While it may seem like people spent more time in parks last year than usual, national parks and public lands weren’t unaffected by pandemic-related closures and restrictions. Altogether, the National Park Service actually calculated a 28 percent decrease in overall visitors from 2019 to 2020; and visitor hours dropped 26 percent.
That said, 15 spots did break their own records for visitor numbers, and certain park-specific stats are still generally impressive. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, welcomed a whopping 12.1 million people last year, making it the most visited national park of 2020. It wasn’t exactly an underdog—the park has landed in first place every year since 1944. And by “national park,” we don’t mean any place overseen by the National Park Service. There are more than 420 of those, from national monuments to parkways; only about 60 are officially considered national parks.
Yellowstone National Park, which hasn’t been the runner-up since 1947, finally returned to its former position of glory with 3.8 million visitors. Yellowstone unseated Grand Canyon National Park, which had sat in second place for three decades. Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Grand Teton National Park all snuck by the Grand Canyon, too.
With the exception of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the annual visitor count for the top 10 parks fell into a relatively narrow range: 2.4 million to 3.8 million. So what makes the Great Smoky Mountains such a highly trafficked spot? Not only do its many hiking trails and historical buildings make it an appealing destination to explore, but it’s also in an especially accessible location: Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee, are each less than an hour’s drive away. And it’s roughly three hours by car from Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville. Western national parks, on the other hand, aren’t all in the middle of such densely populated areas. Great Smoky Mountains National Park also doesn’t charge an entrance fee.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park // 12.1 million
2. Yellowstone National Park // 3.8 million
3. Zion National Park // 3.6 million
4. Rocky Mountain National Park // 3.3 million
4. Grand Teton National Park // 3.3 million
5. Grand Canyon National Park // 2.9 million
6. Cuyahoga Valley National Park // 2.8 million
7. Acadia National Park // 2.7 million
8. Olympic National Park // 2.5 million
9. Joshua Tree National Park // 2.4 million