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5 National Parks Set Attendance Records in 2023, the Reasons May Surprise You

According to National Park Service (NPS) statistics, 325.5 million people visited national park sites in 2023, a 4% increase from the previous year. The NPS manages over 400 sites, including 63 full-fledged national parks.

Of those, twenty sites set new attendance marks, including five national parks. But how the five national parks set new visitation records may surprise you.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Scott McConkey and Julie McConkey of the Miles with McConkey Travel Blog capture images of glaciers in Glacier Bay, Alaska.
Close view of a glacier in Glacier Bay. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Part of a 25 million-acre World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve comprises 3.3 million acres of soaring mountains, forests, and icy waters with glaciers. Due to its location along Alaska’s Inside Passage, many visitors experience the park from the comfort of a cruise ship. Accordingly, visitation correlates directly with the cruise industry.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve saw more visitors in 2023 due to the state breaking a cruise ship passenger record, signifying a complete tourism recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic hangover. Juneau, Alaska’s leading cruise ship port, received 1.65 million passengers, a 23% increase from the previous mark set in 2019.

Over 700,000 guests experienced Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a 5% increase from its 2019 visitation record. The park saw strong visitation increases each month from May through September, perfectly aligning with the Alaska cruise season.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

Top travel experiences in the United States - whitewater rafting in West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: sepavone via Deposit Photos

America’s most recently designated national park, established on Dec. 27, 2020, is a new spot for outdoor enthusiasts. Word has spread about the park’s natural beauty and adventurous recreation opportunities. Nestled in southern West Virginia, the park features its namesake gorge carved by a coursing river that takes guests on a thrilling whitewater rafting ride. 

The region houses two other national park sites. Visitation across the three destinations in 2023 increased nearly 42% compared to 2019, the year before New River Gorge earned its elevated park status. While the visitation rise has slowed since the initial bump of 30% in year one after the designation, the region continues to receive more visitors who want to experience all the area offers.

Joshua Tree National Park

things to do in Joshua Tree - visit Barker Dam
Hiking Barker Dam Nature Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Renowned for its desert succulent trees and peculiar rock formations, Joshua Tree National Park received an astounding 3.2 million visitors in 2023, an increase of more than 200,000 guests from the previous record set in 2021. Beyond the apparent greater demand for travel and outdoor recreation since the pandemic, a closer look at park data reveals two primary reasons for the park’s growing popularity.

Visitors regularly flock to Joshua Tree National Park in April and May, hoping to see the surreal landscape painted with beautiful wildflowers. Once every five or ten years, the park has a legendary superbloom, where many more wildflowers blossom like a rolling sea of bright colors across the vast desert. The park received a high volume of spring guests since the last superbloom occurred a few years ago, and weather conditions were potentially favorable for the natural phenomenon.

Joshua Tree achieved International Dark Sky Park status in 2017, and its popularity as a stargazing destination has grown. June and July typically provide excellent views of the Milky Way’s core, while August features the reliable Perseid Meteor Shower. All three summer months saw substantial visitation numbers.

Dry Tortugas National Park

least visited national parks - Dry Tortugas
Aerial view of Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo credit NationalParked via Deposit Photos

Consistently one of America’s least-visited parks, Dry Tortugas National Park comprises seven small islands on the open water about 70 miles west of Key West. Only accessible by seaplane, ferry, or private boat, reaching Dry Tortugas is more challenging than the average national park. 

With limited access and transportation alternatives regularly booked months in advance, travelers will require more planning and funding to add the park to their visited list. As such, it has developed a prestigious status among national park travelers and outdoor enthusiasts. Despite the visitation challenges, the park received 78,000 or more guests each of the past three years, setting a new high in 2023, over 84,000. 

Beyond the satisfactory bragging rights of exploring Dry Tortugas, the park has drawn increased interest for its unique activities and wildlife. Snorkeling and touring historic Fort Jefferson are two of the most popular activities. 

Visitation has increased among travelers who want to spot sea turtles or go birding. The park harbors five species of sea turtles and is a resting spot for many birds migrating between North and South America. 

For those who doubt birding is still growing in popularity, the Cornell Chronicle reported that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had more than 3 million active users as of May 2023 on its free app, Merlin Bird ID. That figure more than doubled from the year before.

Congaree National Park

Miles with McConkey at Congaree National Park
Walking Boardwalk Loop Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

The central South Carolina park, consistently on the list of least-visited parks, houses a vast old-growth flood plain hardwood forest with an average canopy height above 100 feet. NPS statistics show a steady year-round increase in guests, with nine new monthly visitation records set in 2023. 

Due to hot weather and mosquitoes, the park typically draws fewer visitors from July through September. However, 2023 bucked the trend with substantial summer visitation. 

Congaree National Park’s free entry makes it a cost-effective and attractive respite for those wanting to escape large crowds.

Park rangers believe the summer visitation increase is due to other reasons, including greater availability of ranger-led programs and more interest in annual park events like celebrating Juneteenth and viewing the synchronous fireflies.

Congaree National Park houses one of only three species of synchronous fireflies in North America. The fireflies put on a show for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June, flashing their lights in unison. Guests eagerly watched last year’s rare event, setting the park’s new monthly visitation record in May.

National Park Visitation in 2024

Scenes of Glacier Bay from a cruise ship captured by the Miles with McConkey Travel Blog
Mountains and blue skies in Glacier Bay. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

What the future holds for our national parks remains to be seen. Travelers continue to show a strong interest in outdoor experiences, particularly exploring national parks. 

More national parks are starting to require entry permits to protect the environment and provide a better visitor experience. By planning and being respectful of nature and each other, all visitors can have an enjoyable national park experience. Time will tell if more attendance records fall this year.

This article originally appeared on Media Decision.

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey

Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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