Summer is Here! US National Parks, The All American Summer Vacation

Here are the most visited! Let the Great American Road Trip Begin!

Written by Carly Hallman

If not for the three-night camping trip of an eloquent Scottish preacher who enjoyed botany and an enthusiastic, young, asthmatic bear-hunter, we might not have today’s concept of the national park. Luckily, the great minds of John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt had time to connect in 1903 on a trip that would change the landscape of the United States and, according to some, the world forever. It led to the creation of the National Park Service. Now, we have a long list of national parks from Maine to Alaska to Hawaii to enjoy. Here, we’ve listed the most visited national parks of the United States!

America’s Enjoyment of the Parks

Today, the national parks of the United States cover 84 million acres. But how many national parks are there in the United States? Across America, there are 401! Here, we’ve listed the most visited national parks in the United States, by year since 1980!

Most Popular National Parks Perfect for Summer Vacations

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The Most Visited National Parks in the United States

1980

Rank Park Name States Visitors
1 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 18,421,773
2 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 13,415,014
3 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 10,601,566
4 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 9,053,257
5 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 8,440,953
6 Colonial National Historical Park Virginia 6,338,912
7 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 6,266,121
8 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 4,965,601
9 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 4,788,342
10 Lincoln Memorial Washington D.C. 3,307,585
11 Valley Forge National Historical Park Pennsylvania 3,219,806
12 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Maryland, Washington D.C., and West Virginia 3,101,125
13 Acadia National Park Maine 2,779,666
14 Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado 2,641,937
15 Grand Teton National Park Wyoming 2,555,627

1985

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 18,355,365 0
2 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 17,193,408 0
3 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 12,931,973 0
4 Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida and Mississippi 9,880,814 *(new to top 15)
5 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 9,319,290 0
6 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 8,780,684 +1
7 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 8,640,734 -3
8 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 6,952,147 0
9 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Maryland, Washington D.C., and West Virginia 6,184,948 +3
10 Independence National Historical Park Pennsylvania 4,867,399 *
11 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 4,374,799 -2
12 Valley Forge National Historical Park Pennsylvania 4,177,029 -1
13 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington D.C. 3,978,216 *
14 Lincoln Memorial Washington D.C. 3,810,581 -4
15 Acadia National Park 3,745,570 -2

1990

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 16,854,602 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 14,650,213 0
3 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 8,582,223 +5
4 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 8,151,769 +1
5 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 5,790,221 +2
6 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,505,253 -3
7 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 5,449,380 +4
8 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 5,329,182 -2
9 Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida and Mississippi 4,873,730 -5
10 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 3,776,685 *
11 Castle Clinton National Monument New York 3,381,595 *
12 Independence National Historical Park Pennsylvania 3,347,163 -2
13 Yosemite National Park California 3,124,939 *
14 San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park California 3,088,265 *
15 Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Arizona and Utah 3,074,242 *

1995

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 17,415,519 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 14,695,771 0
3 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 9,838,702 0
4 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 9,080,420 0
5 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 6,546,803 +3
6 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 6,064,254 -1
7 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,849,061 -1
8 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 5,141,039 -1
9 Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area New Jersey and Pennsylvania 4,726,251 *
10 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 4,557,645 0
11 Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida and Mississippi 4,520,356 -2
12 Statue of Liberty National Monument New York 4,244,725 *
13 Yosemite National Park California 3,958,406 0
14 Castle Clinton National Monument New York 3,672,620 -3
15 Olympic National Park Washington 3,658,615 *

2000

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 19,153,081 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 14,486,065 0
3 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 10,175,812 +1
4 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 8,755,005 -1
5 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 7,927,567 +1
6 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 7,897,161 -1
7 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,737,183 0
8 Statue of Liberty National Monument New York 5,509,706 +4
9 Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area New Jersey and Pennsylvania 4,900,745 0
10 Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida and Mississippi 4,590,595 +1
11 Castle Clinton National Monument New York 4,588,273 +3
12 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 4,581,169 -4
13 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 4,460,228 -3
14 Lincoln Memorial Washington D.C. 4,009,145 *
15 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington D.C. 3,782,445 *

2005

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 17,882,567 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 13,602,629 0
3 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 9,192,477 0
4 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 8,294,353 +1
5 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 7,692,438 -1
6 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 7,284,165 0
7 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,482,282 0
8 Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area New Jersey and Pennsylvania 5,052,264 +1
9 World War II Memorial Washington D.C. 4,410,379 *
10 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 4,401,522 +3
11 Statue of Liberty National Monument New York 4,235,595 -3
12 San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park California 3,976,056 *
13 Independence National Historical Park Pennsylvania 3,951,073 *
14 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington D.C. 3,799,968 +1
15 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 3,712,812 -3

2010

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 14,517,118 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 14,271,503 0
3 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 9,463,538 0
4 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 8,820,757 0
5 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 7,080,758 0
6 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 6,925,099 0
7 Lincoln Memorial Washington D.C. 6,042,315 *
8 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,910,950 -1
9 Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area New Jersey and Pennsylvania 5,285,761 -1
10 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 4,653,706 +5
11 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington D.C. 4,555,371 +3
12 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 4,388,386 -2
13 Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida and Mississippi 4,283,747 *
14 San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park California 4,130,970 -2
15 Castle Clinton National Monument New York 4,126,378 *

2015

Rank Park Name States Visitors Position Change
1 Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina and Virginia 15,054,603 0
2 Golden Gate National Recreation Area California 14,888,537 0
3 Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina and Tennessee 10,712,674 0
4 Lincoln Memorial Washington D.C. 7,941,771 +3
5 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Arizona and Nevada 7,298,465 0
6 George Washington Memorial Parkway Virginia and Washington D.C. 7,286,463 0
7 Gateway National Recreation Area New Jersey and New York 6,392,565 -3
8 Natchez Trace Parkway Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee 5,785,812 0
9 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington D.C. 5,597,077 +2
10 Grand Canyon National Park Arizona 5,520,736 +2
11 World War II Memorial Washington D.C. 5,068,224 *
12 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Maryland, Washington D.C., and West Virginia 4,798,312 *
13 Castle Clinton National Monument New York 4,597,029 +2
14 Cape Cod National Seashore Massachusetts 4,503,220 -4
15 Independence National Historical Park Pennsylvania 4,311,582 *

Source:

https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/National%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Ranking%20Report%20(1979%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year)

Today, US national parks are established not only to preserve natural wonder, but also to manage historically or scientifically significant areas such as the Statue of Liberty National Monument, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, or the Lincoln Memorial. The natural wonder of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smokey Mountains, Lake Mead, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite still remain some of the most visited destinations.

Preservation as an Active Role

Certainly, there were parks in existence before 1903, but they had little protection: For four decades, use of the parks went mostly unenforced. In the 1880s, The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling wrote about his experience at Yellowstone Park, in which visitors would pour soap down a geyser to get it to explode and scratch their names into Old Faithful. Poachers were frequent, and the dangerous role of handling and maintaining the parks was handed off from one federal agency to the next.

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”

On their 1903 camping trip, which would not have happened had Muir decided to go on his planned world tour, Muir convinced young Theodore Roosevelt to return Yosemite Valley to federal protection as Yosemite National Park. Their campfire conversation led to many positive changes. For one, he was successful in convincing Roosevelt to create the park. He also ignited a life-long enthusiasm that would continue to inspire others. In Sacramento the next day, Roosevelt spoke saying that he wanted to keep the wild trees of this landscape “… because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear.” That speech, and his other famous speech at the newly-constructed archway of Yosemite, would go down in history as glorifying the often-contested existence of the parks.

Expanding The Wilderness

Theodore Roosevelt later introduced the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was a very broad piece of legislation that aggressively named areas as natural monuments, and set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and prehistoric significance.” Only a decade later in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service, a federal bureau in charge of keeping and enforcing the wilderness. Later on, this US model would be emulated by Australia, Canada, and, much later, China. Today, countries across the whole world feel the need to keep a portion of their landscape wild, natural, and untouched.

The Most Popular National Parks

What is the most visited national park? Today, it’s the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it hasn’t always been the country’s favorite. For years, it was the world-famous Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In our list, we’ve organized the top national parks in the United States by decade. Tastes often change from year to year, with some locations hoping off and on the bottom portion of the list. However, the top 10 national parks, in terms of visitors, has stayed by-and-large the same, with Blue Ridge Parkway, the Golden Gate Bridge Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park often topping the list of US national parks.

So, the most visited national park is Blue Ridge Parkway, but what is the largest national park? That goes to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska at 13 million acres, which is more than a hundred times the size of Blue Ridge.

Regardless of the most popular or the largest, the best national parks in the United States have something to teach us about the value of nature, our history, and our role in creating a better world.


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