Which is the ‘best’ US National Park?

Which is the ‘best’ US National Park?


I am loved…to death. Photo courtesy of the USNPS.


Obviously a subjective question, and part of that subjectivity comes with what exactly you are looking for in a park. Car camping vs hiking, mountains vs. desert, etc. But one thing is obvious…a whole bunch of people like to go to National Parks, and a sizable percentage of them go to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, every year.

It is the most visited National Park in the US by far. In fact, it gets more visitors than Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.

But does that make it the BEST national park? Before you answer, consider that…

  • GSMNP is the biggest and most famous mountain park east of the Rockies. No other eastern park compares to it.
  • It is the closest major park to the big cities of the heavily popular Northeast and Ohio River valley.
  • It charges no entry fee.
  • It is a very well developed and friendly place for weekend car tourists and campers (traffic jams aside.)

Ask knowledgeable hikers and backpackers, however, and you might get a different answer. My own answer is, it’s a great park, but not even in the top ten. In fact, there are many places that are NOT national parks that are as good as the Smokies, or better. The White Mountains for example is at least as good…in my opinion, the Whites are better.

NationalParksTraveler has an article that attempts to dive into the numbers and come up with a qualitative list…it’s a pretty good article, you should check it out.


The article uses statistical modelling to try to weed out biases associated with location. However, it is still a relatively biased study. Effectively, the assumption is that visitation, when normalized, equates to ‘good’. My own opinion is, visitation more equates to convenience. Sure, Yellowstone is a fantastic place, but it’s also a perfect destination for car campers and RVers. Its popularity is a reflections of how tourists see it as a viable destination for gawking at scenery from behind a windshield.

What do they rank as the LEAST of the National Parks? North Cascades. It’s also one of the least developed, and surrounded by many other popular parks with well developed tourist infrastructures on both the US AND Canadian side of the border.


Cascade pass.jpg
By Daniel Hershman – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2752656

Nobody loves me. 😦

A lot of the rankings are suspect. Anyone who knows the park system well will, for example, point out that Yosemite is probably better than the 16th best park, and furthermore, Kings Canyon (number 52 on their list) is 95% as good as Yosemite. Kings Canyon contains a substantial section of the John Muir Trail and America’s highest mountain in the contiguous 48…Mt. Whitney. Neither is easily accessible to weekend tourists and car campers. Thus, the treasures of King’s Canyon remain out of reach of the masses.  Ranking it below Cuyahoga Valley is, of course, totally preposterous.



photo taken by w:user:geographer used under licnese

What? I rank BELOW Ohio???

Whatever the flaws might be, it’s a worthy endeavor and definitely deserves a look. Just the data alone is amazing. In February, an astonishing 350,000 people visited The Smokies. During the same period, Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior got 25. Somebody needs to give that group a medal, or at least a cup of hot chocolate.


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