I should preface by saying that no national park is a bad one, and it was very hard to put any of these NPs at the bottom of the list. There are 61 of them across the United States, and they're home to some of the most beautiful landscapes and wildlife this great land has to offer. With that being said, when you break them down and really analyze each of them with scenery, diversity of flora & fauna, weather, recreational opportunities, etc. in mind, some certainly assert themselves as the greatest in all the land-- here's the top 10 most visited national parks in the US, and (in my opinion) how they stack up.
10. Acadia National Park
When I think of Maine, images of Acadia National Park pop into my head. Situated on Mt. Desert Island on Maine's east coast, Acadia is home to a number of mountains and freshwater lakes, as well as over 40 miles of shoreline. Nowhere in the US does mountain meet shore so abruptly yet so seamlessly. Seven of the mountains on Mt. Desert Island are more than 1,000 feet tall, which doesn't sound very impressive until you consider that they literally rise directly out of the ocean. Their bases aren't measured from sea level-- their bases are the sea. There's a number of recreational opportunities in Acadia such as canoeing or kayaking, horseback riding, or the most prevalent option, hiking-- hikes in the park range from leisurely to thrilling (check out the Precipice Trail for some excitement).
Acadia is a beautiful place with plenty of opportunities for fun and adventure, but there are a couple of reasons it isn't at the top of the list. For starters, some of its main attractions are waterborne, and it's cold from the Fall to the Spring-- the average temperature during the winter is a chilly 27 degrees, which doesn't exactly make you wanna go beachin' (or hiking, or horseback riding, for that matter). Secondly, while many of the views are sure to take your breath away, it's missing the "wow" factor that some of the other national parks on this list possess-- it's a more subtle, peaceful beauty. Nonetheless, Acadia is an awesome place, and draws in over two million visitors a year, even considering its comparably remote location... perhaps that's the beauty of it.
9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I will say, I'm biased towards Great Smoky Mountains National Park because the vast majority of my national park excursions have taken place there; it was very difficult not to put this one higher on the list. The Great Smoky Mountains, situated on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, drew in upwards of eleven million visitors last year, making it the most visited national park in the US by a long shot. The Appalachian Trail, the oldest of the three major long distance trails, cuts right through it for nearly 80 miles, bringing in hikers from all over the world. It offers some of the best hiking and backpacking in the country, featuring 803 miles of maintained trails and 98 backcountry campsites, among other less primitive campsites and shelters. While the hiking is great, there are other activities to be taken advantage of too, such as whitewater kayaking or fly fishing in some of the park's pristine creeks. GSMNP is clearly a southeastern gem and exemplifies all that is good about Appalachia and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While GSMNP is a very special place, its reason for coming in so low on the list (keep in mind, though, these are the top 10 of 58) is that it just doesn't compare to some of the incredible sights and diverse ecosystems you'll find out west. It is as good as it gets in the Southeast, but everything out West is bigger and more extreme than it is in the Appalachians. I don't want this to sound like "the grass is greener on the other side", but, I'd be doing landscapes like the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains a disservice if I said the Smokies were just as visually incredible. Nonetheless, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is special in its own right and deserves every one of the 11 million visitors it gets, year in and year out.
8. Grand Teton National Park
While not quite in the conversation with the tallest mountains in the country, the Grand Tetons are certainly some of the steepest and most rugged. Just ten miles south of Yellowstone, the Tetons are the youngest mountains in the Rockies, only having started to form less than 9 million years ago (for some perspective, the Appalachians began to form approximately 480 million years ago). What is surprising, though, is that while the mountains themselves are relatively young, the rocks found in Grand Teton National Park are some of the oldest to be found anywhere in the country, having been traced back to nearly 2.7 billion years ago.
Many of the same recreational opportunities exist in the Grand Tetons as in other alpine regions (hiking, camping, cross country skiing, etc.), but the Grand Tetons are especially famous for two. Mountaineering is a significant piece of the Tetons' history, and routing Grand Teton itself is attempted by nearly 4,000 climbers a year, the north face of Grand Teton being a route known by climbers worldwide. Another less obvious activity that is very popular in Grand Teton National Park is trout fishing. Fishermen swarm to Jackson Lake and the Snake River every year in search of the rare Snake-River fine-spotted cutthroat trout, for it can only be found in this region of the world.
7. Glacier National Park
Situated in Northern Montana and extending to the Canadian border, Glacier National Park is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque NPs on this list. The beautiful peaks, pristine lakes, and massive glaciers are clearly the dominant attractions, but there's far more to "the Crown of the Continent" than just an alpine wonderland-- its ecosystems range from prairie to tundra, and massive variation in elevation will prove this. At just 3,215 feet, the Middle Fork River represents the lowest point in the park, while Mount Cleveland, coming in at 10,466 feet, is the highest. At lower elevations, you'll find badgers, marmots, and grizzly bears, where higher up you'll find more "athletic" species, such as bighorn sheep and Canadian lynx.
There are a number of ways to access these beautiful ecosystems such as hiking, backpacking, biking, cross country skiing, boating, etc. With that being said, for those with less time (or simply those who want the beauty of it all with minimal effort), a ride along "Going-to-the-Sun Road" will give you all that you're looking for and then some, for it is widely held as one of the most beautiful drives in the country, if not the world. There's something for even the laziest of adventurers in Glacier!
6. Zion National Park
Situated in the Southwestern corner of Utah, Zion National Park is home of some of the most diverse landscape this country has to offer. Over approximately the last 150 million years, the Virgin River has carved through Navajo Sandstone to form the impressive (to say the least) Zion Canyon, the park's most prevalent feature. There's more to this place than just a canyon, though-- it features mountains, mesas, canyons, buttes, arches, monoliths, rivers, and slot canyons; in other words, it's a geologists dream come true. Not only are the rock formations in Zion unique, but they're incredibly steep as well. A thrilling hike to the famous Angel's Landing will prove this--the trail brings you within mere inches of 1,500-foot cliffs! The park is at the intersection of three different geographic regions: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert. That means that not only is there a vast array of geological formations, but a wide variety of wildlife as well, adding to the allure of this incredible place.
Admittedly, it's hard to find bad things to say about a place that seemingly checks all the boxes, but there are a couple of points worth mentioning. While the hikes in Zion are absolutely awe-inspiring, that's pretty much all there is to do. There are a few neat swimming holes, but the majority of your trip will be spent hiking to them. Recreation is fairly limited in the canyon, which depending on what you're looking for in your adventure, may not be all that appealing. The second drawback, which is amplified by the fact that hiking makes up the vast majority of the adventure in Zion, is the heat. Outside of summertime, it's not much of a concern, but during the summer months, it's certainly something to keep in mind--the average high temperature for the month of July is a scorching 101 degrees. With that being said, as long as you keep hydrated, the views you'll get make the heat well worth it.
5. Grand Canyon National Park
Possibly the most famous of all the national parks, the Grand Canyon speaks for itself (but I have to write something here, so I shall elaborate). The Grand Canyon, carved out over millions of years by the mighty Colorado River, is approximately 6,000 feet at its deepest point. To give you an idea of just what that means, the tallest mountain in Acadia National Park is 1,530 feet-- you could fit nearly four of those in the deepest part of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is the only feature on this list to be considered one of the Wonders of the World and consequently draws in somewhere around 6 million visitors each year, making it the second most popular national park in the country.
The vast majority of Grand Canyon National Park visitors only get to experience it from the rim, which is undoubtedly a mind-blowing experience; but, to get the full scope, I think it's necessary for one to travel into the canyon. Whether that's on foot or via horseback, you're sure to appreciate this vast gorge on a far deeper level than those onlookers some 4,000 feet above you. If you want the full Grand Canyon experience, get a permit and float Colorado through its depths. Rafting and kayaking in the Grand Canyon is world class and is sure to be a nearly spiritual experience for anyone with any sort of appreciation for the natural world.
4. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is what I think of when I think "Pacific Northwest". It's located on the Olympic Peninsula in the Northwestern corner of Washington, which is about as Pacific Northwest as it gets. I find it interesting how similar Olympic is to Acadia, despite them being over 3,000 miles apart. They both feature an interesting combination of forest, mountains, and ocean. While they do show striking similarities, there are a number of glaring differences as well. For one, Olympic National Park is far more remote, with 95% of the park is designated wilderness. In addition to the wilderness designation, not a single road passes through the park (for the rugged explorer who likes to find their way off the beaten path, ONP is the place for you). Secondly, Olympic National Park features four distinct ecosystems: temperate rainforest, subalpine forest, wildflower meadow, and the rugged Pacific shoreline. What's cool about this ecological diversity is that it allows visitors to feel like they're exploring totally different parts of the country, when in reality they don't have to leave the 1,400 square miles national park.
Backpacking through the Olympic mountains and hiking to the many waterfalls in the park are obviously popular activities, but there are a host of other recreational opportunities to be taken advantage of. One of the more unique is tidepooling-- at certain tides, visitors can walk through the beaches and see tons of beautiful marine life, such as starfish or anemones. Olympic National Park also offers some of the best stargazing in the nation--head down to Klaloch Third Beach on a summer or fall night and get your Milky Way fix.
3. Yellowstone National Park
Of all the national parks on this list, Yellowstone will probably give you the most bang for your buck, depending on where your priorities lie. It is arguably the face of the National Park Service, especially considering it's the oldest NP in the world. Established in 1872 under the Grant administration, Yellowstone is most well known for its geothermal system. The Old Faithful Geyser erupts approximately every 90 minutes (hence the name), and Steamboat Geyser is the largest in the world, sometimes sending water nearly 400 feet into the air. Another major geothermal landmark in the park is Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America (in case 500 geysers just weren't doing it for you). Though all you see on postcards are geysers, there's a lot more to the topography of the park than meets the eye. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone cuts right through the heart of the park and is home to Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, standing at a humbling 109 and 308 feet tall, respectively The Rocky Mountains lie on the eastern side of the park, providing quite the dramatic backdrop as well as greater opportunity for recreation such as skiing, mountaineering, or hiking.
The beauty of Yellowstone by no means lies solely in the geology of the area-- there's a ton of unique wildlife that is just as, if not more, impressive. What separates Yellowstone from most other national parks isn't just the wildlife itself, but the relative ease of seeing it. Simply driving down the right road could provide you with views of animals like bison, grizzly bears, elk, wolves, etc. (don't know where to look? click here) and it's these opportunities when coupled with the unique geothermal systems and impressive mountainous terrain that makes Yellowstone so special-- you get a little bit of everything (better yet, a lot of everything).
2. Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rockies are the most rugged mountains in North America, and though they span from New Mexico to central Canada, they're at their highest and most majestic within Rocky Mountain National Park, topping out at 14,259 foot Longs Peak. Despite featuring a number of 14,000 footers, the waterways of RMNP aren't to be overlooked. The Rockies are home to approximately 150 alpine lakes and 450 miles of streams. The Rockies lie on the continental divide, meaning the streams flowing Westward go to the Pacific while those descending from the Eastern portion of the range flow into the Atlantic. The headwaters of the Colorado (which flows through the Grand Canyon) begin in the Northwestern corner of the park, giving you some geographic context. The continual divide also has interesting effects on the park's climate-- the western portion of the park experiences more snow, less wind, and generally clearer & colder weather. As far as wildlife goes, black bears, cougars, elk, and moose, are a few of the many animals that can be found within park boundaries (and a few you probably don't particularly want to see in the remote backcountry which makes up the vast majority of the park). Grizzlies and wolves used to inhabit the area, but unfortunately, have since gone locally extinct.
Hiking and backpacking are big in Rocky Mountain National Park, especially considering thirty miles of the Continental Divide Trail cuts through the park, bringing experienced backpackers from all over the world. More unique to the Rockies, though, is mountaineering (as I'm sure you could imagine, considering the stature of these peaks). While backpacking is big, it's big in a lot of national parks, whereas winter activities are more prevalent in RMNP than any other park on this list. Some of the most famous climbs in the park even have ice routes, for those daring souls properly equipped and experienced to tackle such an endeavor. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding are huge as well, and not only in the park, but in surrounding areas too. Rocky Mountain National Park is a rugged, unforgiving place, so it's only natural that it takes a rugged person to get the most out of what it has to offer. With that being said, whether you're ice climbing or simply going on a day hike on a summer afternoon, you're sure to be amazed by this grand Rocky Mountain landscape.
1. Yosemite National Park
If Yosemite isn't the most beautiful, unique, almost otherworldly place in the country, it sure is close. World famous for its massive granite features, giant sequoia trees, beautiful valley meadows, and towering waterfalls, Yosemite is, in my opinion, as close as we'll ever get to heaven on Earth. It features the largest difference in elevation of any park on this list (by upwards of 3,000 feet), rising from the Merced River at 2,105 feet from sea level, all the way to Mount Lyell at 13,114 feet, 11,009 feet above it. The wildlife changes with the elevation, ranging from a variety of bass in the Merced River, to mountain king snake, red foxes, and marmots in the valley, to reptiles like the northern alligator lizard and smaller mammals such as the white-tailed jackrabbit at higher elevations, and this only begins to scratch the surface of the wildlife found in the park Located in central California in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most iconic geological formations in the world. Half Dome, a massive granite mountain which looks like it had one half of it sliced right off, is a postcard staple. El Capitan is another absolutely incredible rock face, stretching 3,300 feet up from the valley floor. Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and Vernal Fall are three of the most popular waterfalls in the park. I could go on and on about how beautiful, majestic, and humbling Yosemite truly is.
One of the most awesome hikes Yosemite has to offer is that which takes you up the side of Half Dome-- it's an intimidating sight, to say the least, for the final push to the top holding onto the metal cables is certain to get your blood pumping. Both the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails cut through the park, seasonally bringing in backpackers from all over. While it's certainly an awesome experience to see Yosemite from the ground, the only thing better may be experiencing it from the face of one of the many gargantuan rock walls in the park. Rock climbing is huge in Yosemite--it is arguably the most famous climbing destination on earth. Yosemite Valley played a huge role in the development of the sport, some of rock climbing's pioneers really developing and proving themselves here. Not only is Yosemite arguably the birthplace of rock climbing, but it has seen the vast majority of advancement in the sport as well, featuring all the rock walls a climber needs to push the boundaries of sport and humanity alike. Want to learn more about the pivotal role Yosemite has played and continues to play in the world of rock climbing and outdoor recreation? For a more historical background, check out Valley Uprising. To simply have your mind blown, watch Alex Honnold climb 3,300 foot El Capitan with no ropes in Free Solo.
Like I've said before, no national park is a bad one. All of these parks have characteristics that set them apart from the crowd, and they're all to be treated with the utmost respect and appreciation. With that being said, in my opinion, Yosemite is just special. Don't believe me? Get out there to some national parks and find out for yourselves.