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National parks have been called “The best idea Americans ever had,” and rightfully so. From lush ecosystems to harsh desert landscapes, there’s an abundance of diversity across the millions of acres that make up the U.S. national park systems, with something to offer for every kind of traveler. Exploring national parks is the epitome of American and every year, more than 331 million visitors take to the open road to visit these natural wonders and their unforgettable terrain.

Since several regions in the U.S. are home to a variety of parks, it’s common to visit more than one per road trip. Some parks are easily accessible and within close proximity to major cities while others are remote and require extensive driving or flying time. For many visitors, the national park road trip begins with renting a car at the airport, so understanding the best locations to fly into and how long of a drive you’re up against, is essential for a smooth trip.

National Parks Road Trip

We have you covered when it comes to the closest airport, distance and where to enter, but there are a few basic things you should consider, for all parks, when planning your road trip.

How much time do you have: National parks can be very large and often cover thousands of acres. If you are limited on time, download the park map in advance to help plan your itinerary.

Viewing wildlife: National parks are some of the best places for viewing animals in their natural habitats. Remember that you’re in their territory. If hiking without a guide, always consult the parks safety guidelines on wildlife encounters and what kind of animals to expect.

Weather and packing necessities: Some of the most extreme temperatures can be found in national parks across the U.S., so always research the current weather when preparing for your trip and adhere to any heat, flash flood, snow or fire advisories on park websites.

Entrance fees and lodging options: Many popular national parks offer lodging within park boundaries, or get closer to nature by pitching a tent. Just remember, summer is typically the peak season for parks, so consider reserving your spot months in advance or plan for “first-come, first-served” campgrounds.

Once you’ve covered the basics of preparing for your national parks road trip, it’s time to map out your route from airport to national park.

top 40 national parks

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Every year, the U.S. National Parks Service (NPS) calculates the number of most visited national parks. Natural phenomenons like the solar eclipse or the toppling of the Sequoias “tunnel tree” bring more and more visitors each year to enjoy the unique wonders that make up our national parks. Of course, a variety of factors go into what makes each of these highly popular, and you’ll have to visit them all to decide for yourself. Until then, here are 2017’s top ten national parks in the U.S according to the NPS.

  1. Great Smoky Mountains
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. Zion
  4. Rocky Mountain
  5. Yosemite
  6. Yellowstone
  7. Acadia
  8. Olympic
  9. Grand Teton
  10. Glacier

National park preferences are intensely personal and there are many “best of” and “top ranked” suggestions out there. Our top 40 U.S. national parks took into account a handful of factors: region of the U.S., iconic sites, visitors per year and proximity to commercial airports. Next time you’re ready to set off on a national park road trip, consult our guide for trip essentials like the best airports near Yellowstone National Park, how to get to the Channel Islands and which park entrance to use.

Sources: National Park Service