The 2023 National Parks Index: Ranking U.S. National Parks by Visitor Density, Duration and Spend

America’s 63 National Parks encompass some of the country’s most stunning natural wonders. From the rugged Atlantic cliff faces of Maine’s Acadia to the remote wilderness of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic, the National Park system covers a broad spectrum of beauty spots.

While Yellowstone in northwest Wyoming became the first protected national park in the U.S. in 1872, the National Park Service (NPS) came into being in 1916, during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. As the U.S. expanded its territory further westwards and grew towards the 50 states we know today, it saw the importance of protecting its most extraordinary geographic features.

Today, more than 312 million people visit sites operated by the NPS, representing a recovery from pre-pandemic levels (318 million people in 2018). NPS data also shows that guests spend more than 1.5 billion hours navigating and exploring all the parks have to offer.

Whether you’re dog sledding in Denali, golfing in Yosemite or enjoying scenic views of the Great Smoky Mountains from an open rail car, each National Park has something special to offer. The NPS also maintains more than 21,000 hiking trails and 130 campsites, which played host to more than 13 million overnight visitors in 2022 alone.

To better understand our pristine natural beauty spots, Hawaiian Islands has created a ranking of every National Park in the U.S. based on their visitor density as well as the time and money spent by guests. 

How We Conducted This Study

We analyzed official data from the National Park Service, including visitor spending data for every park, yearly and monthly visitor numbers, and recreation hours data for each of America’s National Parks (excluding Gateway Arch by virtue of its size compared to others).

Key Findings

  • Visitors spend an average of $1,629 per person visiting five of Alaska’s most remote National Parks.
  • Hot Springs in Arkansas is America’s most crowded National Park, with more than 11.7m annual visitors per 100 km2.
  • Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic is the quietest National Park in the U.S., with just 31 visitors per 100 km2.
  • People spend 55.16 hours per trip visiting Michigan’s Isle Royale — more than any other National Park. 

Travel to Alaska’s Remote National Parks Pushes Visitor Spend Over $1,200 Average

America’s 49th state is a natural marvel with more than 34,000 miles of natural shoreline (more than the rest of the U.S. combined), 12,000 rivers and three million lakes, according to Alaska’s Department for Fish and Game. Despite this, its eight National Parks account for just 1% of all recreational visits to U.S. parks. 

Naturally, Alaska’s remoteness and distance from the mainland play a part. If a 2,400-mile drive from America’s northwesternmost city Seattle to Anchorage wasn’t enough, just three of the state’s National Parks are accessible by car: Denali, Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St Elias. The remaining five cover some of the most inhospitable and rugged wilderness in U.S. territory.

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For this reason, eight of the ten most expensive U.S. National Parks to visit, according to our research, are in Alaska. Official data shows that guests spend $1,629.32 on average to visit Kobuk Valley, the most of any park. The 1.75 million acre site is only accessible via chartered air taxis from neighboring towns, contributing significantly to visitor spend.

Kobuk Valley’s sand dunes, which are a migration point for thousands of wild caribou, are so inhospitable that the NPS recommends that only skilled explorers with their own camping and outdoor equipment visit. 

No Room in Arkansas’ Hot Springs — The Most Crowded U.S. National Park

While the rugged and unspoiled wilderness of Alaska’s National Parks is enjoyed by seasoned adventurers, the overwhelming majority of tourists will find themselves at one of a handful of popular sites. In 2022, more than half of the 89 million visits to U.S. National Parks were at ten of its best-known areas.

The crowds pose unique challenges to natural wonders not forged to handle large volumes of tourists. Arches National Park in Utah closed more than 120 times during the summer of 2021 as a result of overcrowding, while guests at Zion faced four-hour queues for hiking trails as a result of unprecedented post-pandemic demand for access to America’s legendary parks. 

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However, our research shows that no National Park is more crowded than Hot Springs in Arkansas, receiving more than11.7m annual visitors per 100 km2 in 2022. At just 5,450 acres, the site is the country’s second smallest (after Gateway Arch). Yet the site received National Park status in 1921, and its land incorporates parts of the neighboring spa town of Hot Springs.

It is home to Bathhouse Row, a series of eight historically and architecturally significant bathhouses constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the town became a popular tourist destination. While the site has always attracted visitors, it remains unique for its geological makeup, with 400 million-year-old sedimentary rocks and thermal springs that form the hot water the town is famous for. 

Gates of the Arctic is America’s Quietest National Park

If you’re looking to avoid the crowds while exploring America’s natural wonders, there are plenty of stunning options. Fifteen parks, according to NPS data, received less than 300,000 visitors in 2021. While six of the ten locations with the least visitors are in Alaska, remote spots can be found in the ‘lower 48.’ North Cascades National Park, for example, is located just 110 miles from Seattle, yet boasts some of America’s best mountain hiking trails around the crystal blue waters of Diablo Lake. 

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However, no National Park is quieter than Gates of the Arctic. Accessible only by local air taxis from Fairbanks, it is America’s northernmost National Park. It is located entirely within the Arctic Circle. Temperatures drop as low as -67°F during the winter months. According to our research, the park attracted just 31 visitors per 100 km2, fewer than Alaska’s Pacific-facing National Parks — Lake Clark (172 visitors per 100 km2), Wrangell-St Elias (194 per 100 km2 ) and Katmai (194 per 100 km2). 

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Pacific Ocean, the National Park of American Samoa attracts just 5,650 visitors per 100 km2, the tenth quietest based on visitor density. Like Alaska, it is only accessible from the air, with only two flights a week from Honolulu to Samoa’s capital Pago Pago. The reward for visiting is pristine white beaches, untouched coral reefs and thousands of year’s worth of Samoan culture and hospitality. 

Visitors Spend 55 Hours in Michigan’s Isle Royale, More Than All U.S. Parks

Whether you seek out the crowds or prefer solitary exploration, there is always something to do at every U.S. National Park. Hiking is a popular experience, and each park has its own array of hiking trails, from relaxing walks to challenging climbs. Most National Parks also offer camping facilities for guests for overnight stays, whether in a tent or an RV or trailer.

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With plenty of reasons to stay on-site at America’s National Parks, which parks do visitors spend the most time at? With an average stay of 55.1 hours, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan attracts guests for longer than any other park. Situated in Lake Superior, close to the Canadian border, the park is only accessible using ferries and seaplanes from Michigan and Minnesota.

Yet this doesn’t deter guests. The park has a wide variety of activities, including hiking, camping, kayaking and even scuba diving. The island has a rich ecosystem, home to packs of gray wolves, which were brought in during the 1940s to stabilize the abundant moose population. Visitors can also explore ten notable shipwreck sites surrounding the island, of vessels that date back as far as 1885 — a time when Lake Superior was a popular yet hazardous shipping route. 

Crowded or Secluded, U.S. National Parks are a Must-Visit Experience

American novelist Wallace Stenger described America’s National Parks as “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” From Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser to the unparalleled natural vistas of the Grand Canyon, these great historic sites have been enjoyed and preserved for generations. 

As the U.S. approaches its 250th anniversary, its National Parks are inherently part of the American story. Today, they are more popular than ever, with visitor numbers increasing by 75% in the last 40 years. You can explore our full ranking of America’s National Parks based on visitor density, duration and spend below. Whether you’re looking for the bustling park experience or to feel the serenity of nature in a remote location, you can find out more about the U.S. park ecosystem below.

The landscape of America’s National Parks is forever changing, shaped by the forces of time and the natural world around them. Yet climate change still remains the greatest existential threat to the heritage and delicate ecosystems in each of the 63 parks. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, warmer and drier conditions as a result of rising global temperatures threatens each of America’s parks in different ways, from coastal flooding in Florida’s Biscayne National Park to intense forest fires in Yosemite in California.

Garrett Dickman, a forest ecologist and one of over 20,000 employees of the NPS, best explains the past, present and future of these great sites. He believes that the soul of America is painted in its National Parks. “I have traveled around the Earth and it is hard to go to a place more beautiful than the National Parks of America. And so we owe the next generation the ability to experience these places as we have.”

The Method Behind the Study

This research reveals which of America’s 62 national parks (excluding Gateway Arch by virtue of its size compared to others) received the most visitors relative to its area, in which park visitors stayed the longest and what was their average spending (USD).

To do this, we found visitor spend data for every park, overall and by categories such as camping, groceries, etc., from the National Park Service. Then we pulled yearly and monthly visitor number data for all parks, as well as park size data sourced using coordinates from Wikipedia and recreation hours data for each park.

We calculated the spend per visitor by category and overall using the most recent spend data (2021) and divided it by 2021 visitor numbers.

To determine the number of yearly visitors per 100 km2 area for each national park, we divided park area in km2 by visitor data and multiplied it by 100. 

The data of this analysis is correct as of May 2023.