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!