There’s a national park for everybody, whether you’re seeking a wild backcountry experience or looking to kick back in a hot spring in an urban area. Of the 62 national parks—which drew an astounding 327 million visitors last year—the 20 most popular parks range from metropolitan icons to remote slot canyons. And with an increased interest in getting outside, we decided to rank those 20 most-attended parks of 2019—the most recent data available—based on a number of criteria: scenic beauty, unique features, accessibility, and pure wow factor. Oh, and maybe some personal bias.
Now, it should be noted that this is not a list of the best national parks, period, but rather a ranking of the most well-attended. America’s least-visited national parks are often the least-visited not because they are uncool, but because they are geographically inconvenient for most Americans to reach. For example, 2019’s least-visited park, Alaska’s decidedly kick-ass Gate of the Arctic, would handily trounce many of the places on this list if more than 10,500 people had visited it.
The 20 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.
20. Gateway Arch National Park
America’s 17th most-visited national park of 2019, with 2 million visitors, Gateway Arch is one of the newer additions to the roster. It’s also, you know, relatively tiny and smack in the middle of a major city, two things that make its transition from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to Gateway Arch National Park a little puzzling. Should you go? Of course. It’s wonderful. The Gateway Arch museum records the region’s history of slavery and Westward expansion, and the arch itself has defined the St. Louis skyline for more than 50 years (and yes, you can take a tram to the top.) But it doesn’t feel like a national park, so here it lands.
19. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga was the 13th most-visited park of 2019 with 2.2 million visitors. At 33,000, acres, there is some very nice-looking nature here, despite part of the park being a former Superfund site—waterfalls, caves, forests, interesting rock formations, plus hiking and biking and horseback riding trails. Brandywine Falls is especially gorgeous. You’ll definitely want to enjoy a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, and you can also canoe and kayak on the Cuyahoga River. Plus, entrance is free. All that said, Cuyahoga Valley doesn’t necessarily bring anything to the table that you can’t already get at any other national park; thus, we’re lukewarm about this otherwise gorgeous area. Tell us if you know things about it that we don’t!
18. Shenandoah National Park
A former park ranger here holds the world record for being struck by lightning—seven times. (This wasn’t factored into Shenandoah’s ranking one way or the other, but it seems worth mentioning regardless.) There are some fantastic waterfall hikes in this park, and the Skyline Drive—a 105-mile stretch of road wending its way over the Blue Ridge Mountains—is as good a scenic drive as it gets. You can hike parts of the Appalachian Trail here, and of course there are a number of shorter, less exhausting routes too; try the trails around Rose River or South River Falls. Shenandoah was our 20th most-visited park in 2019, bringing in 1.4 million visitors.
17. Mount Rainier National Park
Capped off by glaciers, Rainier is an iconic backdrop in the Seattle skyline. The hiking options on this 14,410-foot peak are so challenging and diverse that aspiring Everest-climbers use them for training. But you don’t have to gear up for something quite so involved as all that to enjoy trekking across lava fields overgrown with a million shades of green, cut through with waterfalls and glaciers and, in the summertime, some really spectacular wildflowers. You can also enjoy the sites without even leaving your car with a drive up to the 6,400-foot elevation Sunrise point. Mount Rainier was America’s 18th most-visited national park of 2019, bringing in 1.5 million visitors.
16. Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs was our 19th most-visited national park in 2019, with 1.5 million visitors. Like Gateway Arch, it’s smallish, urbanish, but it’s still actually pretty cool—it predates Yellowstone, which is widely credited as our oldest national park. And while you can’t bathe in the purportedly healing (but much too hot) waters of the eponymous hot springs, you can and should bathe at various establishments on the nearby Bathhouse Row. Its more urban components also make it one of the most accessible national parks we have. Also, it’s free!
15. Zion National Park
Zion’s visitation numbers have ballooned in recent years—in 2019 it came in as the 4th most-visited national park, with 4.5 million visitors. Zion’s die-hards will no doubt protest its placement so early in this list, but it can be fairly inaccessible and limited in terms of activities. Backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling. The slot canyons here, set off by rust-red rocks and waterfalls (don’t miss Weeping Rock), are undeniably iconic, and Angel’s Landing is one of the most universally recognized hikes in the US. The key to enjoying Zion, though, is to visit in the wintertime when the crowds have thinned—and to check out all the hikes that aren’t Angels or The Subway.
14. Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes became a national park in early 2019, which, according to National Park Service data has … not stopped it from being the 14th most-visited park in its first year with a whopping 2.1 million visitors. There is much to see in the former Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but its most remarkable features aren’t ones that scream at you visually in the way that, say the Grand Canyon’s do. Here you have to look closer—this 25-mile-long park hugging the southern shore of Lake Michigan spans woods, dunes, beaches, prairies, bogs, swamps, and marshy wetlands. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in the country. Opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, swimming, kayaking, and fishing abound, and Indiana Dunes is a particularly rich destination for birdwatching. Just look out for the occasional sinkhole.
13. Acadia National Park
Primarily known for being very pretty, Acadia has the bonus of being in close proximity to very beautiful and very charming New England towns. It’s the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, and has long been the biggest tourist attraction in the state of Maine. When not obscured by the thick fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice, the park’s top-shelf views include Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay, the Porcupine Islands, and Bar Harbor. It has 125 miles of hiking trails, not to mention serene campgrounds and some surprisingly underrated beaches. Acadia was our 7th most-visited national park of 2019, with 3.4 million visitors.
12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains is always No. 1 for visitation, and 2019 was no exception— more than 12.5 million visitors came here, which is almost twice as many as its nearest competitor (farther down on this list) and a full million more than 2018. Those numbers are inflated by a confluence of factors, namely that Smoky Mountains is located close to a number of sizable cities and other attractions (Dollywood!) and also happens to be free to explore. Basically, a lot of people just drive through here on their way to somewhere else.
However that’s not Great Smoky Mountains’ fault and should be no reflection of its character. The Clingman’s Dome observation tower offers truly incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range, there are a ton of swimming holes scattered throughout. To really cap things off you can pick your fill of wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and loads of other lesser-known berries while you’re hiking around.
11. Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is impossibly scenic, but as you’ve probably heard we have some climate change going on right now, and the park’s namesake is rapidly melting. There are still 25 active glaciers in the park, which stretches out of the US and into British Columbia and Alberta. Make sure you take a leisurely drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, and that you also have a designated driver for later when you hit up the variety of good breweries sitting just a few minutes outside the park borders. Glacier brought in the 10th most visitors in 2019, with roughly 3 million.
10. Olympic National Park
The hallmark of America’s ninth most-visited park (3.2 million annual explorers) is its biodiversity. You’ve got rainforest, beach, glacier, and some of the country’s best hiking trails winding through all of the above. The temperate rainforest here is the only one in the contiguous United States. Don’t miss the absolutely shocking greenness of the Hoh Rain Forest. Throw on some water shoes and go tidepooling at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 or Mora’s Hole in the Wall, or both. Plus in the winter you can ski at Hurricane Ridge.
9. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is an hour from Yellowstone, and for this reason it is often overshadowed. It doesn’t have the distinctive hydrothermal features of its more famous neighbor, but its scenic elements—mountains, waterfalls, lakes, fall foliage, all that stuff, plus glaciers—are every bit as scenic, not to mention usually less crowded (3.4 million visitors in 2019, compared to Yellowstone’s 4). You can catch a boat up to Hidden Falls, or take a raft tour of the gorgeous Snake River. Cutthroat trout fishing is extremely popular here, and it has the added bonus of being close to Jackson Hole. And yes, the park’s name does refer to boobs.
8. Bryce Canyon National Park
Routinely cited as one of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of naturally formed amphitheatres and spire-shaped features called hoodoos that are some of the most distinct-looking geological features you’ll ever see in your life. There’s an annual four-day-long astronomy festival because, yes, the stargazing is incredible here too. Top views include Sunrise Point and Sunset point, which, as you may have guessed, are best viewed at sunrise and sunset.
7. Joshua Tree National Park
Long known as an LA getaway where college kids form after-after parties post-Coachella, Joshua Tree seems to become more and more beloved every year, as evidenced by its 3 million visitors in 2019. Climbers in particular enjoy the wide variety of rock faces available to them at our 11th most-attended park. The dry, arid desert is notably home to 501 archaeological sites, and camping among the rugged geological features and famously twisted Joshua Trees—to say nothing of the stargazing—is something everyone should do at least once.
6. Arches National Park
Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. The one you see in all the pictures is Delicate Arch, but it’s really just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, Turret Arch, The Windows, it goes on. Arches, which drew 1.6 gawkers in 2019, is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
Visiting the third most-visited park is an essential Colorado experience. You must drive the “highway to the sky”—the highest continuous paved road in the country, where you can climb above the treeline without leaving your car. You must visit all the little Rocky Mountain towns. You must go camping and look for porcupines and pikas and maybe a distant mountain lion if you’re lucky. Split by the Continental Divide (which dictates the direction in which rainwater will flow) the western side of the park is more lush and green, while the eastern side is arid, scrubby, and more mountainous. There are 150 lakes—really—and 359 hiking trails within this park, plus more than 60 mountain peaks above 12,000 feet. No wonder some 4.6 million people flocked her last year.
4. Death Valley National Park
The 16th most-visited park marks the lowest point in the western hemisphere—282 feet below sea level. The eerie sailing stones of Death Valley move on their own, dragging themselves across the desert floor according to forces (ice panels and wind) invisible to our eye. And while you might not necessarily expect it from a place with a name like Death Valley, this park can, in certain spring seasons, foster massive striking explosions of wildflowers. A must-see is Zabriskie Point, from which you can view some of the most stunning and colorful rock formations in California. And we are once again in prime star-gazing territory: expect to see all arms of the Milky Way when you reach Harmony Borax or the peerless Ubehebe Crater.
3. Grand Canyon National Park
At just under 6 million in 2019, Grand Canyon would win the popularity contest but for the Great Smoky Mountains loophole. There’s a whole mess of things you should not do when visiting the Grand Canyon, but there are many, many more things you should do. YTake one of those Grand-Canyon-via-Las-Vegas tours. Try out that rad zip line they have there now. If you’re experienced, hike the canyon itself from one end to the other, which will take you a couple of days. Raft some of the world’s most challenging rapids on the Colorado River. Or just take in the view from the Skywalk observation deck.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Oh, y’all wanted a twist? Number 1 in your hearts it may remain, but according to our algorithms, Yellowstone dropped to number six in terms of visitors in 2019, despite growing from 4.1 to 4.4 million visitors. To be clear, we have the utmost respect for Yellowstone—we made a massive travel guide for it and I nearly died testing its best hiking trails! Imminently beautiful in all weather and all seasons, Yellowstone boasts peerless geological features you’ll find nowhere else. It’s also perfectly accessible to all manner of explorers—many of the park’s most iconic attractions can be seen on a scenic drive.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite simply has everything. There’s cultural stuff like the Yosemite Music Festival and the Sierra Art Trails. There’s El Capitan, the largest slab of granite in the world, which doesn’t necessarily grab you as superlatives go until you see it for yourself. There’s Half Dome, and Glacier Point, and the tallest waterfall in North America. There’s Tunnel View, from which vantage point you can see almost all the park’s highlights simultaneously. You can climb, you can hike, you can stargaze, you can swim in the Merced River—or, better, rent a raft and float your way down. And even if you can’t get in due to crowds, the surrounding Gold Country plays the hits too. Yosemite was the 5th most-visited national park in 2019, with 4.4 million.
Previously published on Thrillist.