Which parks are the most crowded?

August 07, 2019

Which national parks are the most crowded? Some parks certainly seem more crowded than others, especially at the beginning of August. For example Zion National Park feels much more crowded than Grand Teton National Park although both are in the top 10 of number of visits per year. Is there a way to quantify this anecdotal feeling?

Using the data that we have available at this point, the best measure of “crowdedness” is number of visits per acre. This ratio gives us an idea of the density of humans in the park. See below for a table of all 61 national parks and the number of visits per acre for each. Gateway Arch National Park is by far the most crowded - this makes perfect sense as it is essentially a museum that occupies the smallest area of any of the national parks. Zion is also in the top 10 as expected, but parks like Yellowstone and Glacier are not, although they both have overflowing parking lots and people everywhere.

Although a good start, visits per acre is ultimately not a good measure of crowdedness. Other factors need to be taken into account. Some parks are very large (giving a low visits per acre), but much of the park is not accessible, and perhaps even designated wilderness, which crowds visitors into a much smaller space than indicated by their total size. Crowdedness should also take into account the number of miles of road available for visitors to drive, miles of trail to hike, and number of parking spots available. Larger numbers for all of these factors will spread out the visitors and make the park feel less crowded. Now, if I could just get my hands on that data short of adding up the miles manually from individual park maps. I haven’t found any of this data readily available, but will keep searching.

The histogram below shows that over 50 of the national parks have less than 25 visits per acre. Gateway Arch is not included in the plot because it is an extreme outlier with over 10,000 visits per acre.

Histogram image

National Parks in Order of Number of Vists per Acre

Park Name Park size (acres) Visits per acre in 2018
1 Gateway Arch National Park 193 10,456
2 Hot Springs National Park 5,552 271
3 Indiana Dunes National Park 15,348 114
4 Bryce Canyon National Park 35,835 75
5 Acadia National Park 49,075 72
6 Cuyahoga Valley National Park 32,572 64
7 Haleakalā National Park 33,265 31
8 Zion National Park 147,243 29
9 Arches National Park 76,679 22
10 Great Smoky Mountains National Park 522,427 22
11 Wind Cave National Park 33,971 19
12 Rocky Mountain National Park 265,807 17
13 Grand Teton National Park 310,044 11
14 Theodore Roosevelt National Park 70,447 11
15 Mesa Verde National Park 52,485 11
16 Saguaro National Park 91,716 10
17 Mammoth Cave National Park 54,012 10
18 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 30,780 10
19 Carlsbad Caverns National Park 46,766 10
20 Virgin Islands National Park 14,945 8
21 Pinnacles National Park 26,686 8
22 Shenandoah National Park 199,224 6
23 Mount Rainier National Park 236,382 6
24 Lassen Volcanic National Park 106,589 5
25 Yosemite National Park 761,748 5
26 Grand Canyon National Park 1,201,647 5
27 Capitol Reef National Park 241,904 5
28 Congaree National Park 26,640 5
29 Badlands National Park 242,756 4
30 Crater Lake National Park 183,224 4
31 Joshua Tree National Park 790,636 4
32 Great Sand Dunes National Park 107,342 4
33 Petrified Forest National Park 221,390 3
34 Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park 325,605 3
35 Redwood National Park 138,999 3
36 Olympic National Park 922,649 3
37 Glacier National Park 1,013,126 3
38 National Park of American Samoa 8,257 3
39 Sequoia National Park 404,063 3
40 Biscayne National Park 172,971 3
41 Canyonlands National Park 337,598 2
42 Great Basin National Park 77,180 2
43 Guadalupe Mountains National Park 86,367 2
44 Kings Canyon National Park 461,901 2
45 Yellowstone National Park 2,219,791 2
46 Big Bend National Park 801,163 1
47 Dry Tortugas National Park 64,701 1
48 Channel Islands National Park 249,561 1
49 Voyageurs National Park 218,200 1
50 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park 8,323,146 <1
51 Everglades National Park 1,508,939 <1
52 Glacier Bay National Park 3,223,383 <1
53 Death Valley National Park 3,372,981 <1
54 Isle Royale National Park 571,790 <1
55 North Cascades National Park 504,781 <1
56 Denali National Park 4,740,911 <1
57 Lake Clark National Park 2,619,816 <1
58 Kobuk Valley National Park 1,750,716 <1
59 Kenai Fjords National Park 669,650 <1
60 Katmai National Park 3,674,529 <1
61 Gates of the Arctic National Park 7,523,897 <1

Data Sources

The list of 419 official park units (as of 5/1/2019) broken out by designation comes from the National Park System page at nps.gov. Park visit data from the report, “Annual Summary Report (1904 - Last Calendar Year)” found on the NPS Stats website. 2010-2018 U.S. population data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder. 1900-2009 U.S. population data from State Intercensal Tables found on www.census.gov.

Using the Scripts

Instructions to run the scripts are found in the readme in the GitHub repository found here.


Written on August 7, 2019