Advice for Visiting the Most Popular National Parks this Summer

Advice for Visiting the Most Popular National Parks this Summer

Visitation data from the National Park Service for 2023 reported over 325 million visits to NPS sites, up from 311 million in 2022 and 297 million in 2021. That means, except in 2020 and 2021, more than 300 million visits have been recorded at national park sites every year since 2015.

One body of research showed that, while some larger parks continue to record high visitation, some lesser-known parks have also seen visitation spikes.

Visitation Data and What to Expect

“Our national parks tell our shared American story,” says National Park Service director Chuck Sams. “I’m glad visitors are finding hidden gems, exploring in the off-season, and finding new ways to have a great time in our national parks.”

According to Sams, 20 parks and historical sites on the NPS roster broke visitation records in 2023, including Joshua Tree National Park. This California gem has become a local icon in recent years. A relatively small park, Joshua Tree saw a jaw-dropping 3.2 million visits in 2023!

Compared to 2022, the list of the top ten most-visited national parks stayed mostly the same in 2023. Newcomers to the top ten list include Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and Olympic National Park in Washington state. Meanwhile, Montana’s Glacier National Park and Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park fell off the top ten list in 2023. Yellowstone moved up on the list from seventh place to fourth place. Great Smoky Mountains National Park held steady in first place, with an incredible 13 million visits in 2023. 

The top ten most visited national parks in 2023 were: 

10. Olympic National Park: 2.948 million visits
9. Joshua Tree National Park: 3.270 million visits
8. Grand Teton National Park: 3.417 million visits
7. Acadia National Park: 3.879 million visits
6. Yosemite National Park: 3.897 million visits
5. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.116 million visits
4. Yellowstone National Park: 4.501 million visits
3. Zion National Park: 4.623 million visits
2. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.733 million visits
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 13.297 million visits

These parks are the most-visited NPS sites for several reasons:

- They are absolutely epic and visually stunning.
- They are accessible and relatively easy to get to.
- The parks have established infrastructure and accommodations.
- These ten sites have a strong NPS ranger presence with several ranger-led programs.
- The parks have a variety of activities and exploration options to entertain multiple interests.

But the million-dollar question is: How does one enjoy the most popular parks while navigating the spikes in visitation during summer?

Tips for Enjoying the Most-Visited National Parks During Summer

Nonprofits dedicated to preserving national parks, like the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Foundation, have researched and put out guides on how visitors can get the most out of their national park experience, even during a high-visitation period (like the summer months). Further, national park rangers are often interviewed by the media and they put out statements on how to enjoy the parks during the busy season.

Some of the conclusions from these reports include strategies like:

“Know before you go.” That’s an important rule of thumb, according to Isle Royale National Park Ranger Liz Valencia, manager of interpretation and cultural resources for the park. She was interviewed by ADG staff writer Ren Brabenec last year. “The unpredictability of Lake Superior dictates everything that happens out there,” Valencia cautions. “Schedules may change, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you’re there, you’re at the mercy of the lake and the island. ‘Plan ahead’ and ‘be ready for change’ are the two most important rules when traveling to the island. Every visitor receives a face-to-face orientation from an NPS ranger who coaches them on how to enjoy the island safely and ethically. Park rangers even compiled a First Timer’s Guide to Isle Royale, available on the NPS website.” According to Valencia and other NPS staff, visitors who plan and map out their trip all the way down to the finer details are much more likely to have a good experience, even at a crowded park.

“Reserve your spot.” Many parks require visitors to make reservations weeks, even months, in advance. Some of the more popular parks also have timed entry programs to ensure there aren’t so many visitors in the park at one time that the precious and delicate ecosystems of the park become threatened. Though new, the modified timed entry and campsite reservation programs seem to be working. Of those surveyed at Arches National Park in 2022 about its new pilot timed-entry system, “84% indicated that they would like a reservation system in place for future visits. A majority, 89%, successfully acquired a timed entry ticket for their visit — and of that number, 98% were able to enter on their selected day.”

“Recreate responsibly.” It’s not always the crowds that are bothersome; it’s what they leave behind. Garbage left behind, fragile ecosystems trampled by careless feet, and wildlife spooked by visitors who get too close are unwelcome sights, to be sure, but if everyone who visits the parks commits to recreating responsibly, the presence of large crowds would not be such a burden.

“Bring your gear.” Plastic refuse from disposable water bottles and food bags is the #1 source of landfill waste at the national parks. Rangers recommend visitors bring refillable water bottles and reusable food bags into the parks and always pack out everything they pack in. According to one source, “When you see the Park Service and its vendors offering more Earth-friendly product containers, such as aluminum and paper, please choose those instead of plastics. Encourage other stores to carry Earth-friendly containers, too. Be sure to recycle the plastics you do use and skip the straw if you can.”

“See the park at night.” Several national parks are registered Dark Sky parks, meaning they have minimal light pollution and reveal an epic night sky. An alternative way to see the most crowded parks during summer is to visit them at night after most visitors have gone home for the day.

“Avoid high-visitation hours.” If you can, visit the parks in the very early morning or the late afternoon/evening. Each park varies, but these periods usually experience lower-than-average visitation than the midday and afternoon slots. 

Want a Low-Crowd Experience?

National parks are for all to see and enjoy, and there are proven strategies and planning techniques for seeing even the most-visited parks without getting lost in the crowds. However, for those who insist on seeing national parks in as much seclusion as possible, it's wise to consider the least-visited national parks.

The top ten least-visited national parks are:

10. Great Basin National Park: 143,265 visits
9. Dry Tortugas National Park: 84,285 visits
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve: 78,305 visits
7. North Cascades National Park: 40,351 visits
6. Katmai National Park & Preserve: 33,763 visits
5. Isle Royale National Park: 28,965 visits
4. Kobuk Valley National Park: 17,616 visits
3. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve: 16,728 visits
2. National Park of American Samoa: 12,135 visits
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve: 11,045 visits

Take Home an Excellent National Park Souvenir

Rather than removing something from the park to take home (which is illegal), there is a much better way to commemorate a trip to the national parks. National park poster art is an ADG specialty! This artwork decorates the home or office and is a beautiful reminder of one’s cherished trip to the parks.

ADG’s award-winning national park art is styled after the vintage poster art of the early 20th century that first promoted the parks. Handcrafted by award-winning artists, this original art is best described by ADG founder and creative director Joel Anderson:

"Our national park art Is inspired by the iconic WPA-commissioned artwork of the early 1900s. Our national park poster series is meant to conjure nostalgia through design, to celebrate our American heritage and the gift of unbridled nature with pencil, brush, and stylus.

The talented artists of Anderson Design Group are finishing what the Works Progress Administration began, hand-illustrating original travel poster designs for all of our national parks (with new angles and perspectives added all the time). Whether you’re creating a bucket list or wanting to remember the family road-trip of a lifetime, these handcrafted works by Anderson Design Group are perfect for any living or office space, rustic cabin, or uptown suite.” 

Lastly, ADG donates a portion of its profits to the National Park Foundation annually. Your purchase helps to protect America’s National Parks!

We hope to see you on the trails,

-Ren Brabenec 
Anderson Design Group Staff Writer

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