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.
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
- Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.9 million
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.1 million
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 13.7 million
- Gateway National Recreation Area: 9.1 million
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 7.6 million
- George Washington Memorial Parkway: 6.8 million
- Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.4 million
- Lincoln Memorial: 5.8 million
- Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.5 million
- Zion National Park: 5 million
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: 5 million
- Yellowstone National Park: 4.9 million
- Grand Canyon National Park: 4.5 million
- Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.4 million
- Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: 4.3 million
- Acadia National Park: 4 million
- Cape Cod National Seashore: 4 million
- Grand Teton National Park: 3.9 million
- World War II Memorial: 3.7 million
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 3.6 million
- Yosemite National Park: 3.3 million
- Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: 3.3 million
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 3.2 million
- Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.2 million
- 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.