10. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
Many of the almost 5 million visitors who visited this park in 2011 undoubtedly made a quick stop from I-80 to check out the visitor center near the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border. Others stay considerably longer, to swim, bike, kayak and canoe, camp, or hike the 100 miles of trails in the 70,000-acre park. The park also features some of the best rock climbing in the mid-Atlantic region. The natural feature that gives the park its name, the Delaware Water Gap, is an awe-inspiring display of nature’s power, where over the course of millions of years the Delaware River cut its way through an Appalachian Mountain ridge leaving a gap between Mount Tammany in New Jersey and Mount Minsi in Pennsylvania.
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Designated as a National Park unit in 1971, the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s main attractions are seven barrier islands along the Florida Panhandle and in Mississippi (barrier islands in Alabama have been proposed for inclusion but are not yet part of the national seashore). Some 5.5 million people visited in 2011, to swim, bike, fish, hike and camp on the islands. For history buffs, the park contains several historic military forts dating to the early 19th century.
8. Natchez Trace Parkway
This 444-mile, two-lane parkway stretching between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee, closely follows the route of a trade path used by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Later, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the expansion of the trade path into a road to help settle the area. Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway follows a meandering route that offers access to historic and ghost towns, American burial mounds, scenic overlooks, and a craft center featuring works for sale by hundreds of local artists.
7. Lincoln Memorial
No introduction needed here in terms of history, but it’s worth noting that the Lincoln Memorial, which drew almost 6 million visitors in 2011, is far more popular than the other presidential memorials in Washington, D.C. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial hosted an estimated 1.9 million visitors. For some unknown reason, the Washington Monument’s official visitation figure was only 430,000.
6. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
The main intent of Lake Mead, of course, is to provide hydroelectric power through Hoover Dam, but that probably mattered little to the 6.4 million visitors who visited the area for recreation in 2011. With more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, there’s plenty of room to explore this picturesque lake both by boat and on land. If you want a truly memorable experience, get together with some friends and rent a multiroom houseboat for the week.
5. George Washington Memorial Parkway
When the first stretch of this parkway opened in 1932, it was dubbed “America’s Most Modern Motorway.” But there’s far more to this national park unit than just the well-known G.W. Parkway along the Potomac River in Virginia. The NPS administers more than two-dozen sites along the parkway, including numerous parks and historic sites and memorials such as the United States Marine Corps War Memorial and the Robert E. Lee Memorial. The striking thing about the parkway and its surroundings is its rural atmosphere in the heart of one of the most urban regions in America. Take a walk along the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail, or visit Theodore Roosevelt Island to see for yourself.
4. Gateway National Recreation Area
It’s a good bet the majority of people outside of New York City have never heard of this national park unit. In fact, many New Yorkers are probably unaware of it. The park encompasses more than 26,000 acres in 11 different sites between the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and across the bay in New Jersey. It may seem like an oxymoron to hear the terms New York City and wildlife refuge in the same sentence, but the Jamaica Bay Wildlife refuge covers more than 9,000 acres on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Regarding other kinds of wild life, the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway includes Gunnison Beach, the largest “clothing optional” beach on the East Coast.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains N.P. is by far the most popular “national park” in the United States, drawing more than 9 million visitors in 2011; Grand Canyon N.P. ranked second, with 4.4 million guests. On a negative note, those millions of visitors arrive in millions of cars, spouting emissions that threaten the park’s ecosystem and create smoggy conditions that spoil the picturesque “smoky” haze that originally gave these mountains their name.
2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Ironically, the feature most visible from almost anywhere in this park, the Golden Gate Bridge, is not part of the Golden Gate NRA. The park itself covers some 60 miles of coast in the Bay area. More than 14.2 million visitors turned out in 2011 to visit such park sites as Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the Presidio.
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
Between 15 million and 20 million motorists a year travel at least a part of this 469-mile two-lane parkway through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Few can probably appreciate the massive construction effort it took to complete this road, which took a half century to build, with the final leg, the famous Linn Cove Viaduct, finishing the road in 1983. The road includes numerous scenic turnouts and parking areas offering access to waterfalls, hiking trails and other attractions.
More: Top 10 National Parks
In case you’re wondering, here are the top 10 U.S. national parks in 2011 attendance:
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 9.2 million visitors
2. Grand Canyon N.P., 4.4 million
3. Yosemite N.P., 3.3 million
4. Olympic N.P., 3.1 million
5. Yellowstone N.P., 2.8 million
6. Rocky Mountain N.P., 2.8 million
7. Zion N.P., 2.6 million
8. Cuyahoga Valley N.P., 2.5 million
9. Grand Teton N.P., 2.5 million
10. Acadia N.P, 2.1 million
Here’s a National Park Service link with attendance figures for all national park units.
The author has spent much of the past 20 years traveling to every corner of the United States in search of travel adventures.