(NEXSTAR) — When you think of the most popular national parks, names like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, or the Grand Canyon might be the first to come to mind. But what if we told you that none of these is the most visited of the National Park System and that the title is actually held by a property that isn’t technically a park?
Since 1904, the park system has been reporting the annual recreational visits each park receives. During the last 117 years, the parks system as a whole has seen more than 15 billion — 15,391,325,968, to be exact — recreational visits.
While many individual parks have served hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions, of recreational visitors since they’ve opened, one outshines all others — the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t exactly the park you envision when you think of Yosemite or Grand Teton. It’s actually a series of parks with one key feature: a 469-mile stretch of roadway that traipses through the Appalachian Highlands of Virginia into the western tip of North Carolina. It saw the greatest number of visitors of all NPS units in 2021 at 15.9 million visits.
The Blue Ridge Parkway has received more than 947 million visits since 1941, which is the first year NPS has recreation visit records for the area. Because of the parkway’s structure, visits are counted using specific instructions – at certain mileposts, inductive loop traffic counters are used while at others, a formula is used to estimate recreational visits.
The parkway saw its most visits in 2002 with more than 21 million visits. Since then, 2014 is the only year visitation has dipped below 14 million for the parkway. Between 2011 and 2021, Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited six times – the Golden Gate National Recreation Area topped the list during the five other years.
Golden Gate – also not technically a park – has had the second-most visits on record at more than 682 million. While it’s roughly 265 million shy of Blue Ridge Parkway’s record, NPS visitation data for Golden Gate only goes back to 1973.
Visitors to Blue Ridge Parkway don’t have to go far to visit the third-most-popular unit of the NPS – Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since 1931, the sprawling, mountainous park has served 583 million visits. Rounding out the most visited are Natchez Trace Parkway and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, with 474 million and 450 million, respectively.
If you’re looking specifically for the most visited national parks, after Great Smoky, Grand Canyon ranks second with 231 million visits. Yosemite falls in line next at 208 million with Rocky Mountain National Park is close behind at 201 million.
Regardless if you’re hoping to visit a park or a parkway, a monument or a recreational area, the NPS has 423 different units across the U.S. to explore. You can find the park nearest you here.