Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Zion: Which is now the West's most-visited national park?

An undated photo of hikers waiting to climb near Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Visitation at the park topped 5 million for the first time ever in 2021, according to data released by the National Park Service late last week.

An undated photo of hikers waiting to climb near Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Visitation at the park topped 5 million for the first time ever in 2021, according to data released by the National Park Service late last week. (Zion National Park)

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SPRINGDALE, Washington County — The numbers are in and Zion National Park officially joined rare company in 2021.

Visitation at the park topped 5 million for the first time ever in 2021, according to data released by the National Park Service late last week. The agency's information shows Zion is the fourth national park to ever reach that figure, joining the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite national parks.

Zion National Park was also the second-most visited park in the National Park Service system last year with a final tally of 5,039,835 visitors. It broke its previous park visitation record — over 4.5 million visitors set in 2017 — back in October.

It's one of the four Utah national parks that broke visitation records last year. All but Bryce Canyon National Park set records in that category, and the five parks combined for a record-breaking 11.3 million visitors in 2021. The final figure is a 45% increase from the 2020 total, which dropped as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns, concerns and travel restrictions.

It's also about a 7% increase from the record of 10.6 million set in 2019.

Yet the National Park Service figures indicate that Zion's and Utah's records aren't alone. It appears that interest in national parks seems to be growing everywhere.

Soaring interest in national parks

To be clear, the park service does have more than just national parks; its data includes national monuments, national recreation areas and more. Most of these locations bring in more visitors than national parks.

For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina led all types of park service-managed areas. Nearly 16 million people visited it in 2021. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California received 13.2 million visitors.

The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Utah's Lake Powell, received over 3 million visitors last year — an increase from 2.5 million in the previous year. It's still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, although the West's drought and the reservoir's historically low water levels impacting boat ramps may be another factor in that visitation decline. analyzed the country's national parks for this article and not any other types of NPS places.

Only the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee and North Carolina border had more visitors than Zion last year, among national parks. The Great Smoky Mountains, which wins the most-visited title annually, drew a record 14.1 million visitors last year, besting its old record of 12.5 million set in 2019.

Zion leaped past Yellowstone National Park in total visitation for second place — and first in the West — just by outdrawing America's first park by over 180,000 people in December. Still, Yellowstone brought in 4.86 million visitors last year — topping its previous record of 4.2 million set in 2016.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado rounded out the top five, with 4.5 million and 4.4 million visitors, respectively.

Neither of those was a record but both parks inched closer to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, though Grand Canyon's final total is still about 1.4 million visitors fewer than recorded in 2019. Rocky Mountain National Park attracted over 900,000 visitors in July last year, returning to levels recorded prior to the pandemic.

Of the remaining parks in the top 10, four others broke visitation records last year: Acadia National Park in Maine (4 million), Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming (3.8 million), Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana (3.1 million), and Joshua Tree National Park in California (3 million). The outlier was Yosemite National Park in California (3.2 million), which has struggled to return to pre-pandemic visitation levels.

Addressing the rise

The sudden rise in visitation across the entire system has been met with mixed reactions and impacts. On one hand, the national parks were created to bring people in to enjoy their splendor; on the other hand, many of the parks now breaking records don't have enough resources to handle the rush in popularity.

Pitt Grewe, the director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, told last month that it's a positive sign that people have the desire to visit national parks, given everything they offer. But with concerns that people are straining resources and damaging the parks, he added it's important for parks to plan for potential new normals.

"We know of the benefits of getting outside, breathing the fresh air, getting a little exercise. They have physical and mental benefits, so it's great to see people doing that," he said. "Now the steps that need to be taken are proper planning to be able to manage that but also education and stewardship."

This is why the Utah Office of Tourism has even shifted beyond its "Mighty 5" campaign that advertised Utah's national parks to "Forever Mighty," which seeks to educate visitors on proper national park etiquette — an effort to prevent land vandalism at parks — and highlights other spectacular recreation areas, such as national monuments or state parks.

It's also why Arches National Park is testing a timed ticket system that's set to begin during its peak visitation season this year, which is in the late spring and summer months. The first tickets went on sale in January.

The hope isn't that it will limit park visitors but spread their stays out so they don't overwhelm the park all at once and lead to shutdowns. Park officials said in December that the program mirrors systems at Glacier, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks.

"We really expect to redistribute visitation and not limit visitation. What we've found from Rocky Mountain and Zion is that it's probably not true (that it leads to less interest)," said Kaitlyn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the park. "There are quite a few folks who made their hotel reservation ... that will even gamble to stay an extra day to see if they can get into the park."

It's also why Bryce Canyon National Park added some campsite reservations and increased the price for a backcountry permit. The additional revenue is planned to help cover the rising costs of maintaining areas that people are now visiting more and more.

Being able to meaningfully disperse visitors throughout the park and share with them the myriad of things available at Zion is critical in maintaining the Zion experience.

–Zachary Almaguer, Zion Forever Project

In Zion's case, it's testing out a new permit system for people to summit one of its most iconic hikes, Angels Landing. The park is also working with various agencies, including the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, to build a new visitors center and new hiking and biking trails just outside its lesser-used east entrance in an effort to pull visitors to other parts of the park.

That project is ongoing; however, the first 10-mile bike section opened in October. Mark Preiss, the director of the Zion Forever Project, the official nonprofit partner of Zion National Park, told that the second phase of trail construction is set to begin this spring, with about 25 miles of new mountain biking trail to be added once it's completed.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently in the process to finalize 40 miles of hiking trails south of state Route 9.

The groundbreaking of the new visitors center is expected to happen at some point this year, although the official date has not been set, said Zachary Almaguer, a spokesman for the Zion Forever Project. Once all of the projects are finished, the hope is that the people visiting the national park won't all go to the same spots by the park's main entrance in Springdale.

"We understand the pressures facing the Zion's main canyon; we don't expect those to magically go away," Almaguer said. "It's important that we seek solutions inside the park but also just beyond the scape, working with those landowners to help with that meaningful dispersion.

"Being able to meaningful disperse visitors throughout the park and share with them the myriad of things available at Zion is critical in maintaining the Zion experience."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for


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