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The Best National Parks, Top To Bottom

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Editor's note: Which is the best national park out of the 59 in the National Park System? A very subjective question, but guest writer Sidney Chow, who writes about parks on his blog, Journey To All 59 National Parks, took out his calculator, park visitation figures, and the calendar to figure out rankings for all 59 national parks. Read on and see if you agree with his conclusions!

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

 


Gates of Arctic National Park/NPS, Cadence Cook

 

Ten Least-Visited Parks 2016 Visitation

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 10 most-visited national parks have an average population of nearly 37 million within 500 miles (roughly a day's drive) while the 10 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 10 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 10 least-visited parks, 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 people 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.


Congaree National Park/Harold Jerrell

 

The Least Popular Parks? 

Ten Lowest Visitor-Per-Population Parks 2016 Visitors

Population Within

500 Miles (000)

2016 Visitors/500 Mile
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.


Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park/Rebecca Latson

 

The Most Popular Parks? 

Ten Highest Visitor-Per-Population Parks 2016 Visitation

Population Within

500 Miles (000)

2016 Visitor/500 Mile
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park 1,887,580  1,360 1.388
Denali National Park    587,412     626 0.938
Haleakala 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 4,247,177 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 2 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 that 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, and has 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 varies 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 counted 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.


Kenai Fjords National Park/NPS

 

Name

Peak Visitation

Month

2016 Peak Month

Visitation

Low Month

Visitation

2016 Low Month

Visitors

High to Low 

Ratio

Kenai Fjords National Park July 107,851 January      5 21,570.2
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park July   25,520 Janaury     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 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

Visitation

Low Month

2016 Low Month

Visitation

High to Low Ratio
Hawai'i 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 park 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 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 

 


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 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
Grand Teton National Park  64
Olympic National Park  58
Denali National Park  45
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park  42
Glacier Bay National Park  42
Grand Canyon National Park  39
Theodore Roosevelt National Park  38 10 
Zion National Park  33 11 
Haleakala 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 America 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 cruises 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.

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Comments

Good article for members of Congress and the Administration to help them decide which parks to axe. Awesome job! 


Great article!


Rebecca,  Thank you for the comments.  Zion benefits from proximity to Vegas, as well as the dramatic cliffs.  Not as many venture on to Bryce, which I personally think is a more interesting park.  Theodore Roosevelt is relatively remote but I was also a bit surprised how well it came out on the rankings.  See link: http://wp.me/p8fKSg-U8 

Denali benefits from organized tours, so even though it's remote to cities, it's "easier" than other parks that are similiarly remote, like Big Bend.  I too, enjoyed Big Bend, but it takes a real effort to get there.


tahoma,  Good point on the obsession with bigness.  Many of the most enjoyable parks to me have the whole package and are more initmate.  Big is not always better but it draws crowds.  I actually enjoy Black Canyon better than Grand Canyon, because while the canyon is shallower, it's more verticle and more dramatic.  Yes, you can go crazy with all kinds of measures like road miles but I tried to keep it relatively simple.


Greg,  Good points.  I actually did take into account the "half day drive distance" a little.  The 250 mile population is weighted 10% and the 500 mile population is weighted 90%.  We can certainly arugue about the right percentage of the weight.  What is interesting is to compare Smokey, Shenandoah, and Congree.  All of them have a very large population even within 250 miles, and yet the visitator counts are far different.

In terms of accessibility, there is a 5x uplift for parks without any road access.  The theory is that if you are willing to spend the time and money by boat or plane that costs more than $100 at the least, it must be very desirable.  The 5x factor came from comparing "similiar parks" like Dry Torgugas and Biscayne.  One has boat/plane only access and the other has road access.

I didn't take into account the situation like North Cascades where you don't have to enter the park to get the benefit of the scenery.  


603,000 people.


Very true, but this was restricted to National Park designation sites.  Cuyahoga Valley is also like that, more of a regional park (in my opinion) that is close to major cities.  


Good points and perhaps entrance fee should be somehow included as a criteria and that may explain some of the difference in ranking between Smokey and Shenendoah.  Congaree, one of the least visited parks located among a lot of people is also free.  


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