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Experience what is sure to be an unforgettable road trip to one of America’s most spectacular national parks. From the wilderness of Denali National Park in Alaska to the alligator-filled swamps of the Everglades, you’re sure to find at least one park to put on your must-visit list.
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Most visitors arrive to Denali National Park via Anchorage. The drive from Alaska’s largest city is spectacular on its own, with the five-hour journey offering the chance to explore Thunderbird Falls Trail and the town of Talkeetna village, where local artisans sell their handmade goods along Main Street. Once you get to the park, you’ll discover more than six million acres of dazzling lakes and jagged mountains, including the tallest peak in North America, Mount Denali (also referred to as Mount McKinley), with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level. To experience the breathtaking 92-mile Park Road, you’ll need to take a shuttle or tour bus at Mile 15, as private vehicles aren’t allowed past that point – you can hop on, or hop off, at just about any point along the way. In addition to the breathtaking scenery, you’ll want to watch for some of the park’s most iconic animals like wolves, moose, caribou, grizzly and black bears, and Dall’s sheep as well as the often spotted foxes, marmots, arctic ground squirrels and red squirrels.
Offering an array of outdoor adventures, Olympic National Park in Washington State is home to everything from the magnificent Olympic Mountains to lush forests, countless waterfalls and wild, rugged beaches. Start out in Port Angeles by driving to Hurricane Ridge on the Heart O’ the Hills Road, which rises from sea level to more than 5,000 feet. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Mount Olympus, the Elwha River Valley, the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands and Canada. Deer, mountain goats and marmots are often spotted in this area too. Afterward, head back down to Highway 101 through the park to Lake Crescent, an emerald-hued lake surrounded by forest and waterfalls. Continue to the west coast and take a stroll on one of the picturesque beaches. If you time it right and arrive at low tide, explore the tide pools that are filled with all sorts of sea creatures like hermit crabs and starfish.
Shenandoah National Park is home to one of the most unforgettable mountain drives in America. Skyline Drive. A 105-mile scenic byway offers amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains all year round, though autumn may be the most spectacular time to go with undulating slopes of brilliant hues. In the summer you’ll view a bounty of forest canopy, and in the winter, a gorgeous, snowy wonderland. The highway winds through nearly 200,000 acres along the spine of the mountains, with 75 scenic overlooks offering awe-inspiring views of the valley to the west, and the rolling piedmont to the east. Deer, black bear, wild turkey and other animals call this region home and are often spotted along the way. To truly experience this park, you’ll want to get out and hike on one of the park’s 500 miles of trails which lead to even more gorgeous vistas, and some to waterfalls like South River Falls.
To do this road trip right, you’ll want to take the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, known as one of America’s most scenic drives. The 31-mile stretch along SD 240 passes through incredible cliffs, buttes and multi-colored spires in a labyrinth of the other-worldly-like landscape. There are eight trails to get and explore it more in-depth, as well as 15 overlooks and an excellent visitor center. Just west of the park in the Black Hills, you’ll find more impressive drives, including the Needles Highway which traverses through the unique rock formations and tunnels of Custer State Park. In addition to dramatic scenery, wild burros, bison, bighorn sheep, bald eagles and antelope are often seen. Be sure to visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, just minutes outside of the park, which features the 60-foot faces of four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Rocky Mountain National Park is packed with a multitude of magnificent peaks that soar over 12,000 feet and offer 265,000 acres to explore. It also has an extensive road system that provides visitors easy access to everything from lowland meadows, rivers and aspen groves to subalpine forests and even alpine tundra region. Trail Ridge Road, one of ten America’s Byways in Colorado and a national designated All American Road, is one of its highlights where travelers have the entire sweep of the Rockies before them in every direction. It stretches for 48 miles, from Estes Park on the east side of the park to Grand Lake on the west – at its peak, it winds across the tundra to its high point at 12,183 feet in elevation, offering jaw-dropping views and wildlife sightings, including elk, moose, bighorn sheep, marmots and more, right from the comfort of your vehicle.
Yellowstone is one of the world’s most active areas of hydrothermal activity, famous for its hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, travertine terraces and geysers, including the most famous geyser on Earth, Old Faithful. It also features plenty of sites for nature lovers, including its thundering waterfalls, lakes, rivers and all sorts of wildlife. You can see everything from bison, moose and bears to the wolves, elk and pelicans. While you’ll need to get out of your car to visit some of its beautiful sights, like the brilliant rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring, there are lots of sights that can be enjoyed on one of the park’s many scenic drives. The main travel thoroughfares are the five entrance roads and the Grand Loop Road. By driving the loop, you’ll discover museums, visitor centers, boardwalks, scenic side roads and some of the park’s most popular attractions. But keep an eye out for the bison, bears and other wildlife as they don’t obey traffic laws – in fact, animals frequently get on or near the roads, slowing or stopping traffic to a halt.
Tucked in the northwestern region of Montana bordering Alberta and British Columbia, Glacier National Park is called the “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem,” with more than 16,000 square miles of pristine wilderness. This nature lover’s paradise is home to many different wildlife species, including rare and endangered animals, like grizzly bears and the Canadian lynx as well as mountain goats and bighorn sheep. While it’s best to get out on the trails and explore this hiker’s paradise on foot, it’s world-renowned Going to the Sun Road offers the chance to see many of the park’s highlights.
This breathtaking 50-mile highway bisects the park east and west, spanning its width and crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. There are numerous scenic viewpoints and pullouts along the way so that you can stop and enjoy the views and capture stunning images of the large glacial lakes, cedar forests and windswept alpine tundra at its peak. Wildlife is often spotted at just about any point along the roadway, but mountain goats and bighorn sheep are nearly always up at Logan Pass, lounging in the sun right alongside the highway.
These parks along the coast of northern California including Redwood National Park as well as California State Park’s Prairie Creek Redwoods, Jedediah Smith and Del Norte Coast. Together, they protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests. A visit here not only offers the chance to gaze up at some of the tallest trees on earth but to experience gorgeous beaches like Enderts Beach with its tide pools filled with a myriad of multi-colored creatures or watch for gray whales during the migration in late December and late March. One of the best scenic drives here is the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, a 10-mile stretch that passes through the heart of the forest in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, along the way you’re likely to see the resident Roosevelt elk grazing in the prairie.
This 1.5 million-acre park spreads across the southern tip of Florida. When arriving from Miami, take the Shark Valley to Everglades City route along the Tamiami Trail which crosses the park’s northern regions and offers unobstructed views of the natural wilderness of the Everglades. Stop at Shark Valley and view sawgrass prairies and wildlife by hopping on a tram tour or exploring it on foot. When you return to the drive, you’ll want to be sure and take a short detour to Big Cypress National Preserve, a 26-mile loop where you’ll see alligators right alongside the road. Other highlights include the Shark Valley Visitors Center and the Miccosukee Cultural Center. If you have time, stop at the Gulf Coast entrance to the park and you can take a boat tour of the 10,000 Islands.
A road trip to one of America’s most popular parks, the Grand Canyon brings the chance to experience a wide variety of views and experiences. Start out at the South Rim, taking in the breathtaking vistas of one of the most stunning natural formations in the world, and if you want a closer look, embark on a mule ride down to the bottom or take a helicopter tour. Afterward, be sure to take the five-hour drive to the North Rim, the less-visited and far less crowded region of the park where you’ll find more amazing panoramic views as well as plenty of twisting trails to enjoy them from.
If you have time, travel to the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the southwest region of the park. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters,” – the famous jaw-dropping waterfalls with turquoise-hued pools at the bottom are sacred to the Havasupai and truly a sight to behold.
Acadia National Park encompasses more than 47,000 acres, over half of which are on Mount Desert Island. The rest of the park can be found on Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula. Acadia showcases the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast, Cadillac Mountain, along with magnificent granite peaks, rugged ocean shoreline, woodlands and lakes. Drive the winding 3.5-mile road or take the challenging hike up to the 1,530-foot peak of the mountain and you’ll enjoy expansive views of coastal Maine, Bar Harbor, the Porcupine Islands and Frenchman Bay. If you can get here just before sunrise, you can experience the first spot the sunlight hits the U.S. on most mornings.
You’ll also want to drive the 27-mile loop road, which winds around the craggy coastlines. Stop to hike around Jordan Pond and be sure to visit Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, 14 miles south of the park. The 19th-century tower is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the entire country.
Arches National Park in southeastern Utah is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the famous Delicate Arch. Driving through the park can be a wonderful way to see these structures, and others, like stone spires, fins, towers and columns, that were created through millions of years of erosion. You’ll also find a number of short walks just off the main road. In addition to the dramatic rock formations, there are meandering canyons, petrified dunes and vast sandstone buttes. From the visitor center, five miles north of Moab on Highway 191, the road climbs several switchbacks, offering views of Moab Canyon and the fiery red cliffs. Highlights along the first half of the road include Balanced Rock, Park Avenue and the Windows Section of the Park with its North and South Window Arches, Double Arch, Turret Arch, the Parade of Elephants and Cove of Caves. While you can see the arches from the road, it’s best to take one of the short walking trails to view them up close.
While this valley is known as the hottest, lowest and driest place in the U.S. hardly sounds inviting, the vast desert region is actually home to a variety of wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, lizards and the tiny pupfish that lives in pools saltier than seawater. It also showcases a diverse array of colorful canyons, desolate badlands, shifting sand dunes, sprawling mountains, and more than 1000 species of plants. A scenic drive to Death Valley is best undertaken in the winter and spring when valley temperatures at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center range from the mid-60s to low 80s. In the summertime, temps often exceed 115 degrees.
Some of the park’s highlights include the Harmony Borax Works, the walk along the one-mile Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail and the scenic drive to Zabriskie Point where you can take in impressive valley views. Stay overnight in one of the campgrounds to enjoy the incredible night’s sky – as there are no city lights to obscure the view, the park is considered a prime spot for star gazing and the largest International Dark Sky Park in the country.
Part of the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains span a wide range of elevations and are home to more than 65 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species and more than 80 types of amphibians and reptiles. Some of its most famous inhabitants include the black bear – the park provides the largest protected bear habitat in the East with about 1,500 bears living inside its boundaries today. Of course, the main attraction here is hiking, with more than 800 miles of trails, but there are also over 270 miles of roads for those who want to enjoy a scenic driving tour. You’ll view endless forests, weathered historic buildings, bubbling mountain streams and sweeping mountain vistas.
Newfound Gap Road, following Highway 441, is the most popular, stretching from Cherokee through the center of the park, crossing at Newfound Gap and culminating in Gatlinburg.
Just two hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park makes an ideal road trip for Southern California residents who are short on time, but it’s worth visiting no matter where you happen to live on this planet. Covering vast areas of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, as well as the Little San Bernardino Mountains, this alien-like landscape is populated by endless stands of the famous, bizarrely-shaped Joshua tree. It also hosts unique rock formations, bleached sand dunes, dry lakes and rugged mountains. Visit in the spring and colorful wildflowers brighten the landscape. The park draws rock climbers from around the world as the best place to climb in California, though visitors of all types, including kids and the kid-at-heart, can enjoy scrambling up and down the huge boulders. Hikers can even discover a hidden, shady desert-fan-palm oasis, fed by small streams and natural springs.
While this really isn’t the type of place to just drive through, you can experience many of its highlights by driving from the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the south end, north and west to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. Must-stops include the Cholla Cactus Garden, Jumbo Rocks and Hidden Valley.
Mount Rainier National Park is focused around the active stratovolcano that’s the most prominent peak in the Cascades, looming over the entire Puget Sound region at 14,409 feet. The massive mountain is covered by 26 named glaciers, including Carbon Glacier and Emmons Glacier, the largest in the continental U.S. Paradise, on its south slope, is considered one of the snowiest spots on Earth.
Take a scenic drive around Mount Rainier by starting in Ashford, southeast of the park, driving through Longmire, across the Nisqually River and up to Paradise – here, you’ll truly find it, with up-close views of the volcano and gorgeous wildflower-filled meadows if you visit in the summer. Along the way, you’ll pass reflective lakes like Lake Tipsoo, which mirrors the mountain and offers more breathtaking views from an easy loop trail, one of the park’s most popular hikes.
This 166-square-mile park has been called “The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland,” by Sunset magazine – just 400,000 visit it each year, while nearly 4 million head to Yellowstone. But Yellowstone isn’t the only place to experience spectacular geothermal areas, with Lassen offering its own, including several groups of hot springs and fumaroles that are remnants of former volcanic activity. It also features jagged peaks, clear alpine lakes and tranquil meadows full of wildflowers.
The 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway offers and excellent introduction to the park. Some of the highlights include Sulphur Works, a roadside fumarole (steam vent) and boiling mudpots in an easily accessible hydrothermal area. Be sure to stop at the Bumpass Hell Overlook and look for the former Brokeoff Volcano, also known as Mount Tehama, in the volcanic remnants. From the highest point on the park road, at 8,512 feet, you’ll see majestic Lassen Peak.