National parks are designed to be secluded from the modern world. They act as protected havens for flora and fauna while offering humans a glimpse into what that world looks like.
Because of their isolated nature, it’s often easiest to visit national parks by car. And if you’re going to visit one park, why not throw another one on the agenda and turn the trek into a good old-fashioned road trip?
Mesa Verde/Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Suppose you’re looking for two national parks with entirely different focuses. In that case, the Mesa Verde/Black Canyon of the Gunnison combination is the road trip for you.
Mesa Verde is known for its archaeological significance, specifically the famous cave dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, which were built over 700 years ago. Black Canyon of the Gunnison leans more into the epic geological views, as visitors can stand atop some of North America’s steepest cliffs.
Situated just an hour apart from each other, the two national parks of South Dakota naturally lend themselves to a quick but beautiful road trip.
At Wind Cave National Park, you can tour different sections of the 150-mile-long cave system. Then, enjoy a pleasant drive through the prairies to Badlands National Park, where visitors can spot bison and prairie dogs throughout the park.
If you want a road trip with a water focus, the Florida combination of Everglades and Biscayne will check all the boxes.
In Everglades National Park, you can book a tram tour or bike around a 15-mile loop. Flanked by water on both sides, visitors can see countless alligators, native birds, and even crocodiles. After a hot day under the sun, if you want to get in the water, Biscayne National Park is for you. You can snorkel, kayak, or fish in the protected marine area.
Alaska houses some of the most remote, untouched landscapes in the entire country. This is likely why it’s home to seven of the ten largest national parks in the United States.
While the parks are quite spread throughout the massive state, two can be reached on a road trip from Anchorage. The first is Denali National Park, which spans over six million acres and is home to countless animals, including bears, moose, and caribou. Heading south, Kenai Fjords National Park offers visitors a view of the gorgeous bays of Alaska. One of the best ways to explore this park is by boat, where you can see puffins, dolphins, and orcas.
The Yellowstone/Grand Teton road trip is perfect for anyone who wants to explore the American West in all its glory.
To kick off the trip, enjoy the scenic drive up to Yellowstone, the birthplace of the national park. Among other things, the world’s very first national park is famous for its geysers, particularly Old Faithful.
While Grand Teton is often overshadowed by its famous neighbor, the park also has breathtaking views and opportunities for animal sightings. Summertime offers the chance to kayak on one of its pristine lakes, while winter brings cross-country skiing and snowshoeing options.
With nine national parks (the most of any state), California offers many road trip options for park lovers. One of the most accessible road trips on a weekend is the drive between Sequoia and King’s Canyon, which are less than two hours apart.
Sequoia National Park is known for its namesake: the giant sequoia trees that live throughout its forests. The trees can reach 300 feet tall and be anywhere from 20 to 35 feet in diameter.
King’s Canyon also boasts many sequoias but offers additional landscapes to enjoy outside the trees, including waterfalls and overlooks. For a particularly scenic portion of the road trip, add the hour-long Generals Highway drive.
Utah’s national parks are among the most popular in the country. If you’re looking for a balance between busy and more relaxed parks, a journey between Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef is a great option.
Arches is a relatively small park that attracts many visitors during the high season. Arrive early in the morning to bypass the crowd and experience sunrise at the top of the famous Delicate Arch. Then, you can drive the short 30-minute stretch to Canyonlands, where the expansive canyons and buttes stretch far into the distance.
Finish up your exploration by driving the two hours to Capitol Reef, where you can see the Waterpocket Fold, a giant wrinkle on the earth that spans 100 miles.
Bryce Canyon and Zion, two of the most beloved parks in the country, aren't far from Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.
Driving through Bryce Canyon, you’ll notice the tall columns of misshapen rocks. These are called hoodoos, and Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration in the world. After walking between the stone giants, you can hop in your car and drive over to Zion. While you can drive around a large portion of Zion, you’ll need to ride in a tram to explore the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive during peak season. Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Zion, including two renowned hikes, The Narrows and Angels Landing.
White Sands/Carlsbad Caverns
From lush forests to sprawling caves to expansive sand, the New Mexico National Parks road trip has a little bit of everything.
Starting in Carlsbad Caverns, visitors can explore the caverns independently (specifically the popular Big Room and Natural Entrance trails) or book a guided ranger tour to learn more about how the caverns first formed.
On the three-hour drive over to White Sands, you’ll drive next to the trees of Lincoln National Forest. This landscape quickly changes to sand as far as the eye can see once you reach White Sands. The national park houses the world’s largest gypsum dune field (the white sand the park is known for).
Grand Canyon/Petrified Forest
Are you looking to see hundreds of millions of years of history? The Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest road trip definitely delivers.
One can’t help but stare in awe at the Grand Canyon, the 277-mile-long canyon carved by the Colorado River. Some of the oldest rocks exposed in the canyon are over 270 million years old.
On the way to Petrified Forest, curious drivers can stop by Walnut Canyon National Monument, highlighting the cliff dwellings of the Indigenous Peoples of Arizona. After the pit stop, visitors can go to Petrified Forest National Park to see rocks that are over 200 million years old, along with artifacts from human history that date back over 13,000 years.
And the road trip wouldn’t be complete without checking out a section of the original Route 66. Petrified Forest is the only national park that contains part of the historic road.
A journey between Redwood and Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a bit of everything. Redwood National Park is home to the giants of the tree world: coast redwoods. Reaching heights of 360 feet, the redwoods are, on average, between 500 and 700 years old, with some as old as 2,000 years.
Driving along the coast, you’ll pass through several national forests on the five-hour journey to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here, you’ll be able to explore beautiful lakes, hiking trails, and even steaming fumaroles — surface vents where volcanic gases are emitted.
Mountains and beaches are options on a road trip from Olympic National Park to Mount Rainier. Olympic is situated just off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At sea level, visitors are invited to enjoy tidepooling, boating, or fishing on several beaches within the park’s borders.
After enjoying the water, you can take the scenic drive through the Olympic National Forest on the three-hour ride to Mount Rainier National Park. You’ll ascend in elevation along your drive. Once in the park, you can be anywhere between 1,900 to 5,400 feet in elevation (or 14,000 if you climb to the top of Mount Rainier itself!).
What takes the North Cascades/Glacier road trip to the next level is the chance to drive a legendary road within one of the parks.
Glacier National Park is renowned for its hundreds of miles of gorgeous hiking trails. However, one of the most popular activities is to drive the Going-to-the-Sun road (which is not for the faint of heart). Make sure to allow plenty of time for the 50-mile trek, as driving can take three to eight hours.
After getting your fill of cliff driving, buckle up for a long (but beautiful) ride as you go through multiple national forests on your 10-hour trek to northern Washington. Upon arriving, you can dust off your boots and enjoy splendid hiking throughout the mountainous terrain of North Cascades National Park.
New River Gorge/Shenandoah
Shenandoah is a perfect national park for a road trip. Why? Because one of the most popular activities is driving the Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road stretching the park's length. Visitors can stop along the way to explore trails or spot the wildlife that lives amongst the trees.
About four hours away in West Virginia lies one of the newest national parks: New River Gorge. The focus of the park is the river it was named for, and visitors can enjoy whitewater rafting, fishing, or paddleboarding on one of the oldest rivers in America.
Mammoth Cave/Great Smoky Mountains
When people think of famous national parks, a few immediately come to mind: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon.
However, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is the most visited national park, with nearly 13 million visits in 2022. Visitors can enjoy the park's wildflower viewing, biking opportunities, and waterfall overlooks. If you are driving through the park, get a parking tag if you want to stay in one spot longer than 15 minutes.
After being around so many people, the five-hour drive to Mammoth Caves can be a nice break. When you arrive at the park, you can book guided cave tours of the longest cave system in the world.
Big Bend/Guadalupe Mountains
If you want more of an off-road experience, Big Bend National Park has you covered. While the park offers 100 miles of paved roads to view the mountains and desert, several dirt road options provide even more unique views of the area.
After leaving Big Bend, you can drive the four hours north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This park is all about the mountain peaks, as eight of the ten highest peaks in Texas are within the park’s boundaries.
This road trip pairs one of the oldest national parks in the country with one of the newest. Yosemite was declared a national park way back in 1890, and ever since, it’s become a renowned destination known for its waterfalls and geological formations like Half Dome. For a special drive to add to the trip, check out the 46-mile stretch along Tioga Road.
You'll drive almost four hours from the forest to the coast to your second national park: Pinnacles. Established as a national park in 2013, Pinnacles is a rock climber’s paradise, with hundreds of routes to explore. For those who prefer to stay grounded, there are countless hiking paths and even some caves to check out.
Rocky Mountain/Great Sand Dunes
Rocky Mountain National Park is exactly what you expect to see if you visit a nature preserve in Colorado. There are expansive views wherever you are, giant forests of trees, and mountains in seemingly every direction. The park is well-suited for road trippers, as the park is massive in size. To reach the 11,000-foot peaks, be prepared to wind your way up two-lane roads with steep drop-offs.
The five-hour drive to Great Sand Dunes offers spectacular views similar to those you see as you travel through the mountains. But when you reach the dunes, it’s like you’ve landed on a completely different planet. The park houses the tallest sand dunes in North America, with the tallest rising 750 feet from the ground. Visitors regularly rent sleds or sandboards to fly down the sand hills.