Saturday, December 9, 2023


Rub elbows with 55,000 others at these national parks

We visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently. Little did we know that another 55,000 folks would be there, too. National parks are straining under the pressure of overcrowding, unbridled recreation, budget cuts, and maintenance costs. Here is a look at the top five most-visited national parks under duress. (Note: All numbers are the latest full-year figures from 2022.)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw 12.94 million visitors last year. That averages out to more than 55,000 folks per day. Over one million visitors come each month from April through October. The main reason: One-half of the U.S. population lives within one day’s drive. Additionally, two of the most-visited cities in Tennessee (Memphis and Nashville) are within close proximity. 

Beginning March 1, 2023, the National Park Service requires a parking tag for all areas within the national park boundaries. These are available online and on-site. The fee was implemented to supplement funding because the park cannot charge an entrance fee by federal law.

Grand Canyon National Park

With 4.73 million visitors, Grand Canyon National Park has no plans currently to mitigate the flow. There are entry fees, yet they are generally in line with other parks. If you arrive at the most popular entry, South Rim, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can expect long lines, loads of traffic, and a two-hour wait. The East Entrance Station sees less traffic. Even if you arrive early, the park fills up quickly as the day goes on. That makes parking limited, shuttle bus lines long, and viewpoints crowded.

Forget about the North Rim just now. It opened June 2 with limited access due to a water line break. That limits services, so expect few potable drinking water sites and portable toilets. No laundry or bath facilities until July 23.

Zion National Park 

Zion National Park welcomed 4.69 million visitors last year. During the busy months of April through September, you can count on 400,000+ folks each month. So far, no plans to limit visitation. However, if you plan to hike Angels Landing, you must get a permit for timed entry. 

Watchman Campground offers 65 RV sites with electric hookups. If you have no reservations, forget about it. It is fully booked through November. You must reserve a site at least six months before you go.

Rocky Mountain National Park

With its proximity to Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park hosts 4.30 million visitors, a 65% increase since 2009. Major construction at the Fall River Entrance forces entry down to one lane. Even if you use Beavers Meadow as an alternate entry, expect traffic congestion. Coming up from Estes Park finds road construction all the way. 

However, this is all moot unless you have a timed-entry permit. From May 26 through October 22, 2023, to visit destinations along the Bear Lake Road Corridor between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m., you will need a Park Access Plus Bear Lake Road Timed Entry Permit.

Acadia National Park

Last, but certainly not least, Acadia National Park comes in at 3.97 million visitors. Cadillac Summit Road winds for three miles to the top of the highest peak in the park. For access and parking, you must purchase a vehicle reservation pass from May 24 through October 22. Also, be aware that it is under construction and subject to closure.

So, there you have it. I do not mean to dissuade you from going to any national park, but the statistics are clear. We love our national parks. Obviously, this makes for a tedious and patience-testing experience. You just need to be prepared for crowds and ongoing changes in the reservation systems unique to each park. 

Other parks that require timed-entry tickets include Arches, Glacier, Carlsbad Caverns, Haleakala, and Shenandoah. The National Park Service enjoys a long and varied history. 

Good luck, and happy travels!


Dale Wade
Dale Wade
Dale Wade is a Master Naturalist and a Master Gardener. He participates in many citizen science projects pertaining to learning and preserving all things nature.



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Jeff (@guest_239097)
6 months ago

My wife and I were in the great smoky mountains in April. Some who didn’t pay the entry fee had a sticker on the windshield reminding them of the entrance fee. If they’re not allowed by federal law to charge an entry fee how can they get away with this? We paid the fee for stopping more than 15 minutes. Next time do I pay the fee or see what happens to me.

David (@guest_238963)
6 months ago

I live just 45 minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and go there often to recharge my soul. Yes, it is the most visited national park. But I can tell you from experience, that even in the busiest months, if you do your homework, you can still find many quiet and secluded places. By the way, I’m not sure what the definition of “close proximity” is, but Memphis is six hours away.

KellyR (@guest_238908)
6 months ago

Advertise the National and State Parks and then complain or find they cannot afford the visits and upkeep. Stop advertising, which costs money. People that really want to find them will find them without being lured in. I found them umpteen years ago without being lured. However I do think they taught History class back then. Maybe that is how I heard of them.

B N S (@guest_238873)
6 months ago

“The Masses”

Donald N Wright (@guest_238826)
6 months ago

I planned to be a volunteer someday. Once again, it may be time for the Seniors to save the day.

Bob Walter (@guest_238792)
6 months ago

I just spent 10 days at Grand Canyon. What a joke! Budget allocations cutting visitor center hours, crumbling infrastructure, and unkept facilities. Long lines, increased fees, and understaffed. Not much fun even in the shoulder season.

Tommy Molnar (@guest_238770)
6 months ago

“The parking tag fee was implemented to supplement funding because the park cannot charge an entrance fee by federal law.” So they ARE charging an entrance fee only giving it another name.

Jeff (@guest_239098)
6 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

If my wife and I were parked for more than 15 minutes in the great smoky mountains we had to pay an entrance fee. Otherwise just passing through you don’t need an entrance fee.

Impavid (@guest_238716)
6 months ago

I’m surprised Yellowstone is not on the list.

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