The most-visited national park on record isn’t technically a park

(NEXSTAR) – When you think of the most popular national parks, names like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion or the Grand Canyon might be the first to come to mind. But what if we told you that none of these are the most visited in the national park system and the title is actually held by a property that is not, technically, a park?

Since 1904, NPS has reported the annual recreational visits each park receives. Over the past 117 years, the park system as a whole has recorded more than 15 billion recreational visits – 15,391,325,968, to be exact.

While many individual parks have served hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of recreational visitors since opening, one eclipses all others – Blue Ridge Parkway.

Technically speaking, Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t exactly the park you imagine when you think of Yosemite or Grand Teton. It’s actually a series of parks with one key feature: a 469-mile stretch of road that runs through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia to the western tip of North Carolina. It saw the most visitors of any NPS unit in 2021 with 15.9 million visits.

Blue Ridge Parkway has received over 947 million visits since 1941, which is the first year that NPS has recreational visitation records for the area. Due to the structure of the walk, visits are counted using specific instructions – at some mile markers inductive loop traffic counters are used while at others a formula is used to estimate recreational visits.

The boardwalk experienced its highest number of visits in 2002 with over 21 million visits. Since then, 2014 is the only year that the number of visits has dropped below 14 million for the walk. Between 2011 and 2021, Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited six times – Golden Gate National Recreation Area topped the list in the other five years.

Golden Gate – which is also not technically a park – had the second highest number of recorded visits with more than 682 million. Although there are approximately 265 million less than the Blue Ridge Parkway record, NPS visitation data for the Golden Gate dates back only to 1973.

Blue Ridge Parkway visitors don’t have to travel far to visit the NPS’s third most popular unit – Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since 1931, the vast mountainous park has welcomed 583 million visitors. The most visited are Natchez Trace Parkway and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, with 474 million and 450 million respectively.

If you look specifically for the most visited national parks, after Great Smoky, the Grand Canyon ranks second with 231 million visits. Yosemite is next at 208 million, with Rocky Mountain National Park close behind at 201 million.

It doesn’t matter if you’re hoping to visit a park or a boardwalk, a monument or a recreation area, the NPS has 423 different units to explore across the United States. You can find the nearest park to you here.


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