Big National Parks Saw Visitation Drop in 2022, Even as Overall Numbers Rose

National park visitation continued its overall climb toward pre-pandemic levels in 2022, but not every park saw visitor numbers increase.

Photo: Matteo Colombo / Moment via Getty

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The United States’ national parks continued their gradual climb toward pre-Covid visitation levels in 2022 even as some of the most popular destinations in the system saw entries tumble, according to new data the National Park Service released this week.

Overall, the NPS said that it recorded 312 million recreation visits to the sites it manages in 2022. While those numbers still trail the record of nearly 331 million visitors it set in 2017, they’re 15 million, or 5 percent, higher than the number of visitors the NPS welcomed in 2021. The NPS’s visitor numbers have steadily climbed since 2020, when pandemic closures and travel restrictions dropped them to a low of 237 million. Last year’s most popular national park was perennial favorite Great Smoky Mountains, which recorded just shy of 13 million visits, or 14.59 percent of the national park system’s total.

Not all national parks saw an equal increase, however, with some of the most popular destinations posting significant drops compared to 2020. Yellowstone, which the NPS largely closed following catastrophic flooding in June, saw the steepest drop, bringing in 3.29 million visitors in 2022, a decrease of nearly a third compared to 2021. Most of Utah’s national parks saw their visitation decline as well in 2022, with the largest, Zion, drawing nearly 7 percent fewer visitors than the year prior. Arches National Park, which piloted a timed entry system last year in an attempt to alleviate crowding, received nearly 20 percent fewer visitors than in 2020. (Besides those restrictions, Utah officials speculated to Deseret News that high gas prices may have played a part in discouraging visitors from road-tripping to the state’s parks.)

While some large parks took a hit, smaller parks saw their visitation climb: In a press release, the National Park Service noted that the eight most popular parks, which bring in 25 percent of the NPS’s visitors, experienced only a 1.2 percent increase in visitation last year. Meanwhile, the next 19 most popular parks, which also account for about 25 percent of the agency’s visitors, saw their visitation numbers climb by 10 percent.

“We’re excited to see our efforts to increase visitation to parks in the off-season and in parks that are less well-known paying off,” NPS Director Chuck Sams said in the statement. “Many parks with record visitation in 2022 are on what we would call ‘the road less traveled.’ The subtle shift in park visitation is good for visitors, good for protecting parks, and good for local communities whose economies benefit from tourism dollars.”

Overcrowding in national parks has become an increasingly prominent issue over the past few years, with nonprofits, lawmakers, and park staffers floating solutions to help alleviate crowding at some of the most popular destinations. Besides limiting entries, many policymakers have suggested different schemes for more evenly spreading visitors across the system, with ideas ranging from increased advertising for less-visited destinations to web pages that would keep would-be visitors informed about crowding levels in popular parks in real time.

The 10 Most Popular National Parks in 2022

  1. Great Smoky Mountains (12,937,633 visits)
  2. Grand Canyon (4,732,101)
  3. Zion (4,692,417)
  4. Rocky Mountain (4,300,424)
  5. Acadia (3,970,260)
  6. Yosemite (3,667,550)
  7. Yellowstone (3,290,242)
  8. Joshua Tree (3,058,294)
  9. Cuyahoga (2,913,312)
  10. Glacier (2,908,458)

From 2023