Even though 2020 will go down as one of the strangest and most stressful years in modern history, we can still celebrate that millions of us enjoyed time in a national park. 237 million actually. This month the National Park Service released the annual visitor statistics report and the list of the most visited national parks in 2020.
Big Changes in the Most Visited National Parks in 2020
Not surprisingly, the pandemic led to some shake-ups from previous years. Some of our favorite parks were inaccessible during pandemic restrictions and saw huge drop-offs in visitors last year. For the first time in recent memory, Glacier National Park and Yosemite National Park dropped out of the Top 10.
Other parks, especially those near urban areas, saw much large jumps in visitation. Smaller national parks like Cuyahoga Valley, Joshua Tree, and Indiana Dunes surged ahead in the rankings.
Check out our guide below to The Most Visited National Parks in 2020 to see where your favorite parks landed on this year’s list:
The Most Visited National Parks in 2020
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 12.1 million
2019 Rank: #1
2019 Visitor Count: 12.5 million
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee maintains the #1 spot for another year. No surprises here since the Smoky’s typically blow the rest of national parks away in visitor counts. With only 400,000 fewer visitors than in 2019 despite the pandemic, it’s clear that Great Smoky Mountains National Park won’t be giving up the top spot on the list of Most Visited National Parks anytime soon.
2. Yellowstone National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 3.8 million
2019 Rank: #6
2019 Visitor Count: 4.0 million
Early on in the pandemic, there were plenty of reports about illegal activity, human-wildlife encounters, and damage to thermal features in Yellowstone National Park while park rangers reduced oversight to follow COVID-19 protocols.
Despite a significant drop-off in foreign travel (Yellowstone is one of the most popular destinations in the United States for international travelers), it didn’t stop nearly 3.8 million Americans from visiting the park this year.
Yellowstone jumped to the #2 slot in the Most Visited National Parks in 2020 from previous years where it’s ranked #5 or #6.
Expect Yellowstone to have another strong showing in 2021. The park saw record visitation numbers in October 2020 and January 2021, despite peak pandemic cases.
3. Zion National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 3.6 million
2019 Rank: #4
2019 Visitor Count: 4.5 million
Among all the other parks on this list, visitors to Zion National Park saw some of the biggest changes (and challenges) over previous travel seasons. Even though it’s one of the smaller parks on this list, millions of people continue to pack Zion’s trails and roads.
In order to maintain proper social distancing, the park discontinued offering shuttle service in Zion Valley early in the pandemic. This created traffic and parking headaches, forcing the park administration to close the park road. Reports of people lining up at the entrance gate in the middle of the night and sleeping in cars to get into the park were common during the busiest months of summer 2020.
As rangers returned to Zion throughout the summer and fall, the park began a new reservations system to help control the crowds. While we loved our time in Zion, we also know that the park’s ecosystem continues to be at risk from so many people crowding onto the trails and popular Instagram destinations. Park rangers spent months cleaning up garbage and reparing damage on the Narrows hike alone. Graffiti has become such a problem, the park now believes that some areas may never be the same.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 3.3 million
2019 Rank: #3
2019 Visitor Count: 4.67 million
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park was again one of the most popular destinations. Denver and Fort Collins residents looking for a weekend respite from the work-from-home life flocked to the park this year.
Given that website crashed for the 2021 wilderness camping permit lottery, it’s probably a safe bet that the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park will be in high demand again this year as well.
5. Grand Teton National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 3.29 million
2019 Rank: #8
2019 Visitor Count: 3.4 million
Jumping up 3 spots on the list of Most Visited National Parks in 2020 is Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. In fact, 2020 marks the 4th busiest year on record for the national park.
Wildlife, skiing, and nearby Jackson Hole continue to be the biggest draw for park visitors. It’ll likely be another popular destination for Summer 2021 as many people hit the roads on their first travels of post-pandemic.
6. Grand Canyon National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 2.89 million
2019 Rank: #2
2019 Visitor Count: 5.9 million
Grand Canyon was one of the parks experiencing the largest drop-offs in visitor counts in 2020. The park slipped from the #2 slot down to #6, with a drop in more than 3 million visitors (or more than 8,000 fewer people per day).
While it’s hard to speculate one exact cause for lower visitation rates, outbreaks of COVID-19 in Arizona throughout the summer, combined with a later opening of park amenities than some of the others on this list likely contributed.
Lower visitor rates didn’t prevent the Navajo Nation communities that serve as the gateway to Grand Canyon from being devastated by COVID. Park officials continue to carefully monitor the situation in one of the most severely impacted regions in the United States as they consider re-opening all of Grand Canyon’s entrances.
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7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 2.75 million
2019 Rank: #13
2019 Visitor Count: 2.2 million
For the first time in recent memory, Cuyahoga Valley National Park makes a giant leap into the Top 10 Most Visited National Parks. Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, the park offered major respite for nearby urban dwellers looking for some outdoor space for social distancing. The park is no more than 3.5 hours drive from any of the major cities in Ohio.
It’s not the first time Cuyahoga Valley made it into the top 10, but it is the first time in the past 9 years. Expect another busy season as the more than 12 million residents of Ohio flock to their home-state park for biking, hiking, and some of the state’s best waterfalls.
8. Acadia National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 2.66 million
2019 Rank: #7
2019 Visitor Count: 3.43 million
Acadia National Park held on to a spot in the Most Visited National Parks in 2020 despite major changes to its reservations system this year. Even prior to the pandemic, park officials have been working to identify ways to keep popular trails and the scenic park drive from damage and overcrowding.
Despite the changes, we’re sure that plenty of people were able to catch a sunrise in one of the best spots in the park.
9. Olympic National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 2.49 million
2019 Rank: #9
2019 Visitor Count: 3.2 million
Despite a drop of more than 700,000 visitors last year, Washington’s Olympic National Park held on to the #9 spot in the Most Visited National Parks in 2020. Washington saw some of the first cases of coronavirus in the United States during the pandemic and has continued to have stringent guidelines for travel and social distancing. The wildfires that devastated Washington and Oregon in 2020 also impacted visitor counts throughout parks in the Pacific Northwest.
Yet 2.5 million people still came out to enjoy the beaches and hiking trails in Olympic last year. We can’t wait for a June 2021 trip to Washington to join them!
10. Joshua Tree National Park
2020 Visitor Count: 2.39 million
2019 Rank: #11
2019 Visitor Count: 2.99 million
Joshua Tree National Park in sunny southern California just missed the Top 10 list in 2019 but managed to snag a spot this year.
Even though the park saw its first decline in visitor count in the past 7 years, it still edged out Indiana Dunes National Park by just a few thousand visitors for the final spot in the Top 10 Most Visited National Parks of 2002.
Park officials expect high visitor counts to return in 2021 with thousands of travelers from the crowded SoCal coast looking for more space for social distancing and many California schools remaining closed.
How does this list compare?
Curious how the pandemic changed visitor counts in the National Park Service? Check out our Top 10 Most Visited National Parks lists from 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019