The Best National Parks: Top to Bottom

This article first appeared in National Parks Traveler

The Best National Parks?

yell-grand_prismatic_spring_nps_700_0_0 The Best National Parks: Top to Bottom

Which park is the best of the 59 official national parks in the U.S.?  Would you believe my list is  unbiased?  Since each person enjoys different aspects of nature, lists like these are subjective and biased.  Some people love mountain scenery and hiking, while others love the ocean or lakes.  Some like majestic vistas while others love the intimacy of an island.  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.  But is there a way to objectively rank national parks?

All parks are not created equal.  Some parks are better than others.  I rate each park in my blog posts, but that is just my opinion, with all of my biases.  So, how to rank national parks objectively?

Objectivity means using data.  People vote with their feet, so do we use visitor count as THE measure of “best”?  If that is the only criteria, this would be a short article.  Great Smoky Mountains would be the best, end of debate.  But not so fast!  Is it fair to compare visitation of a park that is “easy” to visit,  to a park that is remote and hard to visit?  While Great Smoky is a great park, most people would not rate it as the best national park.

The Most Popular National Parks

 

Ten Most-Visited Parks 2016 Visitation  Population within 500 Miles (000)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park 11,312,786      107,003
Grand Canyon  National Park 5,969,811        44,726
Yosemite National Park 5,028,868        45,949
Rocky Mountain National Park 4,517,585        14,131
Zion National Park 4,295,127        50,320
Yellowstone National Park 4,257,177        12,135
Olympic National Park 3,390,221        12,123
Acadia National Park 3,303,393        58,279
Grand Teton National Park 3,270,076        12,559
Glacier National Park 2,946,681        11,808
gaar-mountains_above_john_river_nps-cadence_cook_700 The Best National Parks: Top to Bottom
Gates of Arctic National Park/NPS, Cadence Cook
Ten Least-Visited Parks 2016 Visitors  Population within 500 Miles (000)
Gates of the Arctic National Park 10,047              537
Kobuk Valley National Park 15,500              242
Lake Clark National Park 21,102              623
Isle Royale National Park 24,966              760
North Cascades National Park 28,646        12,196
National Park of American Samoa 28,892              280
Katmai National Park 37,818              588
Dry Tortugas National Park 73,661        20,066
Wrangell –St. Elias National Park 79,047              623
Congaree National Park 143,843        82,546

The top ten most-visited national parks have an average population of nearly 37 million within 500 miles (roughly a day’s drive) while the ten least-visited parks average just under 11 million people.  The easier it is to get to a park, the more people will visit.

Distance from population centers is an important, but not the dominant, parameter to visitor count.  Of the top ten most-visited parks, only three are in the top 10 of population within 500 miles.  Closeness to people does not fully explain the popularity.  Note that of the ten least-visited park, six do not have road access.  A plane or a boat is required to visit, a big barrier for visitation.  It doesn’t mean these parks are necessarily less beautiful or attractive, but it takes more work and resources to visit.

There are clearly other factors at work.  Visitor count by itself does not accurately reflect how “attractive” or how “great” a particular national park is.  While every national park has its claim to fame, some are just “better” than others.  When I mention “national parks”, which parks do you think of first?  Yellowstone?  Yosemite? Grand Canyon?  These parks are relatively remote and are not near population centers, yet they are famous and attract a lot of visitors.

The best parks should receive a lot of visitors adjusted for the effort required to visit.  The more the people are willing to expend the effort to visit, the more attractive a park is.  Visitor per population within 500 miles is a proxy for effort required.  The higher the ratio, the more people think it’s worthwhile to spend the effort to get there.  This is the best proxy since we don’t have data on the distance a visitor traveled to visit a park.

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Congaree National Park/Harold Jerrell

The Least Popular Parks?

Ten lowest visitor per population parks 2016 Visitors  Population within 500 Miles (000) 2016 Visitor / 500 Mile Population
Congaree National Park 143,843              82,546 0.002
North Cascades National Park 28,646              12,196 0.002
Great Basin National Park 144,846              51,657 0.003
Dry Tortugas National Park 73,661              20,066 0.004
Pinnacles National Park 215,555              41,140 0.005
Mammoth Cave National Park 586,514            105,990 0.006
Guadalupe Mountains National Park 181,839              24,731 0.007
Channel Islands National Park 364,807              44,848 0.008
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 238,018              21,638 0.011
Shenandoah National Park 1,437,341            126,133 0.011

If we look at the ratio of visitors-to-population, these are the parks with the least number of visitors per population within a day’s drive.  Congaree, located in South Carolina, draws from a huge population of 82.5 million but only had 143,000 visitors in 2016, making it one of the least-visited.  Perhaps not surprising since a large mosquito meter greets people at the visitor center.  Dry Tortugas, despite being close to heavily populated South Florida, requires an expensive boat or plane ride, which discourages visitation.  Channel Islands has the same problem, even though it’s close to the megalopolis of Los Angeles.

Mammoth Cave is within a day’s drive of 105 million people, yet draws less than 600,000 visitors.  Perhaps the largest cave is not attractive enough.

Pinnacles is not far from San Jose, yet it’s one of the least-visited parks, perhaps because it’s also the newest and word has not gotten out yet, or is it because the spires are not dramatic enough?

Shenandoah is within a day’s drive of more than one-third of the country, but ranked 17th in visitation while nearby Great Smoky, with 19 million less people within 500 miles, is the most visited park with nearly eight times the number of visitors.  What explains the difference?

Great Basin has more people than Yosemite within 500 miles (50 million vs. 45 million), yet Yosemite has 35 times as many visitors.  Perhaps it’s because Yosemite is more spectacular.

When people think of national parks, these parks do not come to mind.  They are just not as good.

havo-the_fire_hose_boat_view_rlatson_700 The Best National Parks: Top to Bottom
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park/Rebecca Latson

The Most Popular Parks?

Ten highest visitor per population parks 2016 Visitors  Population within 500 Miles (000) 2016 Visitor / 500 Mile Population
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 1,887,580                 1,360 1.388
Denali National Park 587,412                    626 0.938
Haleakalā National Park 1,263,558                 1,360 0.929
Glacier Bay National Park 520,171                    567 0.917
Kenai Fjords National Park 346,534                    603 0.575
Yellowstone National Park 4,257,177              12,135 0.351
Rocky Mountain National Park 4,517,585              14,131 0.320
Olympic National Park 3,390,221              12,123 0.280
Grand Teton National Park 3,270,076              12,559 0.260
Glacier National Park 2,946,681              11,808 0.250

Let’s look at the highest ratio of visitor-to-500-mile-population.  Places with large tourist-to-resident ratio came out on top.  Mega cruise ships bring tourists to Glacier Bay and they never set foot on the ground, while excursions bring visitors to Denali in the comfort of trains, buses and hotels.  Nearly two million tourists visit Alaska, compared with 742,000 residents.

Even more dramatic, 7.6 million tourists visit Hawaii compared to 1.4 million residents.  It’s no surprise the two national parks in Hawaii are included in the top three slots on the list.  High-tourist-to resident ratio explains why Alaska and Hawaii dominate this list.

Yellowstone, the first and perhaps the best-known national park is the top park after the Hawaii and Alaska parks.  It’s not close to any population center, has a short season, yet attracts more than 4 million visitors from all around the world.  Clearly, a lot of people are willing to spend the time and money to visit.  That should count a lot.

Rocky Mountain is another diverse park that is very popular, especially since it’s in Denver’s backyard where the residents have a penchant for outdoor pursuits.  Similarly, Olympic is diverse and close to Seattle.

I’ve heard many experienced national park visitors say Glacier is the best and most underrated national park.  It’s remote, a long day’s drive from Seattle and Salt Lake City, the two closest big cities, with a short season.  Yet, it receives nearly 3 million visitors a year.

When to Visit to Avoid the Crowd

When is the best time to visit a particular park?  I hate crowds in national parks.  Crowds are for cities.  I balance lack of crowds and weather when I plan our trips to the more popular parks.

National park visitation vary widely.  The most-visited (Great Smoky at more than 11 million) has 1,100 times the visitors as the least (Gates of the Arctic, at just 10,000).  There are more visitors in eight hours to Great Smoky than Gates of the Arctic counts in a year!

Likewise, there are dramatic differences in visitation depending on the time of year for a particular park.  As you would expect, the parks in the north, where the weather is harsh in the winter, have the biggest difference between peak month and the low month.

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Kenai Fjords National Park/NPS
Name Peak Month 2016 Peak Month Visitation Low Month 2016 Low Month Visitation High to Low Ratio
Kenai Fjords National Park July 107,851 January 5 21570.2
Wrangell –St. Elias National Park July 25,520 January 25 1020.8
Glacier Bay National Park August 120,251 January 173 695.1
North Cascades National Park August 9,782 February 16 611.4
Isle Royale National Park August 8,878 January 26 341.5
Denali National Park July 160,357 January 500 320.7
Voyageurs National Park July 54,668 December 196 278.9
Gates of the Arctic National Park August 3,137 November 18 174.3
Katmai National Park July 16,678 January 100 166.8
Theodore Roosevelt National Park July 162,933 December 2,141 76.1

The parks with the least variation are in the south.  The data on Kobuk Valley is suspect, even though  it came from the National Park Service.  The numbers look too round and I find it hard to believe 800 people visited this park inside the Arctic Circle in February when the other park inside the Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic, only had 18 visitors.

Name Peak Month 2016 Peak Month Visitors Low Month 2016 Low Month Visitors High to Low Ratio
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park July 182,278 September 126,474 1.4
Kobuk Valley National Park October 1,800 February 800 2.3
Pinnacles National Park April 27,035 October 10,663 2.5
Hot Springs National Park July 190,199 February 70,611 2.7
Guadalupe Mountains National Park March 23,426 January 8,499 2.8
Biscayne National Park July 70,830 October 24,114 2.9
Congaree National Park March 19,387 February 6,556 3.0
Joshua Tree National Park March 327,072 June 110,505 3.0
Everglades National Park March 134,815 September 44,750 3.0
Channel Islands National Park July 49,119 January 15,710 3.1

The most popular parks by visitors during their peak month all have significant differences between their peak month and low month.  The ones with the biggest disparity (largest high-to-low ratio) often have tolerable weather but sparse crowds during spring and fall.  Even though ranger programs are curtailed during the off season, parks that accommodate large crowds in the peak season often feel empty in the shoulder seasons.  By plan, we visited these parks in late September and October, when the weather is nice but the crowds are mostly gone.  I can’t imagine visiting Zion in July!

Name Peak Month 2016 Peak Month Visitation Low Month 2016 Low Month Visitation High to Low Ratio
Great Smoky Mountains National Park July 1,464,456 February 353,532 4.1
Yellowstone National Park July 995,917 December 19,685 50.6
Rocky Mountain National Park July 912,507 December 91,831 9.9
Grand Canyon  National Park July 839,086 February 214,361 3.9
Glacier National Park July 818,481 December 12,877 63.6
Olympic National Park August 813,267 December 72,439 11.2
Yosemite National Park July 780,728 January 139,780 5.6
Grand Teton National Park July 758,253 December 38,329 19.8
Acadia National Park August 735,945 December 14,111 52.2
Zion National Park July 599,961 January 84,145 7.1
yell-lone_star_10-8-16_700_kjr The Best National Parks: Top to Bottom
Yellowstone National Park/Kurt Repanshek

THE Best National Parks

National park preferences are intensely personal but some are “better” than others.  There is a reason why some parks are well-known while others live on in obscurity.  As we travel to all national parks and blog about our journey, many have told to us “I have never heard of that national park before” when I wrote about the lesser-known parks.

Casting personal preferences aside, how do we objectively settle the question of which park is “best”?  Let’s use data.

The method is based on visitor count and proximity to population, adjusted for difficulty of access.  The easier people can get to a park, the more people will visit, all else being equal.  The difference in the ratio tells us how desirable a park is.  The score is adjusted to account for road access and tourist count where tourist number is material to the calculation.

Park Final Score Total Score Rank
Yellowstone National Park 100 1
Glacier National Park 80 2
Rocky Mountain National Park 73 3
Grand Teton National Park 64 4
Olympic National Park 58 5
Denali National Park 45 6
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 42 7
Glacier Bay National Park 42 8
Grand Canyon  National Park 39 9
Theodore Roosevelt National Park 38 10
Zion National Park 33 11
Haleakalā National Park 28 12
Badlands National Park 27 13
Kenai Fjords National Park 27 14
Great Smoky Mountains National Park 26 15
Yosemite National Park 25 16
National Park of American Samoa 21 17
Arches National Park 21 18
Bryce Canyon National Park 17 19
Wind Cave National Park 16 20
Mount Rainier National Park 16 21
Acadia National Park 15 22
Katmai National Park 15 23
Joshua Tree National Park 11 24
Big Bend National Park 11 25
Capitol Reef National Park 10 26
Canyonlands National Park 10 27
Everglades National Park 9 28
Channel Islands National Park 9 29
Lake Clark National Park 8 30
Crater Lake National Park 8 31
Mesa Verde National Park 8 32
Kobuk Valley National Park 7 33
Saguaro National Park 7 34
Hot Springs National Park 6 35
Wrangell –St. Elias National Park 6 36
Carlsbad Caverns National Park 6 37
Virgin Islands National Park 6 38
Death Valley National Park 6 39
Sequoia National Park 5 40
Biscayne National Park 5 41
Redwood National Park 5 42
Cuyahoga Valley National Park 5 43
Petrified Forest National Park 4 44
Great Sand Dunes National Park 4 45
Gates of the Arctic National Park 4 46
Dry Tortugas National Park 4 47
Voyageurs National Park 3 48
Lassen Volcanic National Park 3 49
Shenandoah National Park 3 50
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 3 51
Kings Canyon National Park 3 52
Guadalupe Mountains National Park 2 53
Isle Royale National Park 2 54
Mammoth Cave National Park 1 55
Pinnacles National Park 1 56
Great Basin National Park 1 57
North Cascades National Park 0 58
Congaree National Park 0 59

Is anyone surprised Yellowstone is at the top of the list?  It is the most famous and near the top of most people’s list of favorite parks.

Glacier is mentioned by many experienced national park visitors as one of the best.  It received nearly 3 million visitors in 2016 even though it’s far from any major city.

While Denali and Glacier Bay are in remote Alaska, they benefit from cruise ship tourism that makes it relatively easy to visit.  The highlight of many Alaskan cruise is a visit to Glacier Bay, without ever leaving the comfort of the cruise ship.

On the other side of the list, Congaree is within a day’s drive of 82 million people, yet it’s one of the least-visited parks.  Perhaps the large “mosquito meter” inside the visitor center is an indicator.

The top-ranked parks are the most famous.  They are famous for a good reason: they have the best, most diverse attractions.  The data supports the reputation.  The high visitation despite the remoteness is people voting with their time and money.  Do you agree with the result?  If you’ve been to many national parks, how close is this to your personal favorite?

Do You Agree With The Method Used?

What data would you use to rank parks?  Leave a comment below and share your best national parks.

Join us at our travelogue as we visit all 59 national parks.

For Geeks (the formula)

  • The final score is normalized with the top ranked park set to 100.
  • For parks with road access, the raw score is (2016 visitors) / ((population within 500 miles+tourists) * 0.9) + (population within 250 miles+tourists) * 0.1))
  • Tourist count only added if tourists outnumber population
  • For parks without road access, the raw score is (2016 visitors * 5) / ((population within 500 miles+tourists) * 0.9) + (population within 250 miles+tourists) * 0.1))
  • The 5 multiply factor is to account for difficulty of access without roads.  I compared “similar” parks and their visitation to arrive the factor of 5.  For example, I compared Dry Tortugas with Biscayne.  Both are ocean based parks.  Biscayne is accessible by road but Dry Tortugas is only accessible by boat or air.  There is a big difference in visitation, mostly accounted for by ease of access.

 

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