There are 61 National Parks in the United States, and choosing which ones to visit first can induce travel anxiety. We want to see everything! But find your inner peace, and focus on a small list of top national parks that allow one to experience a variety of natural landscapes. While this road trip doesn’t venture into far-flung places like Alaska and Hawaii, it’s doable, realistic, and a great place to start. Load the car, this is the road trip for seeing some of the most gorgeous parks.
You can find a detailed map below our list. We’ve provided an East and West Coast leg of the journey. If you’re brave enough to make the coast to coast drive from Big Bend National Park in Texas to Acadia National Park in Maine, you would tack on another 2616 miles or roughly 2 to 3 days of driving. If you’re renting a vehicle or RV, breaking this into two legs by renting a vehicle on each coast is our strong recommendation!
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Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park in Maine is a little less than 14 hours from the latter, and the route you’ll get to see along the way makes it all totally worth it, but so does the unique destination that meshes mountain and sea. Bar Harbor is a charming town nearby to rest your head if staying for a few days, and C-rays is the best place to get a real lobster dinner. But you could grab a lobster roll from just about anywhere, then watch the sunset from the top of Cadillac Mountain.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Swing down through Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to arrive at the tip-top of Ohio, where the Cuyahoga Valley National Park resides. Surprisingly close to Cleveland and Lake Erie, the park has historical ties to life along the canal. A river runs through the heart of the public lands and is scenic in either winter, fall, spring or summer. Brandywine Falls is a dramatic display of cascades that will most definitely deliver a scrapbook worthy photo—note that you should only admire the falls rather than scale them.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Head north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, a classic depiction of what the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer, and a nearly 16 hour trip from the Everglades up I-77. With historical significance and hundreds of hiking trails through wooded havens, one could spend forever wandering. Waterfalls, overlooks and overwhelming peace await to be found here.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park in Florida is excellent terrain for kicking off your road trip, as you’ll likely want to mainly drive rather than venture out into the vast accumulation of wetlands and mangroves. But if you’re up for it, take a guided boat, kayak or fishing trip out into the Florida waters.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Gas up the tank and pick some cool towns through Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska to stop at along the nearly 20 hour trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Jagged mountains, spring wildflowers and stark white winter splendor, along with pristine bodies of water attract more visitors than just about any US National Park. Elk and bighorn sheep can often be spotted, and overall you can find endless outdoor adventures to embark on. If you do any one thing, drive the Trail Ridge Road, which hits major scenic points in just a one-day investment.
Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park is a mere nine hours away from our Colorado stop, so this trip through some seriously beautiful areas along Highway 70 will be a great time to recharge, as long as you’re not forging forward in the winter (always check in advance with the Department of Transportation for road conditions). This park is a visual treat because the landscape changes to this gorgeous splatter of canyon and sandstone. But Zion is also known for having varying ecosystems that house a multitude of wildlife. According to National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks of the United States, the best overview of Zion can be seen along Mt. Carmel Highway and Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, within a day.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is a little over eight hours north, and the route will take you right through Salt Lake City, which is an excellent place to stop and see the mineral-rich waters and cool sites like Antelope Island. Grand Teton’s snow-capped mountains tower seemingly more so than many other ranges, making one feel incredibly small. The mammoth-sized beauty reflects off the alpine lakes, beckoning to be photographed. Take a wildlife tour or drive along Teton Park Road for the biggest bang for your time.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is within Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and is a little over an hour away from Grand Teton. It’s volcanic lands with multi-hued thermal pools make the park a must-see national park. Old Faithful and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are major points to see, although days of exploration await. The main road system, Grand Loop, is almost 150 miles alone.
Glacier National Park, Montana
You’ll cut through the entire western side of Montana to reach Glacier National Park, which borders Canada. The park is, in fact, the result of melting glaciers, which created jaw-dropping valleys and lakes. Prominent highways include Going to the Sun Road, and Chief Mountain International Highway.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier National Park in Washington is 10 hours away from Glacier, while Olympic National Park is 11 hours away, near Seattle, and an equal contender. If you can, hit both for two contrasting experiences in the same day. Rainier houses a mighty mountain, while Olympic displays the elegance and vastness of the coastal region.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park in California is a whopping 19-hour jaunt from Olympic, so you could break it up by delving over to Oregon’s more than worth it Crater Lake National Park. Joshua Tree is defined by peculiar trees with a backdrop of rocks and golden sun. Being a bit less lengthy, the stop could be done in one day, but experts suggest at least two so you can really absorb it all.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
While we’ve tried to somewhat veer away from the obvious, it would be a shame to not make the less than six-hour trek to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. You know the landscape—it’s overwhelming, humbling and none-the-less awe-inspiring.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park in Texas is your grand finale stop along this beautiful road trip through our national parks. Quite literally named after a bend in the Rio Grande, the surrounding dips and massive cliffs create an incredible compilation of scenic wonders. Texas may not have been the most expected place to end, but that’s what makes it so grand. Who would’ve thought the western portion of the state could feature a park that could rival them all?