10 Most Visited National Parks in America
The National Park Service has released its Annual Visitation Highlights for 2017, and as always we’re finding travel inspiration in its listing of the most visited places in the system, which includes national parks, recreation areas, monuments, battlefields, and more.
Overall, the NPS welcomed more than 331 million visitors in 2017, falling just slightly short of breaking the record set in 2016. The two most visited NPS-designated areas were the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway running through some of the most beautiful countryside in Virginia and North Carolina, with more than 16 million visits, and the 82,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area protecting ecologically and historically important lands around the San Francisco Bay Area, with more than 14 million visits.
As for the most-visited national parks in America, the top 10 list remains fairly consistent year-to-year, and we heartily recommend a visit to at least one of these gems in 2018:
1. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
More than 800 square miles in North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains (nps.gov/grsm) welcomed an estimated 11,338,893 visitors in 2017 to take the top spot. The park’s namesake mist, iconic Roaring Fork Motor Trail, abundant campsites, hiking routes that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail, and incredible wildflowers and fall foliage make this park one of the most beloved travel sites in the U.S.
2. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
What can we say about the Grand Canyon (nps.gov/grca) that hasn’t already been said? Encompassing nearly 2,000 square miles in the Arizona desert, with legendary lookouts, rafting in the Colorado River, and the sheer awe the vast canyon inspires, this national park drew an estimated 6,254,238 visitors last year.
3. ZION NATIONAL PARK
This jaw-dropping park in the southwest Utah desert is movin’ on up, with Zion (nps.gov/zion) going from fifth place in 2016 to third place in 2017 with an estimated 4,504,812 visitors. We’re big fans of Zion’s nearly 230 square miles, offering camping, hiking, those iconic red cliffs, and an overall blissful vibe. (And, as a bonus, Utah boasts four other incredible national parks that are just a road trip away from Zion.)
4. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Colorado really does have it all. In addition to its towering peaks (and peerless skiing), beautiful rivers, and range of wildlife, it’s also home to one of America’s favorite national parks. Rocky Mountain (nps.gov/romo), in northern Colorado, straddles the continental divide, delivers gorgeous aspen, bighorn sheep, endless trails, and much more, luring an estimated 4,437,215 visitors in 2017.
5. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
More than 1,000 square miles in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite (nps.gov/yose) is iconic even to travelers who haven’t been there yet, with its giant sequoias, incredible waterfalls, and “stars” like Half Dome and El Capitan. Despite the floods and wildfires that plagued the state of California in 2017, Yosemite drew an estimated 4,336,890 visitors.
6. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
In Yellowstone (nps.gov/yell), “rush hour” can mean being stuck behind a herd of bison that has chosen just the right moment to cross the highway in the Lamar Valley and stop traffic for miles. Including portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, Yellowstone’s 3,400 square miles were the very first national park in the world, and with its herds of bison, families of grizzlies, geysers like Old Faithful, hot springs, and gigantic waterfalls, the park remains a favorite, drawing an estimated 4,116,524 visitors last year. (Yellowstone is also a road trip away from Montana's Glacier National Park and adjoins Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park; both parks made this year's top 10 list.)
7. ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
For travelers who can’t decide between a mountain and a seaside vacation, Acadia (nps.gov/acad), nearly 50,000 acres on Mountain Desert Island, in Maine, obliges with both the highest peak on the East Coast, the crashing waves of the North Atlantic, forest trails, the charming town of Bar Harbor, and an array of wildlife that includes moose, black bear, and whales. In 2017, the park welcomed an estimated 3,509,271 visitors.
8. OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Craving a real American rainforest? Surprisingly, Washington State is where you’ll find one, with Olympic (nps.gov/olym) encompassing more than 1,400 square miles on the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula. Last year, an estimated 3,401,996 visitors headed here for climbing, hiking, and exploring the mountains, old-growth forests, and the Pacific coast.
9. GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
Experienced travelers (or, frankly, anyone who takes a quick look at a map) know that you can easily combine a trip to Grand Teton (nps.gov/grte) with a trip to neighboring Yellowstone. But Grand Teton’s 310,000 acres, in Wyoming, boast enough wonders to keep any visitor busy for days, with the jagged namesake mountain range, beautiful Jackson Hole, and incredible hiking, camping, and fishing. Last year, an estimated 3,317,000 visitors did just that.
10. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier (nps.gov/glac) happens to be my favorite and, not coincidentally, most visited park. Covering more than 1,500 square miles in northwestern Montana (and adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park, in Alberta, Canada), Glacier offers the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes visitors up to the continental divide, at Logan Pass, where you may find snow in July (and sometimes even in August), and the uncanny mountain goats that make this rocky terrain their home. Don’t miss canoeing on Lake McDonald, hiking the old-growth Trail of the Cedars, and stargazing with a ranger on select evenings. While I was not one of the estimated 3,305,512 visitors in 2017, I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can.
Should the U.S. Fund National Parks by Allowing Oil Drilling?
Tucked away in the federal budget for fiscal 2019 is a proposal to fund our national parks’ infrastructure backlog. Three cheers? Hold on. Before you start celebrating at the notion that the backlog of $11+ billion in needed national parks repairs may actually be tackled, note that the necessary revenue would come from allowing oil companies to lease the right to drill on federal land. AMERICA’S PARKLAND IS UNDERFUNDED As Budget Travel reported recently in National Parks in Peril, our national parks are seriously underfunded and facing an array of infrastructure needs, threats from climate change, and the removal of protections for some wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, and bison. IS DRILLING A SOLUTION? Now, the administration proposes to cut more than 2,000 jobs from the National Park Service at a time when the parks are seeing record attendance each year. Perhaps even more concerning, the 2019 budget proposal would establish the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which would make park-infrastructure funding dependent on revenues derived from leases to oil companies allowing them to drill on federal land. WHAT DO YOU THINK? We want to hear from you: Do you support the administration’s proposal to fund the national parks using revenue from oil drilling on federal land?
The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is Utah’s smallest national park, but it packs a mighty punch. Hike the Navajo Loop down into the canyon to feel like you’re in the other-worldly terrain of Dr. Seuss book, and make sure you catch at least one sunrise or sunset over the canyon. Bryce Canyon is also a registered dark sky site, a treat for professional and amateur stargazers. GETTING THERE Because of Bryce’s location, in the center of Utah, you will almost certainly have passed another national park on your way. Bryce is a 90-minute drive east of Zion, two hours south of Capitol Reef, four hours west of Arches and Canyonlands, and five hours north of the Grand Canyon. No matter which direction you’re coming from, you’ll be rewarded with some of the American Southwest’s most beautiful country. ENTERING THE PARK For $30 per car, visitors get access to the park for seven days. If you intend to hit other Utah national parks (there are four more), spend $80 for an “America the Beautiful” pass, which into every U.S. national park. SAVE BIG BY CAMPING Tent camping is by far the most affordable way to experience Bryce Canyon. Plan early to book your campsite in Bryce National Park ($20/night, nps.gov/brca), as they book months in advance during the high season. The park has two campgrounds – Sunrise and Sunset, named for the nearby vantage points of the canyon. AFFORDABLE HOTELS Reasonably priced hotels can be found in Panguitch, Utah – about a 30-minute drive from the park. Here, you’ll find a collection of small inns run by locals. Rooms run as low as $30/night in the low season and $115/night in the high season. These are not the most luxurious accommodations, but certainly do the trick, especially considering that you’re going to want to spend most of your time outdoors. INSIDER’S EATING TIP There are fewer food options near Bryce Canyon than at most national parks, and all of them are a little gimmicky. If you stay in Panguitch, plan for breakfast at the Flying M restaurant on Main Street – huge portions of breakfast food for the smallest of budgets. But your best bet for food will be to stop at a supermarket and load a cooler before arriving at Bryce. HIKE NAVAJO LOOP From sunset point, you can start on the Navajo Loop trail which winds down into the canyon’s hoodoos and back up. You’ll have plenty of rocks to climb over and some great photo opportunities. This hike is strenuous, as it has steep climbs down and back up – it will be especially difficult if you’re sore from hiking somewhere else, like Zion National Park. But don’t let that deter you – this hike is totally worth the effort. CATCH SUNRISE AND SUNSET OVER THE CANYON Give yourself a treat and watch a sunrise or sunset from its appropriately named vantage point. Get to the vantage point early for the best views, as these times are primetime and draw the biggest crowds. LOOK UP AT THE STARS Bryce Canyon is one of the darkest places in the United States, far from the light pollution of any city. The park puts on 100 ranger-led astronomy programs per year, to teach you about the night sky like you’ve never seen it before. NEXT UP… UTAH’S OTHER NATIONAL PARKS This state is home to five gorgeous national parks, so after Bryce be sure to save time for Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.
The Budget Traveler's Guide to Zion National Park
Zion National Park (nps.gov/zion), in southwest Utah, is one of the most extraordinary places in the American Southwest (and on earth!). It offers adventure surrounded by towering canyons, immense red-sandstone walls, and amazing hikes, such as the Narrows and Angel’s Landing Lookout, that every American must see. Here, how to do Zion on a budget. GETTING THERE McCarron International Airport, in Las Vegas, is the closest airport to Zion National Park, and you will have to rent a car for the 160-mile drive to the park. If you’ve never experienced Vegas before, stay here for a night or two, but keep in mind it is very difficult to do Las Vegas on the cheap. To avoid the siren’s call of spending money, rent a 4WD SUV at the airport and take off toward the mountains on I-15 for desert panoramas that will start to prepare you for the jaw-dropping Utah landscape you’re headed for. I recommend doing this drive during daylight, not just because you’ll want to take in the desert, but also because it has some winding roads. It’s also advisable to buy several gallons of water in Las Vegas to have on hand. ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK At the park entrance, you will pay $30 per car, which gives you access to the park for seven days. (For $80, you can upgrade to the “America The Beautiful” pass, which grants you access to all national parks. If you plan to go on from Zion to other nearby parks, such as Bryce or Canyonlands, I recommend this option.) Be aware that Zion, unlike most national parks, does not allow private cars on most of its roads. Instead, the park uses a bus system to shuttle visitors up the canyon to various stops, while providing a narrated tour of the incredible views you’re seeing. There is often a line to get on a shuttle, and on busy days, you may feel as if you’re standing in line for a ride at Walt Disney World. The closer to sunrise you get to the park, the shorter the line will be. CAMPING: THE ULTIMATE BARGAIN Tent camping is the least expensive way to experience Zion National Park. How does free sound? You can make camp anywhere on the BLM (public land) without a fee (this is something called “dispersed camping”), but I recommend this option only for travelers who are experienced campers. If you want to camp for free, make sure you have a map and give yourself plenty of daylight to find a campsite. If you’d prefer campsites with more amenities ($20/night, nps.gov/zion), plan early to book your site, as they book months in advance during the high season. Zion’s Watchman campground is right by the visitor’s center and is the busiest campground. For a little more privacy, you can stay at the Lava Point Campground, about an hour’s drive from the visitor’s station into the park. HOTELS ARE A SHORT, BEAUTIFUL DRIVE AWAY Affordable hotels can be found in Hurricane, Utah, about a 20-minute drive from the park. Prices can be as low as $30 in the low season, and $80 in the high season. The drive to and from the park is beautiful, so the it goes by quickly. STOCK UP ON FOOD IN ADVANCE To stay on budget, you’ll want to stock up on food and water at a grocery store before you leave Las Vegas (pick up a cooler and ice if you’re packing perishables, of course). There are also several reliable and affordable restaurants not far from the park, in Springdale. HIKING: ZION’S MAIN ATTRACTION Zion Canyon is world-renowned for its hiking. Whether you spend the day stomping through a river canyon or scaling the side of a mountain, there is no more rewarding way to spend a day. I highly recommend doing Angel’s Landing before the Narrows, as you'll get wet at the Narrows and waterlogged feet are softer and more prone to blister. Here, two of Zion’s must-hikes: Angel’s Landing. This is Zion’s most famous hike, which ends with a crawl across the spine of the canyon to a view meant for angels. If you’re afraid of heights (like me), stop on the trail at Scout’s Landing, which provides views almost as good as those farther on. This trail is incredibly steep and strenuous. It’s also often very crowded – by the end of the effort, you’ll be best friends with the people climbing the trail around you. Bring more water than you think you'll need – ideally everyone in your party should carry their own full water bladder. The Narrows. This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a hike! You can stomp up the Virgin River canyon as far as you want, swimming and climbing on rocks as you stare up at the high walls enclosing you. This hike is great for families and people who are sore from their strenuous Angel's Landing hike the day before. The trail is listed as “strenuous” because it involves climbing over rocks. Note that there is always a risk of flash flooding – keep your eye on the flooding forecast posted around the park, follow all rangers' instructions, and if you start to notice the water slowly rising on your hike, turn back. You can rent the gear you need, like walking sticks and water shoes, at Zion Outfitter (zionoutfitter.com), located just outside the park entrance. This package runs $24/person in the summer, and spending the money on this essential gear will greatly improve your experience. NEXT UP… BRYCE CANYON To continue on your Utah road trip, head east from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park, where you will see more of some of the most beautiful countryside in America.
National Parks in Peril
From Alaska to St. Croix, from the Hawaiian islands to the coast of Maine, “America’s best idea” is threatened, not just by the government shutdowns and natural disasters that grab the headlines, but also by the day-to-day policy decisions and chronic underfunding that, in part, inspired most of the National Parks Advisory Board to resign in protest in mid-January. Here, what every traveler should be concerned about, and what every traveler can do to help ensure our national parks’ survival. THE NATIONAL PARKS ARE UNDERFUNDED The National Park Service oversees more than 400 areas, including parks, recreation areas, historical sites, monuments, and more. Each year, more than 300 million people visit those areas, suggesting that the great idea hatched in 1872, establishing Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, has never been more popular. But at the same time that our national parks are achieving record-breaking attendance, they also face unprecedented threats. “2017 was a tough year for the national parks,” says Ani Keme’enui, Director or Legislation & Policy at the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association. “These are pretty intensely polarized times, and we have an ongoing $11.3 billion national parks repairs backlog.” Just a few examples of the parks’ urgent infrastructure needs include: Yosemite’s need for $80 million in wastewater-treatment-plant repairs to prevent sewage from spilling into the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers; Arlington Memorial Bridge’s need for $250 million in safety upgrades for commuters and visitors traveling across the Potomac River between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery; and Voyageurs National Park’s $4.5 million need for maintenance of campsites, docks, and trails and $3.5 million of buildings in rural Minnesota. While the National Park Service is funded in part by park entry and camping fees, charitable donations, and the work of volunteers, by far the most important source of funding is the federal government in the form of legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president. In 2017, instead of moving to fund the multibillion-dollar backlog of national parkland repairs, the president proposed the biggest cut to NPS funding since World War II; Congress did not agree to the cuts, but the backlog, of course, remains and continues to grow. OIL AND GAS DRILLING THREATENS NATIONAL PARKLAND We all heard earlier this year that the Department of the Interior is planning to open most federal waters to oil and gas leasing. While a boom in U.S. oil output may be the short-term result, the long-term hazards to national parks, whose borders and shorelines would almost certainly be subject to drilling, are considerable, including the threat of oil spills, fires, water and air pollution, and more. “Energy dominance is going to be a major issue in 2018,” says Keme’enui. “We’re seeing an uptick in land purchases along park borders, where oil and gas drilling could get approved.” WILDLIFE IN THE PARKS IS UNDER ATTACK Ask anyone about their favorite memories of visiting a national park and they’ll often answer “bears,” or “wolves,” or “mountain goats,” or they’ll tell you, as I do, about the time a herd of bison stopped traffic on a summer afternoon in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. But in 2017, the executive branch removed federal protections for wildlife, including removing grizzlies in Yellowstone from the endangered species list, failing to protect wolves just outside park borders in Denali (where they are vulnerable to poisoning and trapping), and other species that have been previously listed as endangered or protected. The Department of the Interior, the federal department that oversees the NPS, is even reviewing regulations that forbid some of the worst forms of sport hunting on park lands, including the waking, baiting, and killing of hibernating mother bears and cubs. CLIMATE CHANGE AFFECTS EVERY NATIONAL PARK Those of us who’ve visited Glacier National Park over the years can’t help but notice the retreat and disappearance of actual glaciers, which were remnants of the last ice age. Sure, snow fields and ice remain, but the real glaciers are gone due to rising average annual temperatures. But climate change does not only threaten parkland known for ice and snow. From Shenandoah’s brook trout to Yosemite’s waterfalls, from Isle Royale’s dwindling wolf population to Mesa Verde’s ancient forests and cliff dwellings, every corner of the U.S. is affected by rising temperatures and the climate change that accompanies them. To make matters worse, on December 2017, the Department of the Interior eliminated a decade’s worth of climate-related policy and planning, dating back to the Bush administration, intended to protect national parks and federal land from the rising sea levels, wildfires, drought, and even pest infestation already associated with climate change. The decade-old policies were established by land managers and scientists who worked to safeguard the parks while taking economic and industrial concerns into account as well. PARK ENTRY FEES MAY RISE When the Department of the Interior proposed an increase to entry fees at 17 of the most popular national parks, our Budget Travel audience responded resoundingly, with readers pointing out not only that serious fee hikes (in some cases from $25 to $70) might price them and other working families out of a park visit but also that the estimated gross from the increased fees, around $70 million annually, would barely make a dent in the NPS annual budget and the $11.3 billion repairs backlog. HOW YOU CAN HELP “The recent conversations surrounding national parks indicate that people care a lot about these places, and rightfully so,” says Will Shafroth, President of the National Park Foundation. “Our focus is on helping park lovers, whether they be individuals, companies, or foundations, connect their deep passion for parks to the National Park System’s needs.” If you love the national parks, we suggest you make a donation to the National Park Foundation (nationalparks.org) and the National Parks Conservation Association (npca.org), two robust, nonpartisan nonprofits that have been supporting the national parks’ mission for decades. If you’ve visited a national park with children, they will perhaps be the most concerned and the most enthusiastic about raising funds. Help them organize a bake sale or a Share Your Wish campaign at their school, scout troop, or place of worship. And, to return to that word “nonpartisan” for a moment, we urge every traveler, regardless of political party, to put pragmatic, effective park management near the top of your political agenda. “Honestly, regardless of whether you consider yourself politically savvy or engaged, if you are visiting the national parks, you are acting politically” says Kame’enui. “The parks are endangered in terms of environment, staffing, and infrastructure, and by visiting the parks, you are supporting the parks.” She also urges every park lover to reach out to lawmakers. “Make your passion for the parks known.”