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(NEXSTAR) – Visitation was up last year across the National Park system, new data shows, with a dozen parks recording more than five million visits each. Parks you may expect to have high visitation numbers — the Grand Canyon, Zion, and the Great Smoky Mountains, for example — did, but not as much as one park that isn’t exactly a park.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), 312 million recreation visits were reported in 2022 across the 395 parks that track visitors, an increase of 15 million visits over 2021 but shy of the 318 million and 327 million recorded in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Though 75 parks had more than 1 million recreation visits each, only one was the most visited: Blue Ridge Parkway, which received 15.7 million visits last year, edging out the Golden Gate National Recreation Area by slightly more than 72,000 visits.
Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t exactly the park you envision when you think of Yosemite or Grand Teton. Instead, it’s a series of parks connected by a 469-mile stretch of roadway traipsing through the Appalachian Highlands of Virginia into North Carolina’s western tip.
Slideshow: Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway also offers some of the oldest mountains in the world. You’ll also find:
- Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain peak in the eastern U.S.
- New River, which is actually the oldest river in North America
- Linville Gorge, the deepest gorge east of a deeper gorge, the Grand Canyon
- Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies
It’s also the longest road planned as a single unit in the U.S., according to NPS. The Blue Ridge Parkway was built in a series of major public works projects to help boost the travel and tourism industry, giving the Appalachian region a leg up to climb out of the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago.
Construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935. By the time World War II began roughly four years later, about 170 miles were open to travel and another 160 were under construction. It would take until 1987 for the full 469-mile route to be completed.
In addition to protecting the mountain landscapes along it, the parkway preserves the “log cabin of the mountain pioneer, the summer home of a textile magnate, and traces of early industries such as logging, railways, and an old canal.” According to NPS, Blue Ridge Parkway has eight campgrounds, 300 miles of trails to hike, 13 picnic areas, and concerts with traditional music from the Southern Appalachians.
Following the parkway to its southernmost end will bring you to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the third-most visited national park in 2022.
Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t the only “non-park” landing among the most visited last year – three parkways, three recreational areas, two memorials, and a national seashore also landed in the top 10. Great Smoky Mountains was the only “national park.” Here are the 10 most-visited national parks in 2022:
- Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.7 million visits
- Golden Gate National Recreational Area: 15.6 million visits
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 12.9 million visits
- Gateway National Recreational Area: 8.7 million visits
- Lincoln Memorial: 7.8 million visits
- George Washington Memorial Parkway: 7.3 million visits
- Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.5 million visits
- Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.6 million visits
- Lake Mead National Recreational Area: 5.5 million visits
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 4.8 million visits
Blue Ridge Parkway saw its most visits in 2002 with more than 21 million guests. Since then, 2014 is the only year visitation has dipped below 14 million for the parkway. Between 2011 and 2022, Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited seven times — the Golden Gate National Recreation Area topped the list during the five other years.
Unsurprisingly, Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited national park on record, according to NPS data.