The 15 Best National Park Road Trips to Take All Year Long
Looking for the perfect getaway? Forget the plane tickets, and rev up the car! America’s many wonders are just a fun drive away.
Adventures on the open road
Even in the best of times, the allure of national park road trips tantalizes individual wanderers and wide-eyed families alike. But during the pandemic, as we continue to practice social distancing to stay safe and help mitigate the spread of the virus, this type of vacation seems particularly ideal. Right now, most travelers are looking to drive instead of fly, as well as avoid throngs of people at crowded tourist attractions. So, pack up the car, hit the road, and explore one of America’s amazing national parks. First, though, check these 8 things on your car so you don’t run into any trouble along the way.
The mother of all national park road trips
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016, famed road trip optimizer Randy Olson put together a 14,498-mile journey. During this mammoth two-month adventure, you’ll see each of the 47 national parks within the contiguous mainland United States. Driving from Maine to Florida, southern California to northern Montana, and everywhere else in between, this epic trip is the fastest way to get your national park passport full of stamps! If you dare to take on this adventure, consider starting at Acadia National Park in the fall, then exploring Texas and Southern Utah when the heat is somewhat less oppressive. Need some extra motivation to plan your road trip? These 30 stunning photos of national parks in full bloom should do the trick.
Redwood National Park
Unlike other national parks, the areas of northern California that the mighty redwoods call home are scattered among multiple parks, spanning both national and state. A drive through this mystical area of the country is magical at any time of the year, but it’s especially wonderful in summer when you can pair your road trip with a hike through fern canyon and a stroll along the rough and tumble Gold Bluffs Beach.
Make a redwoods trip in a capable ride, one that blends rugged capability with fuel efficiency like the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. This will allow you and your crew to spread out and see the mighty conifers through the massive moonlight, as you “dip and dive and dart through water so pure as to be bottled right there at the source,” as this travel writer did in 2014, while ambling over streams and off-road conditions on the rugged northern coast of redwood country. National parks are reopening amid the pandemic, but here are a dozen things you shouldn’t do at them.
Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks
In addition to visiting a pair of national parks, driving in this remote part of America allows you to cruise through Custer State Park—to get joyfully stuck in a bison traffic jam and, if you choose to, also cruise past four presidents carved into the sacred Black Hills at Mount Rushmore. According to The Greatest American Road Trip, “In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to ‘bag a buffalo.'” This was his first visit to this area, and “the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born; an ethic that would shape the future of America’s conservation efforts and of the national parks that have served as our nation’s playgrounds for more than 100 years.”
But the Badlands is the real star here, and driving along it, west to east, will place grassy plains you would expect to see in the Dakotas on your left, and the gruff yet almost celestial Badlands on your right. There’s nothing quite like this place in America, and driving through it will become a memory that never fades away.
Glacier National Park
Going-to-the-Sun Road is the single greatest stretch of asphalt in America. Full stop. These 50 miles cut directly across the most underrated national park in the whole system, Glacier. During the summer when the snow is gone and you can drive the whole of it, you’ll see cascading waterfalls, forests, glaciers (of course), mountains and mountain goats, families of bears, and wildflowers, have access to stretch your legs for several scenic hikes, and, in general, revel in the glory of “America’s best idea.”
Quirky Travel Guy tells us that this national park road trip “officially opened to the public in July 1933.” He adds that Going-to-the-Sun Road was “an engineering landmark, and nowhere is that more obvious than at ‘The Loop,’ where the road rises along the edge of the mountain and makes sharp hairpin turns. It was the first road to be designated both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.” Glacier is one of the practically secret national parks that are off the beaten path.
Death Valley National Park
While this is one of the national park road trips you can do at any time of year, making this drive in the summer is extra memorable because you’ll see three digits on the oversized Furnace Creek thermometer that are utterly eye-popping, and you will feel a kind of dry heat that is otherworldly. Of course, summer in Death Valley comes with significant risk. For example, temps recently hit 128 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-July, and according to CBS News, it was one degree “cooler” than the highest temperature that “experts say is likely the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.” Ensuring a full tank of gas and a hefty supply of water and food in the car is a must as you drive to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, past singing sand dunes and to see the mysterious moving rocks in this legendary desert.
Olympic National Park
“This massive landmass is separated from Seattle by Puget Sound and is home to legends, myths, and stories,” says travel writer Valerie Stimac. Twilight fans will want to stop in Forks, and geography nerds will enjoy driving out to the westernmost point of the continental U.S. during the wettest, wildest, and most wonderful of the national park road trips. Outside of the car, Stimac urges visitors to go hiking on Hurricane Ridge, which she calls “a must-do in the summer.” She adds, “This trail is relatively easy to access and gives you a great view of the Olympic Range as you’re right in it.”
Stimac recommends doing this Olympic National Park road trip between May and August because “during these months, you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful summer weather most Pacific Northwesterners like to keep secret, plus any mountain trails or roads will be clear and open.”
Acadia National Park
New England with Love asks the following questions: “Do you dream of visiting the coast of Maine? Do you envision iconic lighthouses set on rocky shores, pots filled to the brim with bright red lobsters, pine trees towering overhead?” If the answer is yes and absolutely yes (and it should be), then there must be a road trip to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park in your future! A compact three-day itinerary will have you picking out something new to read inside Maine’s oldest bookstore, listening to the rampaging sounds at Thunder Hole, and indulging in tasty popovers at Jordan Pond House. Visiting in late spring will give you great weather and less of the crowds that flock to Maine in summertime. Sleeping outside can be sublime, so you might want to check out our list of the best places to camp in national parks.
Crater Lake National Park
A Passion and a Passport describes Crater Lake National Park beautifully and succinctly: “calm dazzling blue waters, scenic highways, and super starry night skies.” The creme inside that evocative sandwich is what makes Crater Lake one of the great national park road trips. Four hours south of Portland, Oregon, and six-and-a-half hours north of the Bay Area sits this caldera containing some of the cleanest water you’ll ever taste—that’s right, you can taste it. Bring a bottle, and after you hike the switchbacks to the bottom, fill it with cold lake water so you have a refreshing free beverage to carry with you as you drive along the rim of this thoroughly unbelievable national park.
Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks
Combining the five famous sights of Southern Utah makes for an epic national park road trip. As National Geographic explains, “this multiday adventure on remote byways is a journey through the slick-rock heart of the American West, linking Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.” When you consider the proximity of the parks, the fiery colors, and the limitless potential for stunning photos and stellar day hikes, this might just be the best of the national park road trips for both in-car views and access to parking lots, free shuttles, and trailheads leading to some of the most breathtaking vistas in America. Driving through Utah’s national parks is definitely one of the best road trips in America.
Indiana Dunes National Park
This national park road trip involves a big-city starting line in Chicago and then, in just 30 minutes, your arrival at the newest national park. Of course, you won’t be driving around the dunes in your car, but you’ll get a great view of them. And, as the official tourism site of Indiana notes, “there’s so much to do beyond the dunes, too—like a water park, winery and brewery trails, and casinos.” Plus, this road trip is “a very doable beach getaway, where the shifting dunes are home to unique flora and fauna.” Do you know the etiquette rules for road trips? You should!
Yellowstone National Park
While Going-to-the-Sun is the best single road in a national park, spending a day road-tripping through Yellowstone is unlike anything else on offer in America. You will encounter bison, coyote, elk, geysers, and, near the famous sites, gaggles of selfie-stick tourists. But fear not: Even during the busiest time of year at Yellowstone (July), the park is so massive that you can find your own private portion of it to connect with nature in and out of the car. In fact, according to the travel site Full Suitcase, something like 80 percent of Yellowstone visitors don’t venture farther than 10 to 15 minutes away from their car.
Full Suitcase has sample itineraries for once you’re inside the famed national park, ranging from one to five days long. You’ll also find tips on getting out to walk a bit deeper into this special place so you can have a personal experience within the park that started it all.
Yosemite National Park
Enter from the east after taking a jaw-dropping detour to Mono Lake, the gateway to Yosemite. Then find yourself at the famed Yosemite Valley and see this remarkable park as Ansel Adams did, with El Capitan and Half Doom looming large. According to WanderfilledLife.com, road-tripping into Yosemite from this direction allows for “some extra time around Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass (usually open by June after snow is cleared) and to explore Mono Lake…a gorgeous saltwater lake with no fish, but plenty of tiny brine shrimp.” Just an FYI, though: “There are no streams running out of Mono Lake, thus it has a high level of salt and the water is alkaline. This means it feels more ‘slimy’ than ocean water.” During a Yosemite road trip, you can see one of the most gorgeous waterfalls in America.
Everglades National Park
According to Earth Trekkers, “Everglades National Park is the third largest park in the lower 48 states, after Death Valley and Yellowstone. The park is home to manatees, American crocodiles, a huge number of birds, and even panthers. This fragile ecosystem is listed as a World Heritage Site, and it is an International Biosphere Reserve.” With two or four wheels, you can see only a small portion of this massive, watery national park, but you can still drive with the a/c cranked up to areas within the Everglades for “short walks, looking out for alligators and manatees, and even go kayaking or take a ride in an airboat.” Because it is famously hot and sticky here in Florida, consider making this national park road trip in any season but the dead of summer.
Great Smokey Mountains National Park
It may surprise you to learn that this national park was the most visited in the country in 2017, according to The Points Guy. It likely won’t come as a shock, however, that this part of the United States is especially lovely in autumn because the fall foliage delivers a cornucopia of color. Per the official Blue Ridge Parkway site, “The Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are just around the corner on the western end of North Carolina. Many visitors to this region enjoy both the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway—taking their time to explore the rich culture, natural beauty, and fun-filled activities the area offers.” You may be tempted to head to New England in the fall, but this portion of Tennessee and North Carolina should tempt you to visit for an autumnal national park road trip.
Looking for something a little closer to home? Check out these other road trips that showcase stunning fall foliage.
Joshua Tree National Park
The park itself is stunning if a bit one-note (there’s not much more than boulders and trees for miles). But a road trip inside and out of this national park located just two-and-a-half hours (but a world away) from Los Angeles is a fantastic way to spend a sunny early spring day (March, April) surrounded by desert wildflowers. To make the journey more diverse, The Road Less Traveled recommends that you also visit Pioneertown, indulge in some sonic healing at the South Bank Integratron, and dive into a massive salad at Natural Sisters Cafe. Then when the sun sets, stick around to stargaze hundreds of miles from the city lights. One word of caution, no matter which destination you choose: Think twice before you take these photos at a national park.