The Best National Parks?
Which park is the best of the 63 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
The Most Visited Parks:
The Least Visited Parks:
The top five most-visited national parks have an average population of nearly 45 million within 500 miles (roughly a day’s drive) while the five least-visited parks average just under 2.7 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 and one is in the South Pacific. If a plane or a boat ride is required to visit, it’s 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?
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 215,181 visitors in 2022, 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 106 million people, yet draws only 515,774 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?
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.
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?
When people think of national parks, these parks do not come to mind. They are just not as good.
The Most Popular Parks?
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 2.2 million tourists visited Alaska, compared with 742,000 residents.
Even more dramatic, 9.4 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 nearly 5 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 3 million visitors a year.
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.
Certainly, there is bias built into the formula (see below for the actual formula used). I’d like to hear your suggestions on this topic. Leave a comment below
US National Parks Ranked
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 3 million visitors in 2021 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. However, 2021 was an unusual year due to Covid. There were very few Alaskan cruises. Denali and Glacier Bay rankings dropped dramatically, compared to 2016, as a result.
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.
I did this ranking using 2016 data previously. The table above shows the changes from 2016. Keep in mind that 2021 was an unusual year due to Covid. Parks are affected differently and some severely. For example, American Samoa was in lockdown and it was nearly impossible to travel there. It should be no surprise their rank dropped by 13. In general, parks closest to major population centers fared well in 2021. People wanted to stay closer to home.
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 (2021 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 (2021 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.