American Park Ratings
Discover the country's scenic gems on an interactive map
By RON LIZZI - GoOutsideBook.com
Click the image to open the interactive map
If you have a non-mobile browser, and want to quickly explore the American park ratings map, click the map image above. If you have a mobile browser, Google Maps may not work or may be difficult to use on a small device. If the map doesn't work for you, you can still look at Consumer Reports' ratings of National Park Service units at the bottom of this page.
In the map, parks are listed in two groups, 50 rated by Consumer Reports in 1997, followed by over 60 others rated by GoOutsideBook.com. Click a park in the list, or an icon on the map, to see details for that park. All parks have scenery ratings (See graphic at right). Consumer Reports parks also have scores based on readers' experiences. Read below or click Guide near the bottom of the list or click the question mark icon off the Southern California coast for more information.
In 1997, Consumer Reports, America’s leading consumer review magazine that rates everything from cars to coffee, evaluated US national parks. The article, based on survey responses from 40,000 readers, gave 50 parks overall scores for the readers’ experiences and separate ratings for scenery. Each park received a minimum of 350 responses. While park conditions may have changed since then, rendering some scores a bit out of date, the scenery ratings should still be valid and useful to vacationers seeking quality time in the outdoors.
The interactive map shows the parks that appeared in the Consumer Reports article along with their overall scores, rankings, scenery ratings, photos, and other information. Plus, on a separate map layer, I have added over 60 other parks and estimated what their scenery ratings—not their overall scores—might be if they had been evaluated by Consumer Reports. In writing Go Outside and Come Back Better, I visited 41 of the Consumer Reports parks, so my ratings of the additional parks are based on comparisons to those 41, with no endorsement from Consumer Reports.
To decide which additional parks to put on the map, from among the thousands of public lands, I used several criteria. The primary feature of the park must be natural scenery, so Mount Rushmore and other memorials, while scenic, are excluded. There must be a staffed visitor center in or close to the park, which makes it most receptive to visitors. The scenery should be notable and worthy of at least two diamonds, not merely the typical forest and lake, indistinguishable from many other parks. Finally, I only included parks I have experienced firsthand, so that I can compare them to the ones in Consumer Reports.
Obviously these criteria are somewhat arbitrary, so they may be modified in the future. For example, I may add unrated parks, ones that I haven’t visited, that meet the other criteria and thus deserve a place on the map. Also, the lack of a visitor center is not a significant problem for many people, so it might be better to treat a visitor center as a desirable amenity rather than a necessity. For the initial version of the map, however, there had to be some cutoff.
Note that the scenery ratings reflect the experiences of the typical visitor with a passenger car. They are not based on what a backpacker or someone with a four-wheel drive vehicle would see.
The map was created using Google Maps Engine Lite, which is compatible with the four most common browsers, although it may work differently on different browsers. For Android mobile devices, an app is needed. For iPhones and iPads, a third party offers a $3 app. I have no firsthand knowledge of how well these apps work. Based on a reviewer comment, the latter app may not display all data fields.
As with other Google maps, you may change the map and text size.
From Google: "To pan (move the map), simply click and hold your mouse, then drag the map. You can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move the map north, south, east, and west.
"Zoom in and out by using the mouse scroll wheel or by using two fingers up-and-down on your touchpad. You can also use the + and - buttons in the bottom right corner of the map. To center and zoom in on a place, double click the place."
The parks are listed on the left side of the map in alphabetical order. The 50 parks that appeared in the Consumer Reports article are listed separately from the additional parks rated by me, and you may hide the map layer with the additional parks by unchecking the box next to Parks from GoOutsideBook.com.
To see park details and photos, click a park in the list or click its icon at the park’s location on the map. A park's icon is either shown at the location of the main visitor center or some other representative site.
Near the bottom of the park list is a guide for interpreting the information provided. Click Guide or the question mark icon off the Southern California coast to see an explanation of the icons, ratings, and other details. This information is repeated below.
Icons. Parks rated by Consumer Reports are shown with diamond icons, and they have scores indicating how readers judged their visits, as well as separate scenery ratings. Additional parks, including federal, state, and other public lands, are rated solely for scenery by GoOutsideBook.com, and they are shown with circle icons.
Experience Score. Consumer Reports readers judged their experiences at 50 parks. An overall score is shown, followed by the rank, in parentheses, among those 50 parks. A score of 100 would mean that all readers considered their experience excellent; 80, very good; 60, good.
Scenery Rating. A park's scenery rating is the percentage of visitors who judged the scenery to be excellent: ♦♦♦♦♦ (green) = 90% - 100%; ♦♦♦♦ (light green) = 80% - 90%; ♦♦♦ (white) = 70% - 80%; ♦♦ (light gray) = 60% - 70%; ♦ (dark gray) = less than 60%. Consumer Reports ratings are from reader responses. GoOutsideBook.com ratings are estimates using the Consumer Reports scale. Unrated parks, ones not evaluated by GoOutsideBook.com, are shown with peach-colored icons.
Visitation. For the 50 parks rated by Consumer Reports, annual visitation for 2016 is shown, followed by the rank, in parentheses, among those 50 parks. The data is from the National Park Service.
Photos. Some photos have colored lines beneath them to indicate the accessibility of the view shown. White = accessible without hiking (roadside viewpoint with no more than a short walk); green = easy hike; yellow = moderate hike; red = difficult (strenuous and/or long) hike. All photos are by Ron Lizzi, except those marked with "NPS," which are from the National Park Service.
Disclaimer. GoOutsideBook.com is not affiliated with Consumer Reports, the National Park Service, or any park. Statements and opinions by GoOutsideBook.com are not endorsed by any other party. Park information is subject to change and should be verified by you prior to any visit. GoOutsideBook.com and the author assume no liability for injuries or losses sustained by users of this information. You are responsible for determining the suitability of any activities in which you partake.
Don’t be fooled by the scenery ratings—all the parks are good. The scenery ratings are not like movie or product ratings, where one star is poor. The number of diamonds reflects the percentage of visitors who judged the scenery to be excellent, a high bar. One diamond means that fewer than 60% of respondents considered the scenery excellent.
Take the scores with a grain of salt. Ideally the scores would come from people who visited every park, so they could make fair comparisons, but that’s not what happened. Readers rated those parks they chose to visit. So, if you decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns because you find caves interesting, would you be inclined to rate it highly? Are you more likely to be impressed with a park in the East if you’ve never been to the West? Did visitors to Alaska's Glacier Bay have a better experience because most of them took in the scenery from a cruise ship? As you can see, some skepticism is in order. And Consumer Reports states that differences of fewer than three points are not meaningful.
Consider less-popular parks. Some of the most visited national parks, like Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, scored in the bottom half of the Consumer Reports ratings, perhaps due to crowds, traffic, and/or parking.
Look beyond National Park Service units. All of the parks rated by Consumer Reports are National Park Service units. But, as illustrated in Go Outside and Come Back Better, the National Park Service offers just a fraction of America’s excellent public lands. There are many more wonderful places to visit, including other federal lands, like national forests and national wildlife refuges, plus state, municipal, and Native American tribal parks.
Don’t ignore national monuments. Curiously, Consumer Reports skipped national monuments in its ratings, including only national parks, seashores, lakeshores, and recreation areas. Don’t follow their lead or you’ll miss some outstanding places, like White Sands NM and Devils Tower NM.
Hiking delivers more scenery. Park roads and viewpoints are generally designed to make a park’s scenery as accessible as possible, sometimes even accommodating visitors with mobility problems. However, many parks are difficult to fully appreciate without hiking. Utah’s Canyonlands National Park is a prime example. One can visit the viewpoints in the Island in the Sky district of this gigantic park, and get distant views of various canyons, but hiking in the Needles district, which most visitors skip, yields a totally different experience.
When it comes to scenery, the West has the best. A quick glance at the map reveals that a preponderance of the green icons, those representing the best scenery, is in the West. Of the 50 parks rated in Consumer Reports, 12 earned 5 diamonds for their scenery, none east of the Rocky Mountains.
NCA - National Conservation Area
NL - National Lakeshore
NM - National Monument
NM & PRES - National Monument and Preserve
NP - National Park
NP & PRES - National Park and Preserve
NPRES - National Preserve
NR - National River
NRA - National Recreation Area
NRRA - National River and Recreation Area
N RES - National Reserve
NS - National Seashore
NSA - National Scenic Area
NVM - National Volcanic Monument
NWR - National Wildlife Refuge
PKWY - Parkway
RA - Recreation Area
SP - State Park
TP - Tribal Park
Here is a table with the park ratings from Consumer Reports. See the sections above for background and an explanation of the ratings. The rankings consider only the 50 parks rated.
|1||93||Glacier Bay NP & PRES (Alaska)||♦♦♦♦♦||547,057||46|
|T2||90||Arches NP (Utah)||♦♦♦♦♦||1,539,028||29|
|T2||90||Carlsbad Caverns NP (New Mexico)||♦♦♦♦||520,026||47|
|T2||90||Canyonlands NP (Utah)||♦♦♦♦||742,271||38|
|T2||90||Mesa Verde NP (Colorado)||♦♦♦♦||613,788||44|
|T2||90||Bryce Canyon NP (Utah)||♦♦♦♦♦||2,571,684||19|
|T2||90||Hawaii Volcanoes NP (Hawaii)||♦♦♦♦||2,016,702||25|
|T8||89||Olympic NP (Washington)||♦♦♦♦||3,401,996||13|
|T8||89||Grand Teton NP (Wyoming)||♦♦♦♦♦||3,317,000||15|
|T8||89||Haleakala NP (Hawaii)||♦♦♦♦||1,112,390||34|
|T8||89||Glacier NP (Montana)||♦♦♦♦♦||3,305,512||16|
|T8||89||Acadia NP (Maine)||♦♦♦♦||3,509,271||12|
|T8||89||Rocky Mountain NP (Colorado)||♦♦♦♦♦||4,437,215||7|
|T8||89||Zion NP (Utah)||♦♦♦♦♦||4,504,812||6|
|T15||88||Denali NP & PRES (Alaska)||♦♦♦♦♦||642,809||42|
|T15||88||Mount Rainier NP (Washington)||♦♦♦♦♦||1,415,867||31|
|T15||88||Kings Canyon NP (California)||♦♦♦♦||692,932||40|
|T15||88||Crater Lake NP (Oregon)||♦♦♦♦♦||711,749||39|
|T15||88||Saguaro NP (Arizona)||♦♦♦||964,760||37|
|T20||87||Sequoia NP (California)||♦♦♦♦||1,291,256||33|
|T20||87||Lassen Volcanic NP (California)||♦♦♦♦||507,256||48|
|T20||87||Grand Canyon NP (Arizona)||♦♦♦♦♦||6,254,238||5|
|T20||87||Redwood NP (California)||♦♦♦♦||445,000||49|
|T20||87||Death Valley NP (California, Nevada)||♦♦♦♦||1,294,827||32|
|T20||87||Point Reyes NS (California, Nevada)||♦♦♦||2,456,669||20|
|T26||86||Virgin Islands NP (U.S. Virgin Islands)||♦♦♦||304,408||50|
|T26||86||Yosemite NP (California)||♦♦♦♦♦||4,336,890||8|
|T26||86||Sleeping Bear Dunes NL (Michigan)||♦♦♦||1,678,126||26|
|T29||85||Yellowstone NP (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho)||♦♦♦♦||4,116,524||10|
|T29||85||Badlands NP (S. Dakota)||♦♦♦♦||1,054,325||35|
|T31||84||Great Smoky Mountains NP (N. Carolina, Tennessee)||♦♦♦♦||11,338,893||2|
|T31||84||Shenandoah NP (Virginia)||♦♦♦||1,458,874||30|
|T31||84||Petrified Forest NP (Arizona)||♦♦||627,757||43|
|T31||84||Joshua Tree NP (California)||♦♦||2,853,619||17|
|T31||84||Cape Hatteras NS (N. Carolina)||♦♦||2,433,703||21|
|T31||84||Gulf Islands NS (Florida, Mississippi)||♦♦||3,952,941||11|
|T37||83||Mammoth Cave NP (Kentucky)||♦♦||587,853||45|
|T37||83||Cape Cod NS (Massachusetts)||♦♦||4,125,418||9|
|T37||83||Assateague Island NS (Maryland, Virginia)||♦♦||2,347,167||22|
|40||82||Golden Gate NRA (California)||♦♦||14,981,897||1|
|T41||81||Everglades NP (Florida)||♦♦||1,018,557||36|
|T41||81||Canaveral NS (Florida)||♦||1,598,586||27|
|43||80||Cuyahoga Valley NP (Ohio)||♦||2,226,879||23|
|T44||79||Hot Springs NP (Arkansas)||♦||1,561,616||28|
|T44||79||Lake Mead NRA (Nevada, Arizona)||♦||7,882,339||4|
|46||77||Delaware Water Gap NRA (Pennsylvania, New Jersey)||♦||3,400,944||14|
|T47||76||Padre Island NS (Texas)||♦||650,197||41|
|T47||76||Chattahoochee River NRA (Georgia)||♦||2,768,499||18|
|49||75||Indiana Dunes NL (Indiana)||♦||2,158,471||24|
|50||70||Gateway NRA (New York, New Jersey)||♦||9,190,610||3|
Questions and comments are welcome. Feel free to contact me.