Visits to National Park sites in KY declined in 2022. This site was still the most popular

While overall foot traffic to national park holdings in the U.S. grew by 5% last year, visits to sites in Kentucky fell slightly, including at the state’s two most popular attractions.

That’s according to the National Park Service’s annual visitation report, released Feb. 27.

Despite the drop in visitation to four of the six sites in Kentucky where the park service tracks traffic, three still drew more than half a million visitors in 2022.

Visitation to national parks in Kentucky

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area remains the most visited site in, or partially in, Kentucky. Visitation slumped there last year as the natural area along the Cumberland Plateau drew 797,726 visitors compared to 2021’s 834,724, a 4.4% drop in traffic.


It ranked 89th of 387 NPS holdings for visitation in 2022, down from 84th in the system in 2021. Visitation to Big South Fork was at its lowest level last year since 2018, NPS data show.

The second most-visited park in Kentucky remains Cumberland Gap National Historic Park with 732,916 visits in 2022. That’s a drop of nearly 10% from 2021 for the “Mountain Gateway” park, which stretches along parts of the Bluegrass State, Virginia and Tennessee.

Visitation to the park — which offers a peek into Native American culture, pioneer life and bison in addition to recreation — peaked in 2000 when it recorded 1.52 million visits in a single year. Cumberland Gap ranked the 97th most-visited NPS site last year.

This National Park Service site on the KY border drew nearly 840K visitors in 2021

The final site in Kentucky to welcome more than half a million annual visits was Mammoth Cave National Park, located in the southwestern part of the state. With 663,147 visits last year, the site saw an uptick of nearly 150,000 over 2021.

The park has been recovering from coronavirus restrictions in 2020 that limited tours of the famed cave system – the longest known on the planet. Last year proved the best for the park in terms of visitation since 2005, when it saw 1.87 million visits.

The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in LaRue County had increased visitation, with 265,707 visits, almost a 10% bump from 2021. Fort Donelson National Battlefield, along the Tennessee/Kentucky border, saw visitation drop by more than 51,000 trips, NPS data show. Last year was the first since 2018 that visitation to the site dipped below 200,000.

Camp Nelson National Monument saw the most precipitous drop of any site in Kentucky, welcoming 16,217 visits in 2022, compared to 43,095 the year before.

The site, located near Nicholasville, offers miles of walking trails, as well as battlefield and cemetery attractions. During the American Civil War, Camp Nelson was a fortified supply depot and hosted one of the largest contingents of enslaved and formerly enslaved Black men fighting for the Union, along with their families. Last year was only the second for which the NPS kept data on visitation for the site.

Several other holdings in Kentucky do not have visitation data as part of the annual report, including the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, which passes through 16 states, Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument in Nancy and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which passes through Kentucky and eight other states.

The park service’s visitor spending report for last year has not been released, but according to data from 2021, those stopping at sites in Kentucky spent $133 million in gateway communities – up from $93.4 million in 2020. The greatest chunk of that spending was on hotels, but dining and gas were also among the top sectors.

National Park Service visitation in the US

Nationwide, the park service says visitation has “essentially recovered to pre-pandemic levels.”

The NPS reports holdings contributed $42.5 billion in economic output in 2021, with $20.5 billion spent in gateway communities.

Visits were up by about 15 million in 2022, and “only 6% lower than (the) all-time record year” 2016, which was the NPS centennial year, the federal agency notes.

“People continue to seek a variety of national park travel experiences – to learn about American history and culture, get active, and enjoy breathtaking scenic views,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said, in part, in the Feb. 27 release. “We’re excited to see our efforts to increase visitation to parks in the off-season and in parks that are less well-known paying off.”

Visitation data from 2022 indicate the most popular were “recreation parks,” accounting for 38% of visits, followed by “historical and cultural parks” and then “nature parks.” The NPS logged nearly 1.36 billion recreation hours at parks last year.

Across the parks system, the Blue Ridge Parkway remains the most popular site at 15.7 million recreation visits. It’s followed by Golden Gate National Recreation Area (15.6 million), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.9 million) and Gateway National Recreation Area (8.7 million) in New York and New Jersey.

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