It’s no secret that Zion National Park is a popular destination for Americans and international visitors alike. With more than 4 million people trekking through Springdale, Utah each year to visit, it’s the fourth most-visited in the country.
You already know–and maybe have even seen for yourself–the iconic views from Angels Landing or dipped your toes in the cool waters of The Narrows. But what about the other 3 parks in the top 4 most-visited list? Keep reading to learn which parks are on the list, and which three attractions you should see when you visit each.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country by leaps and bounds. Every year, more than 11 million people drive, hike, or otherwise explore the park, which stretches across the Southeastern corner of Tennessee and into North Carolina. By comparison, the next most-visited park in the country sees just over half that number of visitors annually.
There are several reasons why this national park is so popular. One reason is simply its location; located close to plenty of population centers, the park is easy to get to from many cities on the East Coast and into the Midwest. With no entrance fee and several major roads passing through the Great Smoky Mountains, it also acts as a crossroads for visitors to the region, some of whom simply drive through on their way elsewhere. This is a big mistake once you realize how many beautiful overlooks, stunning trails, and other attractions are waiting within its 244,000 acres.
Whether you are just passing through or you have a few days to spare, there are a few spots that should be at the top of your must-see list.
1. Cades Cove
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t just preserve the natural wonders of the region; it’s also preserving a large collection of Appalachian heritage. Log cabin homes, clapboard churches, spring houses, and plenty of other traces of the pioneers that once settled in the region can be found throughout the park. If stepping back in time sounds like a great way to spend your trip, head to Cades Cove.
Cades Cove Valley is a section of the park with wide expanses of grassy fields rimmed by towering mountains. In the valley, there are dozens of historic structures. Drive the loop through the valley and stop at churches, cabins, and homesteads, some of which you can drive right up to and others that require a bit of hiking to get to.
2. Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is a famous hiking trail that stretches more than 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia. Many hiking enthusiasts dream of covering the entire thing, either in pieces or all at once. But you don’t need to trek for months to experience this iconic trail. It passes right through the Great Smoky Mountains, where you can see it for yourself and even hike a section. In fact, you’ll find the fourth most-popular spot in the park on the trail.
3. Clingman’s Dome
If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Great Smoky Mountains, odds are that you’ve seen this uniquely-shaped structure. Jutting out from the evergreen forest on top of the mountain, Clingman’s Dome is a futuristic overlook that you can climb to the top of via a long, curving ramp.
At the top, you’ll be 6,643 feet above sea level, the highest point in all of Tennessee. It’s only a half-mile hike to the top and back and offers incredible views across the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Just be aware that the “smoke” that the mountains are famous for is actually fog, which can obstruct views from this overlook.
Grand Canyon National Park
While it may not see the number of visitors that the Great Smoky Mountains do, at 6.3 million annual visitors, the Grand Canyon comes in second on the list of most-visited parks. Grand Canyon National Park isn’t just one of the most famous national parks, it’s also one of the most famous natural wonders in the world.
While the park itself covers more than 1,900 square miles, much of that is backwoods wilderness that’s either inaccessible or very difficult to reach. Unless you have your heart set on a backcountry adventure, consider visiting one of these four points during your trip to the Grand Canyon.
1. Visitor Center and Mather Point
Most visitors to the park enter through the South Entrance. Located closest to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Flagstaff, this entrance is home to a large visitors center where you can talk with rangers and plan your trip. Just a short walk from the Visitor Center is Mather Point Overlook, which offers stunning views of the Grand Canyon, and is often the spot where visitors first get to experience its magnitude of this natural wonder.
2. North Entrance
The less-visited North Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park is a must-see for a few reasons. First, because of its location, and the fact that it closes for the winter because of snow, it sees a fraction of the number of visitors that the South Entrance sees. During the summer months, when crowds may form at the other entrance, the North Entrance remains traffic-free.
At the North Entrance, you’ll find a Visitor Center with the same helpful information and friendly rangers. You can also hike to Bright Angel Point, a paved, .5 mile roundtrip trail that takes you onto the spine of the canyon where you can look down into Roaring Springs and Bright Angel Canyons far below.
If you’re already planning a visit to Zion during the late Spring, early Fall, or in the Summer, you can take a quick day trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, less than a hundred miles away.
3. Rim Trail
If you do want to do some hiking during your visit, the Rim Trail is a great spot to start. The 13-mile trail is mostly paved and follows the rim of the Grand Canyon, so you’ll have a great view the entire time. You can start the trail at Mather Point, or start in the middle in the Grand Canyon Village, or at many other scenic spots along Hermit Road.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Compared to the Grand Canyon’s 1,900 square miles, Rocky Mountain National Park’s 419 square miles might seem small. But when you see the incredible views and stunning natural features that are packed into those miles, you won’t even notice the difference in size.
Located less than a hundred miles from Denver, Rocky Mountain covers, as the name suggests, a section of the Rocky Mountains. The Colorado River cuts through part of the park, which is filled with stone-gray mountains, sparkling alpine lakes, lush forests, and plenty of wildlife.
1. Trail Ridge Road
For a heart-pounding adventure that won’t even require you getting out of your car, head to Trail Ridge Road. This 48-mile road crosses the park through a series of sharp turns, lined with breath-taking drop-offs. On the road, you’ll reach an elevation of 12,183 feet above sea level. A whopping 11-miles of the road are above 11,000 feet.
2. Bear Lake
Those sparkling alpine lakes are one of the many reasons that visitors fall in love with this beautiful park. Bear Lake is one of the most popular, and most photographed, examples in the park. The name refers to the lake and the trailhead. At 9,450 feet in elevation, this cool-water lake is situated below towering peaks.
The trail is about 10-miles long, though just visiting the trailhead to get some photos is a great way to experience this popular spot. You can also hike the shorter .7-mile loop to see even more of the lake.
3. Longs Peak
The highest summit in the park is Longs Peak, which towers 14,259 feet above sea level. You don’t need to travel far to see this iconic peak; it’s visible from just about everywhere in the park. No matter how you’re viewing it, Longs Peak is always stunning.
In the summer months, you can attempt the climb up the sheer vertical rock face of the mountain. Or, enjoy it like most visitors, with photos or maybe just a quiet moment taking in the rocky peak.
The Fourth Most-Visited National Park in the Country
The Great Smoky Mountains has waterfalls, lush forests, and historic cabins. The Grand Canyon has incredible views. Rocky Mountain National Park offers stunning views of alpine lakes framed by towering peaks. But what about the fourth most-visited park in the country?
Zion National Park is a unique mix of desert landscapes, green foliage, rocky peaks, and more. And while it may sit at number 4 on the list now, more visitors are discovering all of the beauty and adventure that the park has to offer every year. If you want to get in a visit before even more people find out about this special gem, check out this guide to learn when you can visit for free in 2020.