6 of the Best National Park Gateway Towns

March 12, 2024

What if we told you the kids could ride a roller coaster and get their junior ranger badge on the same day? Or that it’s possible to hook a 400-lb. halibut in the morning and hike on an active glacier in the afternoon? The key to epic itineraries like these is to vacation in national park gateway towns. Whether they’re home to 2,000 year-round residents or 20,000, these one-of-a-kind communities border some of our most beautiful public lands and are therefore accustomed to catering to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of tourists annually.

To capitalize on the crowds passing through, these towns offer their own attractions ranging from amusement parks to planetariums and even superlative sites like the world’s largest Titanic museum and the world’s largest artificial barrier reef. Of course, some national park gateway towns are more worthwhile than others. I.e. They’re destinations in themselves where not every postcard for sale on Main Street is free advertising for the NPS, and you’ll want to stay at least two, if not three, nights. From The Land of the Rising Sun to The Sunshine State, below are six of the best national park gateway towns.

Heading to a National Park? Don’t Miss These National Park Gateway Towns

Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Tennessee Drone Aerial.

1. Pigeon Forge – Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Every year more than 10 million visitors pass through this playground of a town (pop. 6,000) found in Eastern Tennessee, just eight miles from America’s most-visited national park. Some argue that Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, the county’s largest employer and home to nearly 50 attractions, put Pigeon Forge on the map. But it’s not the only entertainment oasis in town. Just two miles away, as the crow flies, is The Island. This 23-acre amusement park features dozens of rides, including a 200-foot-tall observation wheel, and unique retail shops like the Beef Jerky Experience where you’ll find more than 200 varieties of dried meat. Pigeon Forge is also home to the world’s largest Titanic museum (reservations recommended), Parrot Mountain, where you can hand feed some of the world’s most exotic birds and Goats on the Roof, a quirky roadside attraction with its own mountain coaster, mini golf, gem mining and yes, a herd of friendly goats grazing on the living roof.

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Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg KOA Holiday
Gatlinburg East / Smoky Mountain KOA Holiday

A summertime view of Jackson Wyoming from a ski lift.

2. Jackson – Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park

Located just five miles south of Grand Teton National Park’s Moose entrance and 53 miles from Yellowstone’s South Gate, the cowboy-chic community of Jackson (pop. 11,000) receives a whopping 2.6 million visitors annually. It’s a year-round destination with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offering world class skiing from late November through April. In the summer, ride the tram up to the new Grand Teton Skywalk (admission included with tram ticket) for 360-degree views or head to Jackson’s other mountain resort, Snow King, to soar down North America’s steepest zip-line or check out the new $5 million observatory and planetarium. Of course, it’s always fun to simply people watch in Town Square – famous for its elk antler arches, stagecoach rides and historic reenactments. For a guaranteed wildlife sighting, head to Jackson’s National Elk Refuge. It offers sleigh rides and free programs in the winter. And if you want to see Teton Country from two wheels, take advantage of the valley’s 56 miles of paved pathways.

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Dubois / Wind River KOA Holiday

Fishing boats sit at piers in the harbor near Seward, Alaska. Snow-capped mountains appear in the background.

3. Seward – Kenai Fjords National Park 

Before the pandemic, the tiny port town of Seward (pop. 2,600) welcomed nearly 500,000 annual visitors. Many arrive by cruise ship, but others come by car or RV to explore the drivable portion of Kenai Fjords National Park, located just 12 miles inland. Still, it’s possible to have an amazing time here without ever stepping foot on Exit Glacier. For starters, there’s the Alaska SeaLife Center. Part public aquarium, part research and wildlife response center, it’s an extraordinary facility where you can get up close to Steller sea lions and harbor seals and even sign up for puffin and octopus encounters. If sled dogs are more your speed, book a ride with some of Seward’s most celebrated residents, the Seavey family and their champion huskies. They’ve won the Iditarod eight times. To take home your own trophy, book a chartered fishing trip. Seward is also one of the best places in Alaska to see glaciers, fjords and wildlife by boat.

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Seward KOA Journey

A spring day on a quaint street in Moab, Utah.

4. Moab – Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park

Situated just five miles from Arches National Park and 30 miles from Canyonlands National Park, Moab (pop. 5,400) is a no-brainer for folks exploring eastern Utah. It sees as many as 3 million visitors annually. Adrenaline junkies love to raft stretches of the Colorado River here (National Geographic deemed the nearby Westwater Canyon the “West’s Best Short Whitewater Trip”) and conquer the 120+ miles of single-track trails. While Moab is well-known as a mountain biking mecca, it also seems to have the most off-road 4×4 tour outfitters per capita. For another unique perspective of red rock country, hop in a hot air balloon (Canyonlands Ballooning) or a chopper (Pinnacle Helicopters). And if there’s an aspiring paleontologist in your pack, check out Moab Giants. In addition to a walking trail that winds through 130 full-size reconstructions of dinosaurs and tracks, it has a 5D virtual underwater prehistoric aquarium and shaded dig sites where kids can find their own fossils.

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Bar Harbor Maine town square during a fall day.

5. Bar Harbor – Acadia National Park

Long before Acadia National Park was established in its beautiful backyard, Bar Harbor (pop. 5,100) was a tony resort town where the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgan families vacationed. It was also home to North America’s largest hotel. Today, it’s the perfect place to go lighthouse hopping or learn about the state’s booming lobster industry. Book a cruise on a traditional lobster boat (Lulu Lobster Boat) or see coastal Maine’s most colorful creatures at The Oceanarium & Education Center. It has a massive 650-gallon touch tank; residents include the rare blue, cotton candy and orange lobsters. Hungry yet? Try the lobster ice cream (as seen on The Travel Channel) at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. Of course, Bar Harbor – which received 3.87 million visitors in 2023 – also warrants a visit simply because it boasts one of America’s most idyllic downtowns. Stroll up and down Main Street or board Oli’s Trolley for a narrated tour that stops at historic sites like Millionaire’s Row. If you want to venture further, and have your passport, take a 3.5-hour scenic ferry ride to nearby Nova Scotia.

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Beach goers at Pensacola Beach in Escambia County, Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, USA

6. Pensacola – Gulf Islands National Seashore

Despite being on the smaller side, as far as cities go, Pensacola (pop. 54,000) is  the only place between Mobile and Jacksonville that has the cultural big five: an opera, symphony, ballet, theater and accredited art museum. That said, most of its 2 million annual visitors come for the 300+ days of sunshine and access to white sand beaches (Gulf Islands National Seashore is just 15 miles away). Pensacola is also a diver’s paradise since it’s where the USS Oriskany was intentionally sunk in 2006, subsequently creating the world’s largest artificial barrier reef. Families, meanwhile, flock to the National Naval Aviation Museum (free admission) whose collection includes more than 150 restored aircraft, and baseball fans can be found at Blue Wahoos Stadium. It borders Pensacola’s Community Maritime Park, so most seats have million-dollar views of the bay. With its European-inspired architecture, downtown is also worth exploring. The city’s main pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare, Palafox Street, was even named one of “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association.

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KOA Author Katie JacksonKatie Jackson is a writer and media specialist based in Montana’s Big Sky Country. Living and working everywhere from New York to Nicaragua, Katie is no stranger to adventure. When she’s not traveling the world (or writing about it!) she’s busy chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus. Follow Katie’s travels on Instagram @katietalkstravel.

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