Straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the most popular national park in the United States covers 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and is home to lovely flora and fauna and a large section of the Appalachian Trail.
More than 327 million people visited NPS sites last year, a 2.9% increase from 2018, and the third highest number since record keeping began in 1904. (The park service wasn’t even created until 1916.)
“The numbers once again affirm that Americans and visitors from around the world love the natural, cultural and historic experience provided by our nation’s national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a press release.
“The 419 parks in the national park system provide a vast array of opportunities for recreation and inspiration for visitors of all ages,” said National Park Service Deputy Director David Vela. “With at least one located in every state, national parks offer nearby history, culture and adventure.”
Among those 419 sites covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several US territories, only 62 are national parks. The park service also released rankings on all the sites it oversees, which includes parkways, seashores, lakeshores, battlefields and memorials.
With more than 15 million visitors in 2019, Golden Gate National Recreation Area took the park service’s overall top spot for the second year in a row, beating out second place Blue Ridge Parkway, the 2017 winner, which had 14.9 million visitors last year.
The two park sites have been swapping first and second place rankings since 1979, the park service said.
Most popular national parks
Among the 62 national parks, first place Great Smoky Mountains National Park was followed by Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park and Yosemite National Park, which nudged Yellowstone National Park out of fifth place.
Yellowstone dropped to sixth place, followed by Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park and Glacier National Park. Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon have held the top two spots since 1990, the park service said.
A multi-billion dollar impact
Visitors to the national park sites spent a estimated $20.2 billion in local gateway regions in 2018, according to a May 2019 report (PDF) by the park service, which translated into 329,000 jobs, $13.6 billion in labor income, $23.4 billion in value added, and $40.1 billion in economic output. The lodging sector saw the biggest benefits, with $6.8 billion in economic output, while restaurants saw $4 billion in economic output.
North Carolina, which is home to the most popular national park and the second most popular park site, “gets more National Park Service site visitors than any state other than California,” said Wit Tuttell, Director of Visit North Carolina.
With 18.2 million visitors annually across 14 different sites, “It’s impossible to overstate the impact these sites have on all sorts of communities across our state,” he said. “For numerous towns, and particularly those in rural areas, the NPS sites are the main reason people are visiting, which leads to $1.3 billion in spending and more than 20,000 jobs statewide.”
“For many rural communities that are struggling to maintain their economic vitality, these sites are crucial to their ability to survive.”
Grand Canyon and Olympic national parks have a similar impact on their state economies.
“Attracting over six million annual visitors, Grand Canyon National Park is a critical driver of the economy, especially for communities across northern Arizona,” said Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. “And earning the status last year as the largest Dark Sky Park in the world, its global appeal only continues to grow.”
Located between Olympic National Park (the ninth most popular national park) and Mount Rainier National Park, “Olympia area hotels and restaurants benefit from national and international travelers exploring the parks by serving as a central point,” said Shauna Stewart, CEO of Experience Olympia & Beyond.
Rebounding after the government shutdown
Visitation to the national park sites rebounded from the most recent shutdown, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019.
In some previous shutdowns, the park service had closed many of the sites due to lack of funding for staffing. In the most recent shutdown, the gates mostly remained opened but often without sufficient staffing.
In several states, a combination of funds from park user fees; state and local governments; non-profits and businesses helped keep some NPS sites open.
Still free for fourth-graders
Every fourth-grader around the country can get a free one-year national parks pass for the student and their family under a program started by then-President Barack Obama in 2015.
The “Every Kid in a Park” program, which attracted more than 350,000 fourth graders in its first two years of operation, was reauthorized last year for seven more years, the park service said.
Most popular National Park Service sites (419 total)
1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (CA):15 million visits
2. Blue Ridge Parkway (NC/VA): 14.9 million visits
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC/TN): 12.5 million visits
4. Gateway National Recreation Area (NY/NJ): 9.4 million visits
5. Lincoln Memorial (DC): 7.8 million visits
6. George Washington Memorial Parkway 7.5 million visits
7. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (AZ/NV): 7.5 million visits
8. Natchez Trace Parkway (AL/MS/TN): 6.3 million visits
9. Grand Canyon National Park (AZ): 5.97 million visits
10. Gulf Islands National Seashore (FL/MS) 5.6 million visits
Most popular National Parks (62 total)
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC/TN): 12.5 million visits
2. Grand Canyon National Park (AZ): 5.97 million visits
3. Rocky Mountain National Park (CO) 4.7 million visits
4. Zion National Park (UT) 4.5 million visits
5. Yosemite National Park (CA) 4.4 million
6. Yellowstone National Park (ID/MT/WY) 4 million
7. Acadia National Park (ME) 3.4 million visits
8. Grand Teton National Park (WY) 3.4 million visits
9. Olympic National Park (WA) 3.2 million visits
10. Glacier National Park (MT) 3 million visits