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Can You Name The Most-Visited Units Of The National Park System From 2012?


Vistas such as this one helped make the Blue Ridge Parkway the most-visited unit of the National Park System in 2012. Randy Johnson photo.

Acadia, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are some of the most adored units of the National Park System, but they don't show up in the top 10 list of most-visited parks during 2012. They're quite a ways from the top 10, actually.

Not entirely surprisingly, topping the list of most-visited units of the National Park System are parks in some of the most populated areas of the country. Places such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, which ranked No. 1 among all units thanks to the 15.2 million visitors who spent time on some section of the 469-mile-long parkway that gracefully meanders from Shenandoah National Park down to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

And places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that is surrounded by the San Francisco Bay area. That unit counted 14.5 million visitors in 2012 to rank No. 2 on the top 10 list, according to the National Park Service's official tally.

In all, more than 282 million people visited America’s national parks in 2012, an increase of more than 3 million over 2011. It was the sixth highest annual visitation in the history of the Park Service, despite nearly 2 million fewer visitors as a result of park closures caused by Hurricane Sandy.

“The National Park Service strives to represent all that America has to offer,” said Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “People come to national parks for many reasons – for recreation and to learn about American history by strolling through a battlefield. They come to listen to a park ranger at Independence National Historical Park and marvel at the Continental Congress. And people come to national parks for old-fashioned enjoyment of the great outdoors.”

The challenges left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy will become part of American history, too. The storm slammed into 70 national park sites from North Carolina to Maine. Some parks closed briefly, others for weeks while the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York remain closed for repairs.

"The Statue of Liberty will reopen by the Fourth of July,” Director Jarvis said. “It’ll take longer at the Ellis Island Museum. As we rebuild we keep sustainability front of mind. It is clear that our changing climate will bring more severe weather events, especially to coastal areas, and we must repair our iconic national parks to survive future storms.”

There are familiar park names in our Top 10 lists. Gateway National Recreation Area in New York lost nearly 1.2 million visitors from 2011 because of Hurricane Sandy yet still made the Top 10 list of most visited National Park Service sites.

Most Visited Places of the National Park System (2012)

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, 15,205,059

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 14,540,338

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 9,685,829

4. George Washington Memorial Parkway, 7,425,577

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 6,285,439

6. Lincoln Memorial, 6,191,361

7. Natchez Trace Parkway, 5,560,668

8. Gateway National Recreation Area, 5,043,863

9. Gulf Islands National Seashore, 4,973,462

10. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, 4,970,802

Most Visited National Parks (2012)

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 9,685,829

2. Grand Canyon National Park, 4,421,352

3. Yosemite National Park, 3,853,404

4. Yellowstone National Park, 3,447,729

5. Rocky Mountain National Park, 3,229,617

6. Zion National Park, 2,973,607

7. Olympic National Park, 2,824,908

8. Grand Teton National Park, 2,705,256

9. Acadia National Park, 2,431,052

10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 2,299,722


As a writer with two books about the Parkway and a real fondness for the road—it's a mile from where I live—this question is a no-brainer! In many articles, some on the Traveler, I have written, "the Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation's most visited unit of the national park system" more times than I can count! The sad thing, as former superintendent Phil Francis has been known to say, is that the annual budget for this nearly 500-mile national treasure amounts to basically—$1 per visitor!

By the way, the Parkway is usually the annual attendance champ in the park system, so the next time Kurt pens a questioning headline like this one—just guess the Parkway and you'll likely be correct.

And almost all the visitors to Yosemite crowd into that tiny valley [sigh].

I'm surprised about the Parkway, if only because when I was there in October of 1999, there was far less traffic than what I expected. Then I got to the Great Smokies and the crowds were everywhere. And then I went back to the Parkway and it was all peaceful again [wry g].

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