Since its creation in 1916, the National Park Service has been dedicated to protecting and maintaining America's recreation areas, monuments, sites and our 60 national parks. It also preserves the American pastime of loading up the car and taking the family to go see famous sites like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, El Capitan in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
In 2017, more than 330 million people visited national parks. But where were the most visitors flocking? According to the National Park Service, these were the top ten most visited destinations.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Autumn sunset over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / tonda
The name "Great Smoky Mountains" comes from the ever-present fog that looms over this mountain range situated along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Established in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not just home to a diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna, it’s also home to a rich history of Appalachian culture, some of which can be explored at The Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Valley.
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park can see over 100 waterfalls, go boating on Fontana Lake and hike the Appalachian Trail. It's also an excellent vantage point to see the leaves change in the fall.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Comanche Point in Grand Canyon at sunset — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / tonda
The Grand Canyon is the result of over 70 million years of geological events. Tectonic plates lifted the ground creating the Colorado Plateau, glaciers and rifts created valleys, while the Colorado River carved its way through the gorge. It is truly a natural splendor!
When President Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Grand Canyon in 1903, he said, "The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison – beyond description; unparalleled throughout the wide world." 16 years later, the Grand Canyon National Park Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson, officially deeming the Grand Canyon a national park.
Some of the most popular ways to explore the Grand Canyon include taking in the views at Mather Point overlook, hiking the Rim Trail and hiking Hermit Road.
3. Zion National Park
Watchman in Zion National Park catching day's first rays. — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / tonda
Nestled in Southwestern Utah is Zion National Park. Because it's located near the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert regions, it has some of the most unique landscapes packed with mountains, canyons, rivers, arches, desert, and forests.
Zion National Park is also an important place to study ancient humans who made the area their home about 8,000 years ago. Some of the park’s most notable attractions include Angel's Landing, Kolob Arch, the Narrows and the Emerald Pools Trail.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park
A bull elk and his harem making their way down from Rocky Mountain National Park to Estes Park for their annual rut season — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
North of Denver, within the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, is Rocky Mountain National Park. This gorgeous mountain range boasts over 350 miles of trails, ranging from easy hikes to expert-level mountain summits, as well as the Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest paved road in the United States.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers splendor at all times of the year, but a favorite among locals and travelers is when the elk rut. From September through October, during the mating season, hundreds of elk come down from Rocky Mountain National Park to Estes Park. Being able to witness natural events such as the elk rut is what makes the National Park Service so important.
5. Yosemite National Park
Sunset at Yosemite National Park with Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan and Half Dome — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / tonda
In addition to being a national park, Yosemite is also designated as a World Heritage Site. Yosemite National Park is in Central California, in the western Sierra Nevada. Though it covers around 1,168 square miles of area, visitors spend most of their time in the 5.9 square-mile area of the Yosemite Valley.
Within the valley are some of Yosemite’s most famous sites like Yosemite Falls, the Sentinel Dome and Cook’s Meadow Loop. And if you’ve used a Mac computer in the past few years, you’ll recognize Yosemite’s most famous attraction, El Capitan.
Hipster counterparts of America's most popular national parks
Hipster counterparts of America's most popular national parks
6. Yellowstone National Park
Bison grazing in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States and it’s not hard to see why. Around 10,000 geothermal features cover much of the park, making it the largest supervolcano in North America. Yellowstone is famous for geysers like Old Faithful and hot springs like the Grand Prismatic.
The park is also home to other famous destinations like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone River and the Lamar Valley where the bison still roam free.
7. Acadia National Park
Jordan Pond in autumn — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / PictureLake
Located in Maine, Acadia National Park is one of the beautiful national parks on the east coast. It's home to a wide array of wildlife including black bears, bald eagles, bobcats, moose, beavers and porcupines. One of the most popular attractions in Acadia National Park is Cadillac Mountain, which sees the first sunrise in the United States during the fall and winter months.
8. Olympic National Park
Sun sets behind the Pacific Ocean at Ruby Beach — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / tonda
Since it runs along the Pacific coast, Olympic National Park is the perfect place for visitors to find the iconic rocky beaches and temperate rainforests that the Pacific Northwest is known for. In the center of the park are the Olympic Mountains topped with ancient glaciers.
Some of Olympic National Park’s must-see spots include the reflective pool that is Lake Crescent, the mystical Quinault Rainforest and the colorful vistas seen from Hurricane Ridge.
9. Grand Teton National Park
The sun sets behind Grand Teton National Park — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
It’s hard to believe that 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park is Grand Teton National Park, considering how vastly different the landscapes are. The Teton Range, which is part of the Rocky Mountains, is the main attraction to Grand Teton National Park.
The tall, jagged, snow-capped mountains sharply jut out from a flat landscape as if it were a wall of earth. Visitors mostly come for the mountaineering, but there are plenty of places to hike, camp and fish.
10. Glacier National Park
Views of the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park from the Going-to-the-Sun Road — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Encompassing much of northern Montana and brushing up against the Canada-United States border is Glacier National Park, which has over 1 million acres of protected land. Within the park, there are over 130 named lakes, over 1,000 different plant species and hundreds of animals including grizzly bears, mountain goats and even rare wolverines and Canadian lynxes.
Visitors to Glacier National Park can enjoy over 700 miles of hiking trails, the scenic mountain drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road and views of the glaciers that are still carving their way through the landscape.