North Cascades National Park ranks 5th on the list. Photo: Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

This List Ranks Every National Park According to Data

United States National Parks
by Tim Wenger Apr 19, 2024

Historian Wallace Stegner famously said that preserving sacred natural spaces as national parks was America’s “best idea.” The second-best idea, then, is to visit those parks. Which to prioritize depends on factors like time of year, your location, and your preferred manner of outdoor recreation. With 63 parks to choose from, narrowing it down to one or two to visit is a process in itself – fortunately, a new data-backed ranking from trip-planning site Travel Lemming breaks down where each park stands based on a variety of factors.

Meg O’Connor, one of the authors of the ranking and a data scientist by trade, broke down the data points and why they’re so important when plotting your journey.

“Most travelers have heard of the major parks, like Grand Canyon and Yosemite,” O’Connor told Matador. “Our list can draw attention to the hidden gems that would require a bit more effort to find.”

Notable metrics and placements on the list

kenai fjords national park

Photo: Penny Richard/Shutterstock

Among those more unknown national parks is Washington’s North Cascades National Park. The park is the 7th least crowded, with just .08 visitors per acre, and offers striking views of many of the most stunning peaks in the Cascades. Amenities are scarcer than at nearby Olympic National Park, but for hiking, backpacking, and deep natural immersion, few national parks out-deliver this one. There are also nearby Airbnb and hotel options near North Cascades National Park for when you need a shower and a bed.

“I think a visitor can have a fantastic experience at both the larger, more ‘iconic’ parks and the smaller ones off the beaten path,” O’Connor says. “Some of the choice will come down to personal preference.”

That makes Grand Canyon National Park, which ranks 6th on the list, an ideal stop both for active recreators who wish to hike down into the canyon and more casual travelers who’d rather post up at the North Rim overlook and marvel at the views. Afterward, head a couple of hours north to Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, which sees far fewer visitors (5.25 visits per acre) but a similar climate for hiking and marveling at seemingly otherworldly natural rock formations.

Data points included in the ranking include accessibility to a major airport, the average amount spent per visitor, weather, crowds, and visitor reviews. The most unique data point used to rank the national parks is job creation. America’s national parks create tens of thousands of jobs, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited in the parks system – linked to 32,600 jobs and Zion National Park linked to 10,800 jobs. Even parks that see fewer visitors due to their remote location can provide ample employment boost for surrounding communities – think Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park, which is mostly underwater but still supports 58 jobs.

“It was important to us that the list didn’t “penalize” these iconic parks without having a metric that captured their massive influence as cultural institutions and landmarks,” O’Connor says. “In that sense, the jobs metric helps create a proxy for that intangible idea of influence on the local community. It slightly balances out metrics like crowds and average cost per visitor, where less well-known parks often score higher.”

The list shows how the parks fared this year compared to Travel Lemming’s prior rankings, and offers a detailed explanation of what sets each park apart. To quell curiosity, the top-ranked park is Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, while the bottom-ranked parks tend to be hard-to-reach options that aren’t near a major airport, don’t create a lot of jobs, and cost a good amount of money to get to. These include Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Kobuk Valley National Park, among others.

How the national park ranking came together

capitol reef national park

Capitol Reef National Park ranks 21st on the list. Photo: Galyna Andrushko /Shutterstock

Ranking the 63 national parks became a team effort for the Travel Lemming crew, with multiple writers compiling data and putting it into action.

“There were two drivers that helped us decide which data points to use,” O’Connor says. “We wanted variables that would appropriately capture the experience of visiting the park, and we wanted data sets that were complete and would allow us to easily compare across parks.”

Many things considered “favorites” or “iconic destinations” by travelers are often judged subjectively based on individual experiences and perceptions. This makes it difficult to clearly state that one national park is better than another. That’s where the diverse variety of data points came in.

“With data analysis, it’s often important to use a proxy variable that’s easier to access/measure than the phenomenon you’re trying to capture,” says O’Connor. “An example is using the distance from a major airport (a highly specific figure) as a proxy variable to estimate “accessibility,” which is an important but vaguer and more abstract term. To select these proxy variables, we asked ourselves what actually impacts the visitor experience, and how we could capture that numerically.”

One thing the team intentionally left out of rankings was traveler preferences for specific activities, since this would be purely a subjective measurement.

“Since everyone has different preferences in that regard, it would be difficult to use those hobby- or interest-oriented metrics to influence the ratings,” O’Connor says. “Our current rankings do include a biodiversity score that captures the amount of wildlife a nature-lover might encounter.”

Tips for planning a national parks road trip

mesa verde national park

Mesa Verde National Park tied with Guadalupe Mountains National Park for 52nd on the list. Photo: Sopotnicki /Shutterstock

Aside from the data, O’Connor offers tips to help road trippers plan out a more efficient and enjoyable journey.

“Pick up a U.S. Park Pass ahead of time to cover your entrance fees with a one-time payment,” she says.

This pass covers entrance not only to the 63 national parks but also to more than 2,000 other outdoor recreation sites managed by the US federal government.

Also, O’Connor notes, it’s important to show up prepared for anything.

“Plan for the elements,” she says. “Hiking and camping in many national parks can be a true feat and can include harsh conditions. Make sure you take a realistic approach to what your group will enjoy and put ample effort into researching the right gear and equipment.”

Equally important is crafting an itinerary that doesn’t expand your bandwidth in the first day.

“If you’re going on a longer road trip to see many parks, plan your itinerary so you’ll have some ‘rest parks’ scattered in with the more rigorous and adventurous parks,” O’Connor says. “Maybe you’d enjoy going to a bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park or on a glass bottom boat in Biscayne Bay if your feet start to get blistered from your otherwise-active adventure.”

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