8 Road Trips Through Iconic U.S. National Parks

Why the United States is the best country for road trips.

Curving road of Blue Ridge Parkway through fall foliage

A 25-45 mph speed limit and winding roads insist that the Blue Ridge Parkway is best taken slow.

Photo by Anthony Heflin/Shutterstock

It wasn’t until I high-tailed it out of my home in North Carolina and lived out of my well-loved Honda CR-V for a few months in 2021 that I came to appreciate the sheer diversity and beauty of U.S. national parks. After spending the peak work-from-home era glued to my computer screen, seeing screensaver-worthy sights like the Grand Tetons in real life brought actual tears to my eyes.

I’m by no means a unique case: The awe-inspiring destinations of the national parks system drew more than 325 million visits last year, with so much anticipated demand that several parks are enforcing a reservation system to keep up with summer crowds. For those joining the ranks of travelers eager to visit one of the country’s 63 national parks, taking a scenic drive can showcase the deserts, mountains, beaches, and other U.S. landscapes at their most beautiful.

So put on a podcast, buckle up, and get ready for some adventures on these eight national park road trips.

1. The Blue Ridge Parkway

  • National parks visited: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park
  • Start: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina
  • End: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  • Approximate distance: 469 miles
  • Recommended time: 5 days

This is one of the best road trips for the fall, when sourwood, oak, and other deciduous trees in the Southeast turn into an array of warm colors. Starting from North Carolina’s entrance to the approximately 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the drive winds north to Virginia. Explore the Great Smoky Mountains with a hike up to Clingmans Dome to take in vistas from the park’s highest point, revealing hilly peaks formed by 300 million years of erosion and weathering. Shenandoah National Park bookends the northern portion of this road trip, offering plenty of overlooks along its 105-mile Skyline Drive. It also has its share of worthwhile hikes that will give legs a well-deserved stretch. The most famous one is Old Rag Mountain, a 3,284-foot peak that’s a six- or seven-hour workout for those up for the challenge.

The route that connects these two parks is the carefully constructed roadway known as the Blue Ridge Parkway. Named after the blue color of the atmosphere surrounding the Appalachian Mountains, the parkway snakes across 469 miles to connect Great Smoky Mountains with Shenandoah and connects travelers to more than 369 miles of hiking trails.

Where to stay

The Blue Ridge Parkway passes by some of Appalachia’s major towns and cities—including Asheville, North Carolina—providing insight into both the people and natural sights of the region. Drive about half an hour west of Asheville to the small town of Clyde and stay at the Glamping Collective, a property offering glass cabins and incredible mountain views. Amenities here include hot tubs, fire tables, and access to five miles of private hiking trails.

An empty highway, with double yellow lines in the middle, leading toward Grand Tetons

In the words of Afar writer Anna Fiorentino, Wyoming “offers an endless natural playground for paddling, fishing, hiking, spotting wild mustangs, studying ancient fossils, and soaking in hot springs.”

Courtesy of Jesse Collins/Unsplash

2. Wyoming’s Best Hits

  • National parks visited: Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park
  • Start: Cheyenne, Wyoming
  • End: Cody, Wyoming
  • Approximate distance: 800 miles
  • Recommended time: 10 days

Road-trippers headed to Wyoming: Don’t feel the need to make a beeline for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in the northwestern corner of the state. While those parks are famous for a reason, there are plenty more that merit a slow journey across the state.

A 10-day drive will unlock the variety on offer, from ancient fossils to Old Faithful. Start in the city of Cheyenne for some history about cowboys and railroads, then wind through Medicine Bow National Forest for rock climbing or a hike among the reddish igneous rock formations of Vedauwoo. Stop to soak in the mineral hot springs of Saratoga, then settle into the town of Jackson as a base for hiking the waterfalls and lakes in Grand Teton before finishing up at Yellowstone‘s geysers. Finally, take a hike in Shoshone National Forest before indulging in a slow-cooked supper at Cody, Wyoming’s Cody Cattle Company.

Itinerary: National Parks, Hot Springs, and the Great American Frontier: The Ultimate Wyoming Road Trip

Where to stay

Wyoming’s Jackson is a popular stop for those visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. It’s worth spending some time to explore the square dancing venues, art galleries, and other places the town has to offer, especially with its myriad accommodation options ranging from renovated motor lodges to wellness-focused stays. The 100-room Cloudveil, Autograph Collection offers the comfort of a boutique hotel (private fireplaces, custom wood furnishings, and plush sitting areas) with easy access to downtown and the surrounding mountains and parks.

3. Beyond California’s Coast

  • National parks visited: Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park
  • Start: Yosemite National Park
  • End: Sequoia National Park
  • Approximate distance: 130 miles
  • Recommended time: 3 days

California is home to endless road trip itineraries. This particular one opts for dense forests and the eastern Sierras in the state’s interior. Starting in Yosemite National Park, travelers can ogle famed splendors like the vertical rock formation El Capitan and Horsetail Fall. (For a short time during winter, the waterfall gives the illusion of being on fire.) Afterward, a drive along CA-41 and CA-180 brings road-trippers to Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks, which are home to some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. Bask under trees more than 250 feet high and maybe try forest bathing (no, it’s not showering among the trees), or hike the paved Congress Trail and see the General Sherman Tree—the largest tree on Earth by volume.

Given this relatively low-mileage itinerary, there’s room for flexibility on either side of the trip. Head upstate and a vast network of forests and national parks await (including Tahoe National Forest and Lassen Volcanic National Park), while the south is home to the dry lands of Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park. And if you’re eager for some ocean, consider one of the Golden State’s other legendary drives, its Pacific Coast Highway.

Timing is everything in a road trip, and it’s especially important in a large state with differing climates. Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada region closes some roads in the wintertime (such as Tioga and Glacier Point roads in Yosemite), while scorching temperatures in Death Valley (like, more than 120°F) make the summer excursion a sweaty challenge. Come to Sequoia National Park in the fall, and witness evergreens contrasting with the reds and yellows of a fall foliage display.

Where to stay

The Ahwahnee Hotel, in Yosemite National Park, opened in 1927 and has a long history of hosting celebrity guests, including Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy, and I Love Lucy actress Lucille Ball. The property features 99 hotel rooms, parlors, and suites in addition to 24 cottages on its grounds, with Half Dome, Glacier Point, and other park sights in view.

Empty highway through red rock hills  in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is one of five national parks in Utah.

Courtesy of Lisha Riabinina/Unsplash

4. Utah’s Mighty Five

  • National parks visited: Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park
  • Start: Arches National Park
  • End: Zion National Park
  • Distance: 370 miles
  • Recommended time: 7 days

Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef form Utah’s “Mighty Five” network of national parks. Their linear placement across the state spans some 370 miles, making for a relatively easy and immensely rewarding road trip through canyon country. Starting among the orange spires, vaults, and canyons of Arches National Park and passing through with the Colorado River–carved buttes of Canyonlands, this journey feels like a visit to Mars. The otherworldly scenery continues with the Navajo Sandstone domes of Capitol Reef and the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, where multi-colored rock layers (known as the “Grand Staircase”) stretch through to Zion.

Summer is often a popular time for visiting this area, but a winter road trip has surprising perks worth considering: Zion gets 70 percent of its visitors between April and September, but only 2–3 percent in each winter month of December, January, and February. The lack of crowds isn’t the only plus. Colder weather brings seasonal opportunities—like cross-country skiing in Bryce Canyon.

Where to stay

Book now: Lodge at Bryce Canyon

The Lodge at Bryce Canyon first opened in 1925, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood (the architect who also designed the Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone and the Ahwahnee at Yosemite). One of the biggest draws for the 114-room property (which includes lodge suites, motel rooms, and cabins) is its location: It is the sole accommodation inside the park. Amenities in the area include restaurants, a general store, and a laundry facility, and many natural excursions are accessible by foot—it’s only a five-minute walk to the start of the 5.5-mile Rim Trail.

5. West Virginia’s Wonders

  • National park visited: New River Gorge National Park
  • Start: Blackwater Falls State Park
  • End: New River Gorge National Park
  • Distance: 200 miles
  • Recommended time: 3 days

In 2020, the United States designated a national park in West Virginia: New River Gorge. Despite the name, the river is not new: It’s estimated to be between 260 million and 325 million years old, making it one of the oldest rivers in North America. While locals have long known about all the state has to offer, a three-day adventure is enough to prime visitors on West Virginia’s major points of interest. Start the trip in Blackwater Falls State Park, where hikers can climb steps to a 57-foot cascade. Then drive around 30 miles south to get to Seneca Rocks, a formation that rises 900 feet above the New River.

Can’t get enough excitement from the hairpin turns it takes to get to New River Gorge National Park? Then don’t miss the opportunity to do some whitewater rafting on the New River, which offers class II–IV rapids depending on the stretch. It’s a great place to try out the activity as a beginner, but experienced rafters should keep their calendar open for when “Gauley Season” comes around (the six weeks or so following Labor Day).

Don’t sweat it if high-intensity waters aren’t in your plans. Hiking is always available as a tried-and-true way to get the lay of the land. If you have time for one hike in the national park, Afar’s own Jessie Beck recommends the 2.2-mile Endless Wall Trail: “It’s especially magical at sunrise, when fog and mist drift in and out the canyon.”

Itinerary: Travel to the Newest U.S. National Park and Other West Virginia Wonders on This Road Trip of a Lifetime

Where to stay

Travelers can get their excursions and nightly stay handled in one place with Adventures on the Gorge, which offers trips including whitewater rafting and ziplining as well as accommodations. A stay at its Lansing location, about a mile from New River Gorge National Park, immerses visitors in the rustic beauty of nature: Think wooden cabins with fantastic stargazing opportunities. (Some cabins have the elevated touch of a private porch and hot tub.)

Aerial shot of an island with fort walls surrounding it

Seven islands make up the Dry Tortugas, a national park 70 miles across the water from Key West.

Photo courtesy of Key West Seaplane Adventures

6. Florida Keys

  • National parks visited: Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Start: Everglades National Park
  • End: Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Distance: 150 miles
  • Recommended time: 3 days

While many Florida road trips start and end with its gorgeous beaches, drive to its southern border for some of the most memorable marine ecosystems and underrated national parks in the nation.

Florida’s Everglades are the starting point for the trip and introduce travelers to the “river of grass” Marjory Stoneman Douglas fought to conserve. (Her book The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947, the same year the Everglades became a national park.) From the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Everglades National Park, it’s about a 20-mile drive east to get to Homestead Bayfront, where travelers can take a boat out to Biscayne National Park. The park is 95 percent water and its land spots are only accessible by boat, so the most convenient option is to explore via guided tour.

After coming back to the mainland, hop on Florida’s Highway 1 for another 135 miles—stopping for the occasional seafood dish, of course—before ending at Key West. The car stops here because Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west and can only be reached via boat or plane. Spend the day in a national park that’s 99 percent water and explore the 30 species of coral found in its reefs, and hop on that 1 percent of land to explore the historical Fort Jefferson.

Where to stay

While there are plenty of stays along the stretch of the Florida Keys, Key West is a practical base for those taking a day trip to Dry Tortugas. The 100-room Ocean Key Resort & Spa is one stay to consider for sunset views and Caribbean cuisine. With a calendar full of live music and nightly events, the resort provides much-needed ways to relax after a day of travel.

Empty two-lane highway leading to  mountains in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park covers more than 800,000 acres, making it larger than Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park.

Courtesy of freddie marriage/Unsplash

7. New Mexico to Texas

  • National parks visited: White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Big Bend National Park
  • Start: White Sands National Park
  • End: Big Bend National Park, Texas
  • Distance: 450 miles
  • Recommended time: 5 days

It’s difficult to encompass every national park in the Southwest on one road trip—this particular route focuses on those in New Mexico and Texas. This journey starts in White Sands National Park, where visitors can take the eight-mile Dunes Drive into the world’s largest gypsum dune field. (Gypsum is a mineral found in drywall and toothpaste.) Drive about 185 miles to get to New Mexico’s other national park on the itinerary, Carlsbad Caverns, which contrasts the hot desert experience by plunging visitors into the depths of more than 119 limestone caves.

It’s only about 35 miles to Texas’s Guadalupe Mountains National Park from the caves, where hiking to the highest natural point in the state, Guadalupe Peak, provides panoramic views of the surrounding desert and mountains. Fuel up, because it’s about 235 miles to get to the next park, Big Bend, located near the border of Mexico. But while the trip may be long, it’s worth the effort: Big Bend is a stargazer’s dream, as it’s the least light-polluted national park in the lower 48.

There’s a lot to cover in this trip—after loading up on barbecue and snacks from beloved Texan gas station chain Buc-ee’s, maybe consider another road trip in the Lone Star State.

Where to stay

If you don’t want to spend the night at one of Big Bend National Park’s campgrounds, drive around 40 minutes north to get to the park gateway town of Marathon, which Afar contributor Nick DeRenzo describes as a “funky town [that] oozes Old West charm and feels a bit like Marfa before the art-school kids arrived.” Base yourself in the Gage Hotel, a 1927-founded property that embraces the Western theme, complete with leather furniture and cow skulls adorning the walls.

View of forest in Olympic National Park

Hurricane Ridge Road is a great drive for views of Olympic National Park.

Courtesy of Georg Eiermann/Unsplash

8. Olympic Peninsula Loop

  • National park visited: Olympic National Park
  • Start and end: Olympia, Washington
  • Distance: 335 miles
  • Recommended time: 5 days

Explore the Pacific Northwest in all its glory on this Olympic Peninsula road trip in Washington State, which mostly traces U.S. 101 before following U.S. 12 and 8 at the southern portion to loop back to the state capital of Olympia. Some of the notable stops on this route include Sequim, which draws visitors in the summer for its lavender fields, and Forks, a small town made famous by the Twilight series, that serves as a good base for checking out the Pacific coastline.

Deeper in the peninsula is the nearly 1-million-acre Olympic National Park, which packs in mountains characteristic of the Pacific Northwest in addition to its own unique geographical features. Hikes abound here, like the three-mile round-trip Hurricane Hill trail that offers 360-degree views of the park. But perhaps the most popular destination in the park is the Hoh Rain Forest—one of four rainforests in the state—a mossy, temperate ecosystem home to Sitka spruce, black bears, river otters, and the endangered northern spotted owl.

Where to stay

Kalaloch Lodge at Olympic National Park, 35 miles southwest of Forks, is an ideal overnight base for exploring the Pacific Coast. The waters by the property are part of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, a more than 3,000-square-mile area home to at least 300 species of fish and 29 species of marine mammals, including orca and humpback whales. From the wood-paneled cabins, guests can walk to Pacific ocean waters that are especially magnificent come sunset.

This article was originally published in 2023. It was updated June 10, 2024, with the latest information.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR