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By the numbers: most/less crowded national parks

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Which are America’s most crowded national parks? Less crowded national parks? Can widely-publicized lists be trusted? Based on my visits, I have a good idea, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In my former career, I dealt with numbers quite a bit, and here I pull out precise answers by careful use of the NPS data.

Counting Visits

The National Park Service makes available a lot of visitor use statistics. Of all of them, the list of national parks ranked by the annual number of recreation visits is the one that has captured the attention of media and bloggers. While it is only a measure of popularity, it has been used to determine the “top” (best) national parks, and more relevant to this article, the more and less crowded national parks.

The numbers for the top and bottom 15 are tabulated below (full data) with the twist that instead of using only last year’s figures like everybody else, I have instead used the average over the last ten years (like I did in Treasured Lands). I am more interested in statistics of lasting value as opposed to snapshots in time, and the average is more immune to variations caused by exceptional events such as the summer of 2017 wildfires in Yosemite National Park that caused visitation to drop from a 5,028,868 high in 2016 to 4,336,890 in 2017, while most other parks saw their visitation continue to increase.

Visits Rank
Great Smoky Mountains 9,951,197 1
Grand Canyon 4,894,769 2
Yosemite 3,996,500 3
Yellowstone 3,601,693 4
Rocky Mountain 3,447,870 5
Zion 3,233,651 6
Olympic 3,137,907 7
Grand Teton 2,824,532 8
Acadia 2,605,536 9
Cuyahoga Valley 2,359,884 10
Glacier 2,320,217 11
Gateway Arch 2,006,982 12
Joshua Tree 1,728,215 13
Hawaii Volcanoes 1,565,752 14
Bryce Canyon 1,565,676 15
Kenai Fjords 291,727 45
Pinnacles 229,210 46
Voyageurs 227,996 47
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 198,211 48
Guadalupe Mountains 175,588 49
Congaree 121,036 50
Great Basin 105,880 51
Wrangell St Elias 72,362 52
Dry Tortugas 62,764 53
Katmai 36,825 54
North Cascades 24,164 55
Isle Royale 17,972 56
American Samoa 17,321 57
Lake Clark 13,402 58
Kobuk Valley 11,939 59
Gates of the Arctic 11,038 60

Great Smoky Mountains National Parks consistently ranks number one in visitation by a large margin, but is it really the most crowded park? No matter which numbers you use, amongst the less crowded, you should expect to find the Alaskan parks, which are remote, vast, and not developped. In the continental U.S., you should find the backcountry parks Isle Royale National Park, which has no road access and no roads, and North Cascades National Park, which except for a short unpaved road is explored by steep trails. Channel Islands National Park shares Isle Royale National Park’s characteristics, but the visitation numbers are very skewed by their inclusion of the visitor center, which is located mainland, whereas only one in ten of visitors make it to the islands themselves.

For some of the other national parks, the number of visits doesn’t always correlate with my memories of how crowded the park was. To take the example of two parks very similar in terrain and access – paved roads only cover a small portion of each, Canyonlands National Park receives 579,000 visits and Capitol Reef National Park receives 783,000 visits. Yet Capitol Reef National Park always felt less crowded than Canyonlands National Park. Note also how parks such as Dry Tortugas, and Great Basin are in the bottom ten, below some Alaskan parks.

Counting Hours

The National Park Service offers other statistics than the number of recreation visits, which is the default option. They are seldom mentioned, but for our purpose one of them is more useful: the number of recreation hours. If two visitors spend respectively 1 hour and 10 hours in a park, you are 10 times more likely to run into the second one. Visits for both are 1, but recreation hours counts differentiate them. To continue with the previous example, Canyonlands National Park receives 4.3 million recreation hours (average 0.83 day per visit) while Capitol Reef National Park receives 1.3 million recreation hours (average 0.18 day per visit), because the configuration of the park is conductive of a quick drive to the end of the short scenic road and back.

The average recreation hours of the last ten years for the top and bottom 15 are tabulated in the two last columns, with the numbers for visits in the first two columns for comparison in the table below.

visits visits
rank
hours hours
rank
Grand Canyon 4,894,769 2 77,132,187 1
Yellowstone 3,601,693 4 75,042,496 2
Great Smoky Mountains 9,951,197 1 73,751,865 3
Yosemite 3,996,500 3 69,060,263 4
Sequoia 1,060,315 21 34,300,080 5
Glacier 2,320,217 11 27,089,324 6
Rocky Mountain 3,447,870 5 23,853,991 7
Zion 3,233,651 6 22,409,146 8
Grand Teton 2,824,532 8 19,163,408 9
Kings Canyon 577,854 29 18,852,981 10
Olympic 3,137,907 7 15,067,414 11
Acadia 2,605,536 9 14,506,845 12
Mount Rainier 1,201,686 18 14,397,328 13
Joshua Tree 1,728,215 13 12,475,720 14
Bryce Canyon 1,565,676 15 10,266,170 15
Capitol Reef 783,314 25 1,275,862 45
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 198,211 48 1,168,051 46
Great Basin 105,880 51 1,161,639 47
Isle Royale 17,972 56 1,151,455 48
Saguaro 721,678 26 1,034,186 49
Pinnacles 229,210 46 912,448 50
Kenai Fjords 291,727 45 903,085 51
Dry Tortugas 62,764 53 733,466 52
Congaree 121,036 50 469,065 53
North Cascades 24,164 55 468,323 54
Guadalupe Mountains 175,588 49 454,766 55
Katmai 36,825 54 284,277 56
Gates of the Arctic 11,038 60 168,313 57
Lake Clark 13,402 58 106,848 58
American Samoa 17,321 57 34,642 59
Kobuk Valley 11,939 59 34,472 60

This is a move in the right direction, but note that Gateway Arch, which feels crowded like a city park, because it is one, is not even in the top 15, whereas the Alaskan and backcountry parks are still not consistently at the bottom. Wondering why despite comparable number of visits, people spend so much more time in Gates of the Arctic National Park than in Kobuk Valley National Park? Quite a few treat the former as the ultimate backpacking destination it is, while most visitors to the latter just fly to the dunes for a quick stroll.

The Crowd Factor: Hours per square mile

While recreation hours are a better indicator of crowds than recreation visits, they don’t take into account the size of the park, which is crucial because everything else being equal, if people are spread into a larger area, the place is less crowded. To continue in the Moab area, Arches National Park receives 4.6 million recreation hours, about the same as the 4.3 million of Canyonlands, yet everybody who has been to both will agree that Arches is more crowded. This is simply because Arches National Park streches 120 square miles, whereas Canyonlands National Park stretches 527 square miles, a surface area more than 4 times larger that dilutes the crowds.

As a “crowd factor”, I propose to use the ratio of the number of recreation hours divided by the park’s surface area. In addition, if we normalize that number by dividing it by 365 (number of days of the year) and by 12 (number of hours in a day as accounted by the NPS), we get a number that roughly indicates how many people one is going to find on a square mile of park at any hour. The resulting data is below, with the crowd factor in the last two columns:

Area Visits Hours Hours
Rank
Crowd
Factor
Crowd
Rank
Gateway Arch 0.14 2,006,982 8,027,927 19 13100 1
Hot Springs 9 1,380,780 2,921,406 33 74 2
Acadia 74 2,605,536 14,506,845 12 45 3
Bryce Canyon 56 1,565,676 10,266,170 15 42 4
Cuyahoga Valley 51 2,359,884 6,879,998 22 31 5
Virgin Islands 23 432,377 2,659,118 36 26 6
Zion 229 3,233,651 22,409,146 8 22 7
Great Smoky Mountains 815 9,951,197 73,751,865 3 21 8
Haleakala 45 1,097,150 2,767,447 35 14 9
Yosemite 1,189 3,996,500 69,060,263 4 13 10
Rocky Mountain 415 3,447,870 23,853,991 7 13 11
Sequoia 631 1,060,315 34,300,080 5 12 12
Mesa Verde 81 542,916 3,838,543 28 11 13
Grand Canyon 1,902 4,894,769 77,132,187 1 9.3 14
Grand Teton 484 2,824,532 19,163,408 9 9 15
Voyageurs 341 227,996 1,897,482 38 1.3 45
Capitol Reef 284 783,314 1,275,862 45 1 46
Guadalupe Mountains 135 175,588 454,766 55 0.77 47
American Samoa 14 17,321 34,642 59 0.56 48
Everglades 2,357 989,970 3,642,777 29 0.35 49
Death Valley 5,269 1,041,596 7,861,951 20 0.34 50
Isle Royale 893 17,972 1,151,455 48 0.29 51
Glacier Bay 5,039 480,802 6,175,456 23 0.28 52
Denali 7,408 481,744 6,977,855 21 0.22 53
Kenai Fjords 1,047 291,727 903,085 51 0.2 54
North Cascades 789 24,164 468,323 54 0.14 55
Wrangell St Elias 13,005 72,362 3,328,672 31 0.06 56
Katmai 5,741 36,825 284,277 56 0.01 57
Lake Clark 4,093 13,402 106,848 58 0.006 58
Gates of the Arctic 11,756 11,038 168,313 57 0.003 59
Kobuk Valley 2,735 11,939 34472 60 0.003 60

Using the crowd factor defined above produces drastic changes in rank. It is now clear that Gateway Arch and Hot Springs, by virtue of their tiny size and sizeable visitation are the most crowded parks, the former one by a whopping margin. The small Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, and Virgin Islands come next, and this is consistent with my experience. Amongst the sizeable parks (more than 100 square miles), Zion is the most crowded, while Yosemite is the most crowded of the large parks (more than 1,000 square miles). The Alaskan and backcountry parks are now all at the bottom, and the list confirms the opportunities for solitude at Death Valley. There is quite a bit to be learned from the NPS statistics, and this post has given you an idea of what can be done with their considered use. It has focused on the top and bottom 15, but the full data can be found on my parks data resource. Do you have any suggestions to improve this methodology?

3 Comments

  1. guwinster says:

    Meh…The crowd factor isn’t any more or less useful than the other metrics.

    For example, Everglades and Kenai Fjords are enormous parks, but they have tiny trail networks and attendance at both is seasonal (more so at Kenai Fjords), so the accessible areas of both parks are much more crowded than their “crowd factor” would indicate. Obviously, if you plan on doing some overnight canoeing or hike all the way up the Harding Icefield, you won’t see many people, but most visitors will probably experience at least some amount of crowding at both of those parks.

    • guwinster says:

      I think an ideal metric (and I’m totally spitballing here) would be to measure the amount of trail miles that exist within 5 trail miles of any parking lot in a given park. Then compare this against overall attendance. For example:

      Park A: 100k visitors; one parking lot; 5x trails from the parking lot, each extending beyond 5 miles = 4,000 visitors per accessible trail mile.
      Park B: 100k visitors; two parking lots; 1x 5+ mile trail from parking lot #1; 1x .5 mile “interpretive” loop at parking lot #2 = roughly 18,200 visitors per accessible trail mile.

      The strengths of this measure would be that it accounts for the places people are actually using in a park. In my experience once you get beyond 5 miles into a park, the amount of “crowding” significantly decreases. Some parks will have more people going deep into the wilderness than others (I’m thinking Sequoia and Yosemite in particular), but the proportion of overall guests hiking further than 10 miles round trip is so small that it becomes practically impossible to scientifically measure the “crowding” in the wilderness sections of a given park (unless you have someone sit around and manually count the number of people passing by).

      A weakness would be that you couldn’t really measure some parks this way. For example, most people at Great Sand Dunes aren’t using trails, they’re just wandering off into the dunes. Remote parks (like Lake Clark, Isle Royale) would have to be measured according to trail miles from air strips/major ferry docks, etc, but a small number of parks (like Kobuk Valley and Arctic Gates) don’t have a formal trail network at all. Fortunately, we can safely call these places “uncrowded” without doing any math.

      I don’t expect anyone to actually do this math. Personally, I really want to do it myself. I just don’t have the time…don’t expect anyone else does either.

      • QT Luong says:

        Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I agree with the limitations of the “crowd factor” in this post, and I will at some point provide a refined version using more data. However, your number of 5 trail miles overestimates the distance most park visitors will hike. Some sources claim that 90% of park visitors do not hike at all. Also, not all trails are equally popular. My friend Tom who lives in Yosemite says that if you exclude the 20 most popular trails, you will have avoided 99% of the park visitors. A single number can obviously not provide this kind of granularity. On the other hand, although it is only a rough average, I think the “crowd factor” is an improvement over the visitation number.

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