Skip to main content

Busiest National Parks: Top 12, Plus When to Go and What to Do

Busiest National Parks
Travis Smola

These are the busiest National Parks out there.

Our nation's National Parks are some of the best places to take a vacation every year. Each one highlights the United States' natural beauty, wildlife, history or a little of each of these categories. Some may have beautiful hot springs, temperate rainforests, seemingly endless mountain ranges or hundreds of miles of hiking trails.

Depending on what each one brings to the table, some of these parks are much busier than others.

If you're looking to avoid the crowds, it helps to know which ones see the most traffic and when.

Today we will shed some light on the busiest U.S. National Parks out there, and speak to what kind of crowds you can expect during certain times of the year.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

According to National Park Service stats, the Great Smoky Mountains are the most-visited park in the entire U.S., and it's not even close. The Smokies saw over 11 million visitors in 2018 alone. The relative ease of accessibility from several major cities is a big reason it's so popular.

The other big reason is that it's a beautiful National Park almost year-round. Just like the Tetons and Yellowstone, the heaviest months are in the summer when kids are out of school and families are vacationing here. It's a great time to spot a black bear or hike any of the hundreds of miles of hiking trails.

However, the Smoky Mountains are busy in the fall too because of people traveling to take in the fall foliage. Don't underestimate this location as a trout fishing destination either!

This one is going to be busy no matter when you go. If you're looking for the least-busy time, consider January. Just be aware of NPS road closures as a result of winter weather. Such closures could put a damper on you seeing every spot on your "to-do" list.

Grand Canyon National Park

When it comes to the number of visitors, Grand Canyon is second on the list after the Smokies with over 6 million visitors a year. This park has become almost a clichéd necessity of the traditional American road trip. Thousands of dads drag their kids cross-country Clark Griswold-style each year to see this spectacular place.

The relative proximity to Las Vegas, Nevada, is another obvious reason Grand Canyon gets so many visitors. This is another location where avoiding the crowds may be difficult. Earlier and later in the year is generally going to be better as far as avoiding people is concerned.

Another factor to consider is the heat. Remember, this is the desert in Arizona. The most popular visiting times in the summer are often going to involve hot days, sometimes in the triple digits. They're not exactly ideal conditions for hiking if you planned to get off the beaten path a little bit. Consider February through April, where lows are in the 40s and 50s and the highs are in the 70s and 80s.

Yellowstone National Park

Busiest National Parks
Travis Smola

The first National Park is arguably one of the busiest, too. This is one I've personally visited in different parts of the year, and I can attest that this slice of northwest Wyoming is a truly magical place.

Yellowstone is a gigantic park. Most people don't realize the size of it until I tell them that when you drive through the east gate, you're still nearly 100 miles from Old Faithful geyser! Total, this park is nearly 3,500 square miles of awesome wilderness.

You would think all that room would mean no worrying about crowds. Sadly, this isn't the case. From May through August the park is incredibly busy. If there's an elk or bear near the road, there are often traffic jams as hundreds of people try to get a look.

Don't' get me wrong, it's still a place you should visit, but I recommend fall or winter over summer. The last time I visited Old Faithful, it was October 18, a time of year that was just as stunning as any other, and maybe even more so.

When I made it to the geyser, I was flabbergasted. If you can believe it, there were only 12 people milling around that area! If it were a prime day in July? There probably would have been 1,200 or more!

That's an estimate of my own, but the latest attendance numbers prove I might be close. Typically close to four million people a year visit this awesome place, and it's no wonder. Here's hoping it never gets too crowded to become more trouble than it's worth.

 Grand Teton National Park

Busiest National Parks
Travis Smola

Most people do both Yellowstone and the Tetons in the same trip because they're so close together. It's rare to find two total gems of the National Park System this close together. I recommend visiting this area by starting out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. West Yellowstone, Idaho and Cody, Wyoming offer more lodging options, but staying in Jackson means you'll drive right through the Grand Tetons to get to Yellowstone anyway. It makes it easier to do both.

The good news here is that it's usually not as busy. The Grand Tetons are also just as beautiful, if not even more than Yellowstone.

There is also a good number of wild animals roaming this area. I've personally seen foxes, coyotes, elk, bison, black bears and the biggest bull moose I've ever laid eyes on within Teton's borders.

In addition to the scenic vistas, there are miles of trails to explore that will really help you get away from it all. These trails are normally much quieter than Yellowstone's.

The Tetons get around 3-4 million visitors a year. Again, I recommend the fall or winter as the ideal times to get away from the summer crowds. You're facing seasonal breaks from grade school, which is nothing to be bummed out about. Getting an entire family involved in the outdoors by visiting National Parks is awesome. But if you want to have a less crowded experience, take my advice.

Yosemite National Park

Another one of the most popular National Parks in America, Yosemite rakes in nearly four million visitors a year. The California park is close to major cities like Bakersfield, San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento which helps contribute to that number.

This park appeals to a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts. The famous photographer Ansel Adams loved Yosemite Valley for a reason. This place is a photographer's paradise. Climbers live to scale El Capitan and hikers love the trek to Half Dome.

Yosemite does see odd surges of visitors at times very different from other parks. For instance, Horsetail Falls' "Firefall" phenomenon draws visitors in droves in February. However, most visitors tend to swarm the place during the typical summer vacation months. We recommend fall and early winter for some truly spectacular vistas.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Everyone should visit the Colorado Rockies at least once in their lifetime. This spectacular mountain range can take your breath away.

And I mean that literally, especially if you're up at one of the overlooks that crest over 14,000 feet. Rocky Mountain National Park is easy to access from Denver, which mostly explains the 4.5 million visitors each year.

This a great park to spot a big bull elk or bighorn sheep. In addition to the spectacular peaks, the park boasts gorgeous valleys perfect for hiking or snowshoeing.

Rocky Mountain sees most of their visitors during the summer months, but the park is a spectacular sight in the winter months. That's also when you'll see less visitors due to temperatures dropping down into the teens. The only downside to planning a trip in winter is the unpredictable weather conditions can sometimes close down roads.

Zion National Park

Busiest National Parks

Despite a location in a remote part of southern Utah, this park still pulls in nearly 4.5 million visitors a year. It is easy to see why once you see pictures of the spectacular red stone canyons and breathtaking high desert country.

Zion also features many arches and has a rich history among the Native Americans that used to live there. If you're looking for a slightly overlooked fishing location, Zion is worth a try. The area has more opportunities than a lot of folks realize.

Many people combine a trip to Zion with a tour of several other southern Utah parks including Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches National Parks. This results in Zion and all these other parks being quite busy in the summer months.

It's also worth noting these parks are often hotter in the summer months. For that reason, spring or fall are likely to be the best seasons to visit.

Arcadia National Park

Most of the parks we've profiled on this list are in the American West. Arcadia National Park lies on the Maine coastline and brings in 3.5 million visitors a year. Those numbers are helped due to the park only being about six hours from Boston and three hours from Portland, Maine.

This park is like many on the list in that the greatest crowds are going to be during the summer months. At times, things can get so busy that park officials will sometimes shut down the roads and parking areas.

It's a beautiful coastline, but if you want to avoid the crowds, we'd suggest October through April. The weather is more unpredictable, and you may encounter temperatures in the teens, but it's worth it to be able to enjoy the sights in relative peace.

Glacier National Park

Busiest National Parks

This Montana park is harder to reach than some of the other parks on this list. However, it still receives nearly three million visitors every year. Glacier is the place to go if you want to see a grizzly or black bear. There are also plenty of elk, moose and bighorn sheep to be found here.

This is another summer park that is just as good in the off-season times of fall and winter. The downside is that heavy snows will close many roads in the park during the winter. At least you'll have the place mostly to yourself.

If you're planning to visit in the summer, be warned that you may encounter crowds, especially where animals are sighted. The good news is, Glacier doesn't feel nearly as congested as Yellowstone often is. In fact, many people prefer Glacier for just this reason.

Olympic National Park

Busiest National Parks

Do you like spectacular mountain peaks, coastlines, waterfalls and forests? Olympic National Park in Washington State has a little bit of everything you could ever want in a National Park. The only downside is the proximity to Seattle. Nearly three million people come to visit every year because of this easy access.

It is a great place to spot wildlife. In addition to black bears, the park also has a good population of blacktail deer and elk.

Once again, summer is going to be the busiest time of year here, especially for hikers and backpackers. If you're willing to brave some colder temperatures, Olympic has plenty to offer. There is even a ski area located within the park's borders for people looking for a scenic area to hit the slopes.

Joshua Tree National Park

For anyone who likes a desert environment, Joshua Tree is a place to consider adding to your bucket list. Popular for camping, hiking and astronomy, Joshua Tree is part of the Mojave Desert.

Of course, as the name implies, it's also a great place to see endangered Joshua Trees.

This is a park that has really taken off the last few years and sees well over two million visitors a year now. It's an extremely popular place for birdwatchers and animal lovers. Two extremely popular animals are the bighorn sheep and desert tortoises that call the park home.

Because it's a desert park, it can get quite sweltering in the summer months. Spring is probably the ideal time to visit because temperatures are still comfortable, and the larger crowds are still a few months away.

Bryce Canyon National Park

We already mentioned how many people group this one into a larger "National Parks Tour" of the southern part of Utah. As a partial result, Bryce Canyon gets about two million visitors every year. The park's popularity is not surprising once you learn about its rich history and see the gorgeous natural formations.

Some of the park's vistas, like "Thor's Hammer" will make you feel like you're standing on the surface of an alien world. Like many parks in this part of the state, the rich, red soils and natural arches make this a favorite among photographers.

This park is extremely popular with hikers, cross country skiers and horseback riders. The summer months are going to be the busiest, which is why we recommend a winter visit if you have the vacation time. You'll have to fight far fewer crowds and you'll get to experience the park at a time most visitors will never get to see.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his YouTube channel.

NEXT: WHY IT'S BETTER TO VISIT YELLOWSTONE IN THE FALL OR WINTER THAN THE SUMMER

WATCH

oembed rumble video here

you might also like

Busiest National Parks: Top 12, Plus When to Go and What to Do