In 2020, COVID-19 shut down facilities in most of America’s National Parks and National Preserves, with visits falling by about a third overall compared to 2019. The good news is that in 2021, the parks rebounded, enjoying some 297.1 million visits – an increase of 25% or 60 million over 2020.
While this increase is encouraging, however, it was uneven. Though some of the best-known parks had record visitation in 2021, numbers across the entire National Park System remained below pre-pandemic totals. Of the 423 parks in the National Park System, just 25 received more than 50% of the system’s total recreation visits in 2021. What this summer holds for the parks in another question. Beyond the lingering effects of the pandemic, visits will doubtless be limited by the soaring cost of gasoline. (Things could be worse. These are the countries with the worst inflation in the world.)
The National Parks suggests park visitors create what they call a circle of discovery to explore lesser-visited locations while on an excursion at a more well-known park. For example, a visit to Redwoods State and National Parks offers an opportunity to explore Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. If you plan on taking a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, consider visiting Cumberland Gap National Historical Park or Little River Canyon National Preserve – the latter of which posted the biggest visit increase over five years of any park on the list. (These are the National Parks that have grown most in popularity since 1980.)
To identify the most popular national parks in 2021, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the record of last year’s recreational visits published in the National Park Service’s annual visitation report, as well as National ParkS data for visits in 2017. The National ParkS aggregates visitation data for various government land designations and visitation purposes. Only National Parks and National Preserves were considered. Designations such as National Monuments and National Historic Sites, which are frequently contained within National Parks and are often limited to single structures, were excluded. Parks that changed their reporting practices were not comparable to previous years, and therefore were also excluded.
The top five most-visited national parks are ones Americans are most familiar with – Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Teton – but a number of others saw significant numbers of visits, too.
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