This article first appeared in National Parks Traveler
The Best National Parks?
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|
|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.
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.
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.
|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|
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.