Park Service Releases Most-Visited National Park Data for 2012

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Today, the National Park Service released its annual numbers on the most-visited sites throughout the park system in 2012. Though there aren’t many surprises in this year’s lists, it’s always interesting to see some of the most popular parks in the country and how these numbers compare to previous years. (You can find last year’s numbers on NPCA’s website.)

According to the agency’s press release, more than 282 million people visited our national parks last year, the sixth-highest year on record, and an increase of more than three million visitors from 2011.

The first list shows the most-visited places in all 401 units of the park system. The second list shows the most popular sites of only the 59 places officially designated as “national parks” (versus national monuments, national historic sites, national recreation areas, and other designations).

Most Visited Places of the National Park System

Park Site Number of Visitors
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

Park Site Number of Visitors
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


About the Author

Editor of Online Communications Jennifer Errick

Jennifer Errick is editor of online communications at NPCA.

  • Dave Hays

    An important note: You can’t really compare these apples-to-apples, because you have to consider what the “visitor experience” is at these locations. For example, some of these visitors never leave their car, such as drivers along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Are they really a “visitor?” The same goes for many of these parks. I point this out because when we think of a National Park visitor, we think of someone that gets our of their vehicle and spends a significant amount of time exploring on foot and engaging in outdoor activities.

    The actual percentage of visitors that do this varies widely between parks. If you could filter out the folks that only drive through, or just stop at a visitor center to use the restroom, and count “real” visitors, these numbers would probably be radically different. But I’m not sure there’s a good mechanism to figure this out.

    • Jennifer Errick

      Yes, it’s a good point, Dave. We are reprinting the data here the way that the Park Service collects and shares it, but it’s important to note that a visitor on the Blue Ridge Parkway is often a commuter driving through and not someone taking time to go on a hike or tour a historic house, etc., the way a more typical tourist at Yosemite or the Clara Barton House would. However, I think it does give an interesting overview of who went where in 2012!

  • Karen Robinson

    Then there are people like me and my husband. We go up to Rocky about 30 times a year. We do get out and hike each time, but we’re the same visitors, not new ones :-D

  • Brian McCarthy

    Mr. Hays is right. In fact, there are several a highly travelled highways that go directly through the Great Smoky Mountain Park and as I understand it, even commuters and regular travelers destined for somewhere else and happen to pass through the park, are counted as “visitors”. This grossly distorts any count of the “true visitors” to the park. A “true visitor”, in my opinion, should be someone that actually stops, registers and patronizes the park’s facilities and not someone just passing through.