From Sea to Shining Sea
From Sea to Shining Sea

Ever since Ulysses S. Grant inaugurated Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first national park in the world, the U.S. has protected its natural resources and embraced the outdoor lifestyle with open arms. In 2010, the National Park Service recorded more than 281 million visitors to its 363 properties, which are located in all but one of our 50 states (Delaware is the lone exception, with a piece of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail but no national park of its own) and reflect the incredible diversity of this country. Looking at the top 10 national parks by visits in 2010, it’s clear that accessibility trumps scenery in most cases, and that the most successful are, predictably, those with the lowest entrance fees. Of course, most parks are free to visit thanks to the largesse of the American taxpayer. Here, we take a closer look at America’s most visited parks and give some clues as to what these popular attractions can expect from their visitors in 2011. Photo Credit: National Park Service

10th: Cape Cod Natural Seashore
10th: Cape Cod Natural Seashore

Visits in 2010: 4,653,706 (1.65% of total) Entrance Fee: $45 annual pass, $15 daily vehicle rate, $3 daily pedestrian/bicycle rate If you’ve ever wondered where cranberries come from, you most definitely have not been to the Cape Cod Natural Seashore, where wild cranberry bogs intermingle with 40 miles of beaches in this uniquely American landscape. For those who aren’t particularly drawn to nature, the park’s many biking trails and hikes offer visitors a tour of historical lighthouses that offer a glimpse of the way we used to sail before GPS navigation. With something for nature lovers and history buffs alike, Cape Cod was the 10th most visited park last year and the park service estimates a 2.9% growth in traffic in 2011. Photo Credit: National Park Service

9th: Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
9th: Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Visits in 2010: 5,285,761 (1.88% of total) Entrance Fee: None, though some special activities (like weddings) require permits. Despite what you think, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is not in Delaware. The dramatic and sparsely populated park is named after the Delaware River, which cascades down the Pocono plateau in a series of waterfalls and other natural formations that delight hikers, boaters, rafters, campers and even the many people who come to celebrate weddings and baptisms in the pristine river. Last year more than 5 million people visited the park, placing it at number nine on the list. Photo Credit: sachindaluja

8th: Natchez Trace Parkway
8th: Natchez Trace Parkway

Visits in 2010: 5,910,950 (2.10% of total) Entrance Fee: None Perhaps because it is free and accessible from dozens of roads in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, the “Old Trace” came in at number eight for attendance in 2010. The 444-mile drive includes numerous campgrounds, hiking, biking and climbing trails, and a number of historic towns that were visited by almost 6 million people last year. Photo Credit: National Park Service

7th: Lincoln Memorial 
7th: Lincoln Memorial 

Visits in 2010: 6,042,315 (2.15% of total) Entrance Fee: None Last month when President Obama negotiated a last-minute deal with Republicans in Congress to avoid a government shutdown, he marked the occasion by making an unannounced visit to one of the most popular sites on the National Park Service’s roster, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Long a symbol of liberty and democracy for Americans and foreign tourists alike, the larger than life statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln is also one of the pioneers of new media in the world of national monuments: Visitors can tour the site virtually and the more than 6 million visitors that visited the physical site last year could access an audio tour with a simple phone call to a local number on their cellphones. It’s a good thing, too, as the site is only projected to see more traffic. The National Park Service estimates an increase in visitors of 7.4% in 2011. Photo Credit: National Park Service

6th: George Washington Memorial Parkway 
6th: George Washington Memorial Parkway 

Visits in 2010: 6,925,099 (2.46% of total) Entrance Fee: None except for Great Falls Park ($3 for three-day pedestrian pass, $5 for three-day vehicle pass) Named for another one of our beloved founders, the George Washington Memorial Parkway in our nation’s capital is popular among tourists and locals for the plethora of historical sites that can be visited along this route. Among them are the Arlington House (home of Robert E. Lee), the Clara Barton Museum and the dramatic Great Falls park on the Potomac River. Even the drive itself is beautiful, with lush greenery and surprisingly deep gorges in the countryside around the capital, though rising gas prices have likely led the Park Service to project a slight, 0.8% decline for visits in 2011. Photo Credit: National Park Service

5th: Lake Mead National Recreation Area
5th: Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Visits in 2010: 7,080,758 (2.52% of total) Entrance Fee: Week-long passes for $5 per person, $10 per vehicle and $16 per boat Created when the massive Hoover Dam was built to generate power from the Colorado River, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. and a great place for all sorts of water and adventure sports in and around the lake. The desert landscape is home to a number of interesting plants and animals as well, and campers can find days’ worth of open land to explore there. The lake supplies Las Vegas’s water, and while drought lowered the water level in recent years, this year's wet winter should help replenish some of what was lost and ensure that Lake Mead retains its spot in the top five U.S. national parks. Photo Credit: NASA

4th: Gateway National Recreation Area 
4th: Gateway National Recreation Area 

Visits in 2010: 8,820,757 (3.14% of total) Entrance Fee: None, though parking, camping and some other activities require paid permits. Perhaps thanks to the massive concentration of humanity in the New York metropolitan area, the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey was the fourth most visited of the country’s national parks last year. Indeed the park logged close to 9 million visitors in 2010 (the population of New York City is roughly 8 million). But that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to do in the Gateway NRA, which includes Jamaica Bay (a wilderness refuge and great place to see many species of migrating birds), Sandy Hook in New Jersey (another popular destination for bird watchers) and Staten Island, which features a number of historical sites related to the city and its colonial past. The Park Service projects an increase in visitors by 2.5% in 2011, after a 5.7% increase from 2009 to 2010. Photo Credit: National Park Service

3rd: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
3rd: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Visits in 2010: 9,463,538 (3.36% of total) Entrance Fee: None, though overnight camping costs $14-$23. Leading off the top three national parks is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, which prides itself on being one of the only major national parks that does not charge an entrance fee (when the formerly-private land was transferred to the federal government, it was done with the stipulation that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed …”). While that may have helped the park attract almost 9.5 million visitors last year, the diversity of plant and animal life (think bears and orchids) in the Great Smoky Mountains provides plenty of eye candy along the park’s more than 800 hiking trails. Photo Credit: National Park Service

2nd: Golden Gate National Recreation Area 
2nd: Golden Gate National Recreation Area 

Visits in 2010: 14,271,503 (5.07% of total) Entrance Fee: None except for Alcatraz Island (variable depending on tour package) and Muir Woods ($5 for adults). Logging nearly 5 million more visitors than the Smoky Mountains, the second place Golden Gate National Recreation Area saw more than 14 million visitors in 2010, and for good reason. The park includes so many awe-inspiring sites in the San Francisco Bay Area that people everywhere will recognize many of them. With the iconic Golden Gate Bridge as a centerpiece, the park includes Alcatraz, the prison island that housed Al Capone, the dramatic Marin Headlands with its miles of hiking trails and old military installations, and the magnificent giant sequoias of Muir Woods – the tallest trees in the world by far. The park service estimates an increase in visitors in 2011 by 2.6%, which may be enough to push the Golden Gate NRA into the top spot this year. Photo Credit: Stepan Mazurov

The Most Popular Park: Blue Ridge Parkway
The Most Popular Park: Blue Ridge Parkway

Visits in 2010: 14,517,118 (5.16% of total) Entrance Fee: None, though camping costs $16 per night. Topping the list (but not by much) is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road along the dramatic Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and Virginia. The parkway, which does include some hiking trails, is really meant as a drive along a string of historical communities where one can revisit the region’s past as well as enjoy some iconic local pork barbecue. But times are tough in 2011 for an attraction based on road traffic: High gas prices will account for much of the projected 4.3% decrease in visitors this year, surely enough to push the Blue Ridge Parkway down to the number two spot. Photo Credit: Bruce Tuten

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