Most-Visited Sites in America's National Park System

San Francisco's Golden Gate NRA dethrones the Appalachians' Blue Ridge Parkway
Ken Thomas

Blue Ridge Mountains

Far from all the 401 sites in America’s national park system are National Parks. And nor are the most popular.

There are National Memorials, National Recreational Areas and National Parkways among the more than two dozen designations of sites that fall under the National Park Service’s remit. At counts of 79 and 78 respectively, National Monuments and National Historic Sites outnumber the 59 National Parks.

In all, between them the sites in the National Park System attracted 273.6 million visits last year. 

Thanks to the designation of the First State National Monument last year, recognizing the early colonial history of Delaware and the state’s role as the first state to ratify the U.S. constitution, every state now has at least one national park system site. There are also sites in the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 

The largest site is the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska (larger than Switzerland); the smallest is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania, which occupies barely 870 square feet, and there is everything in between from vast tracts of wilderness to war memorials.

The most popular tend to be those near urban centers convenient for day trips. Only two National Parks, Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon, made our list of the 15 most-visited sites in the National Park System. (See America's 10 Most Visited National Parks.)

Based on visitation figures for 2013, the most recent for which there is full-year statistics available, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area dethroned Virginia and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway as the most-visited site, with 14.3 million visits against 12.9 million. A collection of natural, cultural and historical sites spanning San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate NRA is one of the largest urban national parks in the world. 

Related: The Economic Value of America's National Parks

The October government shutdown, which closed virtually all the NPS sites, reduced visits at both sites compared to the previous year, but the Blue Ridge Parkway saw a 15% fall in visits, almost ten times more severe than Golden Gate's decline, as bad winter weather closed the scenic highway in the Appalachian Highlands for several lengthy spells. 

It was a good year for San Francisco, with the city's Maritime National Historical Park on Fisherman's Wharf breaking into the top 15 at the expense of the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

Click on the link to see the full list of the 15 most-visited sites in the National Park System.

See also: Most Visited National Parks

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