments, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

If your 2022 trip will take you to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you could also consider Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, and Obed Wild and Scenic River.

Visitation details

The 2021 Visitation Report included a few key findings:

  • 46 parks set a record for visits in 2021.
  • 6 parks broke the visitation record they set in 2020.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway remains the most visited park in the National Parks system.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park set a visitation record in 2021 and passed 14 million visits for the first time.
  • In 2021, some parks operated with limited capacities or indoor space restrictions, but more were open to visitors. Seven parks – all of them historic sites in urban areas – remained closed throughout 2021 due to COVID-19.
  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.43 billion in 2019 to 1.36 billion in 2021, a 5% decrease.

By the numbers

The 2021 visitation statistics found:

  • 297,115,406 total visits
  • 1,356,657,749 visitor hours
  • 3 parks had more than 10 million recreation visits, including Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
  • 11 parks had more than five million visits, up from seven parks in 2020 and equal to the number of parks in 2019.
  • 73 parks had more than one million visits (19% of the parks), up from 60 parks in 2020 and down from 80 parks in 2019.
  • 25% of total visits occurred in the top eight most-visited parks (2% of all parks in the National Parks System).
  • 50% of total visits occurred in the top 25 most-visited parks (6% of all parks in the National Parks System).

25 Most visited parks

  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
  11. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: 5 million
  12. Yellowstone National Park: 4.9 million
  13. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.5 million
  14. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.4 million
  15. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: 4.3 million
  16. Acadia National Park: 4 million
  17. Cape Cod National Seashore: 4 million
  18. Grand Teton National Park: 3.9 million
  19. World War II Memorial: 3.7 million
  20. Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 3.6 million
  21. Yosemite National Park: 3.3 million
  22. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: 3.3 million
  23. Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 3.2 million
  24. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.2 million
  25. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: 3.1 million

For more on National Parks Service visitation statistics, go here.

You can get help planning your National Parks visits here.

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E. Cowan
7 months ago

The numbers are what they are and it doesn’t matter if they are up or down, rather the more important factor is “can I make a reservation” For many, the answer is: Nope.

I don’t have the resources to have bots submitting reservations, nor the flexibility some have, to book weeks on end or reserve multiple sites to ensure they get a spot, then not show up and absorb the fees of last minute cancellations, while the rest of us can’t get a site.

Stacey Wallace
7 months ago

Um, Parks Service, Redwoods National Park is on the west coast of California, Whiskeytown is in the middle and Lassen is on the east, none of them are near each other. I have not visited either since before the Carr Fire surrounded Whiskeytown Lake in 2018 and the Dixie fire burnt through parts of Lassen last year, the views may be of devastation. The redwoods are still standing!

MIke
7 months ago

As I recall, Oregon Caves has a long steep road going in and I wouldn’t recommend it except for cars, trucks and small RVs. It is one of the few roads I have traveled in a 28′ class C that I said “never again”. The issue was the tranny would heat up and there were no pull outs to let it cool, just a choice of going on or stopping on a road with blind curves.

sherrry
7 months ago
Reply to  MIke

Thanks for the info. Love this Park but havent visited since tent camping days. It was on my list for this summer We have a 31 footer

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