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The National Park Service (NPS) oversees 423 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and other areas. Hundreds of millions of people take in the parks every year, but the pandemic caused a 28% decrease in visits between 2019 and 2020.

There were 327.5 million recreational visits within the National Park System in 2019, about one per every US resident. There were 237 million in 2020, dropping the annual visitation rate to the lowest levels since the 1960s.

Visits to national parks dropped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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How many national parks are there, and where are they?

The term “national park” is considered the most prestigious title applicable to NPS land and are often the units most protected from activities such as mining and logging. West Virgina’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the 63rd and newest national park, with approval tucked into a $900 billion coronavirus stimulus package approved in December 2020.

The other 360 sites carry a variety of titles. Some of the other titles are ecologically focused, like national preserves, reserves, lakeshore, and rivers. Others are more historical — like national historic sites, historical parks, and battlefields.

Congress must approve all park designations, except for “national monuments,” which are created solely with the president’s approval. The president can create a protected area “out of historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government” through executive action. Unlike other park designations, national monuments may be managed by agencies other than NPS, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

There are 85.1 million acres of NPS land, 64% of which is in Alaska. Altogether, the park system covers an area larger than New Mexico.

The states with the most NPS-managed land are primarily in the west.

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Five other parks lost more than a million visitors between 2019 and 2020: Yosemite National Park in California, Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.

Six parks had an increase in visitors: Virgin Islands National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, Indiana Dunes National Park, and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.

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Which national parks are the most popular? What happened to visitation in 2020?

Overall visitation dropped in 2020, albeit unevenly. Most national parks had a decline in recreational visits.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina has been the most-visited national park since 1944. Visits to the Great Smoky Mountains dropped 4% from 12.5 million in 2019 to 12.1 million in 2020.

In Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park — the second-most visited national park every year between 1990 and 2019 — visits dropped more than half from just shy of 6 million in 2019 to 2.9 million in 2020.

Five other parks lost more than a million visitors between 2019 and 2020: Yosemite National Park in California, Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.

Grand Canyon National Park had more than a 50% decline in visitors in 2020.

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Visits increased at all parks in 10 states. Sites in both New Jersey and Michigan had 20% increases.

Alaska sites had the largest visits decrease, 87% lower than 2019. Among the most affected parks was Glacier Bay National Park — a cruise destination in Alaska — where the number of visitors dropped 99% from 672,000 in 2019 to under 6,000 in 2020.

Visitation to national park lands in Alaska dropped 87% in 2020.

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As the number of vaccinations increases, 2021 may show an increase in visitors over the previous year, though the final data will not be available until early 2022.

The National Park System is one of many ways the government manages the American environment. Learn more by visiting the State of the Earth.

National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics
National Park System: What Do the Different Park Titles Signify?

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