Top 15 Most Visited National Parks in the USA, 2023 Update
Do you love spending time outside and immersing yourself in gorgeous landscapes — maybe you’d like a side of history tossed in for good measure. The National Park Service reports over 300 million recreational visits to its parks, parkways, and memorials every year by people just like you.
It’s such a long list of sites; how do you decide which ones to see or which is the best national park for your specific trip? We’ve got you covered with a list of the most visited national parks, why you need to visit, and what to expect when you do!
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
Location: North Carolina and Virginia
The Blue Ridge Parkway tops the list of most recreational visits among national parks. It might seem strange that a parkway would garner so much attention, but you’re looking at over 460 miles through some of North America’s most captivating landscapes.
It’s a haven for hikers, campers, and naturalists who can appreciate the region’s diverse ecosystem, but that’s not all you’ll find in the Appalachian highlands. Immerse yourself in local culture with a diverse mix of special events, including concerts featuring folk musicians.
Summer and fall are best for experiencing Blue Ridge Parkway, as there’s always a risk of road and trail closings due to weather during winter and early spring.
Campers can make reservations at one of the eight developed campgrounds along the parkway or obtain a permit for the backcountry sites. Reservations are all first come, first served, and you can book up to six months in advance of your trip.
2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Location: San Francisco, California
As one of the most visited national parks in the US, Golden Gate National Recreation Area attracts millions annually. It marked its 50th anniversary in 2022, representing a milestone for conservationists who sought to protect the site’s diverse ecosystems. There’s always something going on at Golden Gate, with annual events covering historical, cultural, art, and nature programs throughout the park.
Nature lovers will appreciate the chance to explore over a dozen unique ecosystems, home to thousands of plants and animals. You can also find strong cultural and historical ties to indigenous cultures, Spanish and Mexican colonists, and U.S. expansionists who contributed to San Francisco’s prosperity.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers something to do any time of year, but campers, hikers, and beachcombers hoping to have a bonfire on the beach might want to avoid the rainy season (November through early April).
Campers must make reservations to stay at Bicentennial Campground, but you can only book three months in advance and on a first-come, first-served basis.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: North Carolina and Tennessee
Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must for any nature lover and outdoors person. Aside from the chance to see remarkable species of flora and fauna, you can hike and explore virtually untouched landscapes or fish in several thousand miles of streams.
History buffs will appreciate the dozens of well-preserved structures, including barns, farmhouses, churches, and grist mills. The park also houses several cemeteries that locals still maintain.
It’s best to visit during the summer or early fall to avoid excessive precipitation, which typically sparks hazardous conditions and road closures. If you’d prefer to avoid summer, September, and October are a must-visit, as these two months bring brilliant colors and temperate conditions.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers some of the finest camping facilities in the national park system. Make a reservation at one of the front country sites, group campgrounds, or horse camps throughout the park. Backpackers can rough it in the backcountry with a permit.
4. Gateway National Recreation Area
Location: New York and New Jersey
Gateway National Recreation Area is one of the more diverse options on this list, with a range of indoor and outdoor activities to keep you entertained year-round. Check out the Sandy Hook lighthouse, a wildlife refuge center, and former military outposts if the weather doesn’t cooperate. When the sun comes out, hit the beach, trails, or team sports venues.
Unless you only want to partake in winter sports, try to plan your visit between May and October to have more to see and do.
There’s no reservation required for visiting, but you can expect to pay an entrance fee to hit the beach during peak season (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day Weekend).
Campers can reserve sites at Sandy Hook campground for up to 14 consecutive nights.
5. Lincoln Memorial
Location: District of Columbia
It’s one of the most recognizable buildings in North America, housing an equally notable, larger-than-life statue. Anybody who has walked up the Lincoln Memorial’s steps and stood at the foot of the statue can tell you what a breathtaking experience it is.
You can visit the memorial any time of year, though it’s often busier during the spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom throughout Washington D.C. It’s possible to find a tour of school children or tourists at nearly any point, so you might want to plan on waiting to have your moment with Lincoln.
While you can visit for free, it closes for cleaning from midnight until 6 am.
Travel Tip: Try to make time to see the Lincoln Memorial at night. Twilight only adds to the dramatic ambiance of this colossal monument.
6. George Washington Memorial Parkway
Location: District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia
The George Washington Memorial Parkway is a recreational drive featuring several side trips for hiking, wildlife watching, and outdoor concerts during the summer. Stop by one of the many historical landmarks in the area, including Arlington House and Clara Barton National Historic Site.
Make the most of your drive along the parkway by visiting in spring when the trees come to life, or take advantage of fall and its magical changes in leaf color.
7. Natchez Trace Parkway
Location: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee
Step back in time when you explore the Natchez Trace Parkway, which serves as a reminder of this nation’s history. Swing by the historic sites, set out on horse or bike trails, or camp at one of the outposts along the parkway.
There’s no wrong time of year to visit — though fall offers the most beauty as the leaves change colors.
It’s free to explore most of the parkway, but guided tours and equipment rentals come with a fee. Campers can make reservations at one of three campgrounds along the parkway.
8. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Location: Florida, Mississippi
This national preserve draws millions of visitors each year, thanks to its rolling beaches along the Gulf of Mexico that make for excellent swimming, hiking, and wildlife viewing. Plus, you can visit several historical sites that tell the region’s story over the centuries.
Given the dynamic weather conditions throughout the Gulf region, it’s best to plan visits outside of hurricane season. Winter months are nice with mild daily temperatures and slightly chilly nights, then it turns hot and humid from May through September.
Be sure to purchase an entrance pass for your vehicle before heading to the nature reserve. You don’t have to make a reservation unless you want to use one of the pavilions or campsites.
9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Location: Arizona, Nevada
Lake Mead National Recreation Area isn’t just the first of its kind — it’s also the largest at some 1.5 million acres.
Fish, swim, boat, kayak, or canoe in clear blue waters, or lounge on the shores to take in the colorful landscapes. Hikers will appreciate the unique hiking trail options that range from rolling prairies to stunning geological rainbow-hued rock formations.
Depending on your weather preferences, you can find pleasant temperatures almost year-round. Summers bring highs of up to 110° F with bath-like water temperatures. For milder conditions, aim for spring or fall.
You don’t need to make reservations to visit Lake Mead unless you plan to camp. Note that there are fees to enter the park and use the lakes.
10. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Location: District of Columbia
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is another must-see national monument in Washington D.C. It’s sobering to witness the magnitude of lives lost during the conflict when you see the seemingly endless wall of names cutting a swath into the lawn.
There is no perfect time to visit the memorial unless you hope to attend a special event. Memorial Day and Veterans Day see considerable traffic, but there’s also a range of programs organized by volunteers and park rangers.
Many who visit make rubbings of loved ones’ names to commemorate them. If you would like to find a name, the memorial has catalogs at the entrance to help you locate one.
11. World War II Memorial
Location: District of Columbia
The World War II Memorial is an architectural marvel commemorating those who sacrificed themselves in the name of freedom. You can spend as much time as you like by the fountain or walking between the stone archways.
It’s one of the few sites that remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. However, rangers are only available at the national monument during set hours. Try to arrive early in the morning or at dusk to avoid crowds or excessive heat during the summer months.
12. Grand Canyon National Park
Visit one of the seven wonders of the world at Grand Canyon National Park, where you can hike until your heart’s content. For a more unique sightseeing experience, take a river trip or sign up to ride a mule down into the canyon.
While the canyon looks impressive during winter, roads frequently close due to snow and ice. To make the most of your trip to Grand Canyon National Park, aim for visits from May through September.
If you plan to visit the Havasupai Tribe, you need to make a reservation in advance to enter the tribal grounds.
13. Zion National Park
Zion National Park might be the best national park for rock climbers, canyoneers, and backpackers though you need a permit to do any of those activities. When visiting during warm weather, head to The Narrows to cool off, as you’ll have to get a little wet to pass through this gorge.
Summer and early fall are ideal times to explore Zion National Park because the weather is nice and the water levels are more manageable.
Like other national parks, Zion requires visitors to pay an entrance fee for their vehicles. Campers can make reservations for one of three campgrounds in the area.
14. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Location: New Jersey, Pennsylvania
Touch on 27 miles of the Appalachian Trail when you visit Delaware Water Gap or take off on over 120 miles of other natural trails through ravines, forests, and along waterfalls.
Hit the water by boat, canoe, or kayak to take in the sights from a dramatic angle. Fishing and hunting are also permitted during set times with proper licensure as a means to control animal populations.
It’s best to visit during the late spring, summer, and early fall to enjoy the scenery while avoiding road and hiking trail closures.
Entry is free, but if you plan to camp or explore the expanded amenities, you may have to pay a nominal fee. Backcountry campers need a permit to stay overnight in the park.
15. Rocky Mountain National Park
Soaring, snow-covered peaks, glaciers, streams, and waterfalls await visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. This national park sprawls over 415 square miles with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in North America. You’ll have your pick of hikes, scenic drives, interactive visitor centers, and fishing.
While there’s something to do any time of year, the weather from fall to spring can be tumultuous and often leads to closures. Given that, check the daily alerts before heading up to the mountains.
Reservations are required from May to October to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. You do need to purchase a vehicle pass to gain admission. If you plan to spend more than two days at the park, it might be worth investing in an annual pass.
Campers can reserve sites at one of the five on-site campgrounds up to six months before their trip.
Plan Your Big Adventure
Have you been to any of the most visited national parks? Do you have an opinion on which might be the best national park? Tell us about your favorite!
This article was produced and syndicated by The Happiness Function.
Featured Image Credit: Maridav/Depositphotos.com.