What is the Most Visited National Park in the U.S.?

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Have you ever wondered what the most visited national park is in the U.S.? You may be thinking, “It has to be one of the well-known parks out west like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon.” However, the country’s most visited national park isn’t any of the famous parks out west. The nation’s most visited national park is located in the eastern half of the U.S. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s most visited national park. Situated on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, this spectacular area readily receives the most visitors annually of any national park in the country. It is known for its wide variety of plant and animal life, rugged misty mountains, and authentic southern appalachian mountain culture. 

Let’s take a look at a few key reasons this park is so popular:

  • Visitation statistics of the park
  • Reasons why the park is so popular
  • Activities to do within the park

Number of annual visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains

Year after year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has consistently proved to be the most visited national park in America. 

In 2021, the park received over 14.1 million visitors. Annual visitation to Great Smoky Mountains has jumped by 57% since 2011. The previous all-time highest visitation record to the Smoky Mountains from 2019 was exceeded in 2021 by more than 1.5 million more visitors. 

how busy is great smoky mountains national park - summer crowds
Due to high visitation numbers, crowds in the park can get quite large, especially during peak Summer months. NPS photo

Why is Great Smoky Mountains so heavily visited?

Great Smoky Mountains isn’t so popular without good reason. Several factors play into why this park is so heavily visited. 

The park is close to largely populated areas

The Smoky Mountains are located close to large population areas across the eastern part of the U.S. They are easily accessible for those living in surrounding areas. About two-thirds of the nation can get to the Smoky Mountains within a day’s drive. This convenient location helps draw many visitors to the park. 

No entrance fee

Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few national parks that do not charge visitors an entrance fee when visiting. Free access to the park and all it offers certainly contributes to higher visitation.

It’s an entertainment hotspot

There are many tourist towns near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Popular tourist destinations such as Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg lie within the park’s outskirts. 

These towns draw massive crowds for those seeking not so much of a nature/parks type of vacation as much as an entertainment-based vacation. People flock to these towns for casinos, shopping, theme parks, restaurants, and the like. 

The nearby Great Smoky Mountains itself is not necessarily the main reason visitors are drawn to the area. For many people, the park serves as something tourists can visit to temporarily escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy tourist towns. 

What the park has to offer:

Scenic Drives

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers over 800 square miles. It is one of the few areas in the eastern half of the U.S. that has been relatively untouched by humans. Many scenic drives allow visitors to see the park’s pristine wilderness. 

These scenic drives grant visitors access to various sights, including uninhibited panoramic views of the mountains, mountain streams and waterfalls, historical buildings and structures, and old hardwood forests stretching for miles. 

There are some 384 miles of road to drive on in the park. The majority of these roads are paved. Some of these roads are gravel but are still maintained regularly, which helps keep them in an appropriate condition for most vehicles to ride on. The traveling speed on most of the roads in the park is an average of 35 miles per hour. 

Wildlife Viewing

Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts some of the most extensive portions of wilderness in the eastern U.S. The park serves as an important sanctuary for many animal species.

Sixty-five species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and over 80 types of reptiles and amphibians are all protected within the park’s boundaries. 

Commonly seen animals in the park include American Black Bears, white-tailed deer, elk, salamanders, raccoons, groundhogs, woodchucks, chipmunks, squirrels, wild turkeys, and numerous bat species. 

Sometimes, catching a good glimpse of these animals can be difficult because most of the park consists of dense forests. Some open areas, however, allow superb access to wildlife viewing. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove are excellent areas if you are looking for uninhibited views of the park’s wildlife. 

Vistors to Cades Cove stop to take a photo of a black bear crossing the road
Vistors to Cades Cove stop to take a photo of a black bear crossing the road. NPS/Warren Bielenberg

Hiking

There are over 850 miles of hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hikers enjoy hiking in the park all year round. Each season in the park gives hikers a unique experience.

As the deciduous leaves drop their leaves in the wintertime, exposed trees give way to views of stone walls, chimneys, and old building foundations

In Spring, hikers take in magnificent sights of flowering trees and an explosion of wildflowers. 

Walking through the mountains in the Summer allows hikers to escape the heat amongst the towering, spruce-fir forests and find solace next to rushing, cool streams and waterfalls. 

Autumn rewards hikers with cool, crisp air and sights of spectacular red, orange, and yellow fall leaves. 

Waterfalls

Leaving out waterfalls on the list of activities to do in the park would be a colossal blunder as they are one of the most spectacular sights in the park. Over 200,000 visitors each year hike well-traveled trails to catch sights of popular falls such as Laurel, Rainbow, Grotto, Abrams, and others. 

Of course, these large, popular waterfalls tend to draw in large crowds, but there is no shortage of smaller waterfalls and cascades within the park. In fact, you can find a smaller waterfall on almost every river and stream in the park. 

Here’s a list of some of the best waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the Great Smoky Mountains is a beautiful, diverse, and incredibly popular national park. The park receives the most visitors annually of any national park in the U.S., with over 14.1 million visits in 2021. The park’s popularity and high visitation statistics can be connected to several factors. 

Its suitable location near populated portions of the U.S. makes it very accessible. The park can be reached within a day’s drive for many. It’s also free to enter, which appeals to potential visitors. Great Smoky Mountains is also set near many tourist towns, which spikes visitation. 

The park is also undoubtedly beautiful in its natural scenery and has a vast array of activities for all visitors. This remarkable national park has popular attractions such as scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking, and waterfalls. Have you ever visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park before? 

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

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Happy Travels! Sandy