A trip to a national park is about more than just the destination. It’s the journey to these remote corners of preserved natural wonders that are equally enticing, including drives to, and then around, the parks.
In fact, many US national parks are best seen from your car – really. We’re not saying you shouldn’t get out and breathe the fresh air and smell the flowers, but to get the best overview of wilderness and wildlife, these scenic drives can’t be beat.
Top tips to consider when planning a road trip to a national park
- Prepare your vehicle: National parks are often located in remote areas, and it may be a while for help to arrive if you break down. So be sure your vehicle is fully serviced and has a full tank of gas before you start your adventure.
- Download directions: Speaking of being remote, you may not have cell service or WiFi out in the parks, so be sure to save routing info (including this story) to your phone in advance of your trip.
- Pack snacks and water: Don’t count on food or supplies out on the road — bring everything you need with you, including picnic supplies (and be sure to carry out anything you carry in with you).
Best scenic drive through Joshua Tree National Park: best for Seussian landscapes
The route: Park Boulevard, Drive from North (HWY 62) or South (I-10) entrances
Route length: 35 miles
Bucket list nature highlights: Cap Rock, Ryan Mountain and Skull Rock
Want to get an idea of what you’ll see on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California? Pick up a copy of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The scraggly armed trees with tufts of needles reaching towards the sky strongly resemble a “truffula tree” and the entire desert landscape has an almost whimsical feel. Make no mistake though, the rocky wonders and unusual vegetation you’ll see driving through this park—which straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts–are both real and incredible.
Getting to know Joshua Tree National Park
Best scenic drive through Yellowstone National Park: best for bison
The route: Lamar Valley Road, enter Northeastern gate
Route length: 29 miles
Wildlife bucket list: bison, elk, grizzly bear
For wildlife, it’s hard to beat Yellowstone, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, which offers some of the most abundant animal habitats of any national park in the country. And you can see a magnificent range and number of animals from the safety of your car as you traverse Lamar Valley Road, including herds of bison. (Note that although you can get out of your car to take pictures or use binoculars, rangers advise staying at least 100 yards away from grizzly bears and 25 yards from elk and bison).
Experience Yellowstone National Park sustainably: your guide to going green
Best scenic drive through Acadia National Park: best for bird watching
The route: Park Loop Road, from Hulls Cover Visitor’s Center
Route length: 27 miles
Wildlife bucket list: peregrine falcon, bald eagle, snowy owl
Looping Mount Desert Island on this easy route not only provides gorgeous views of Maine’s beloved national park, but also provides access to the most popular visitors spots, among them including Sieur de Monts Spring, Great Meadow Wetland, Sand Beach, Otter Point, Jordan Pond and Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard. No matter where you stop on this scenic drive, be sure to keep an eye on the sky. Acadia is a prime location for bird watching, including raptors and birds of prey, woodpeckers, waterfowl and songbirds.
The 5 best road trips in Maine showcase mountains, fall foliage and Acadia National Park
Best scenic drive through Haleakalā National Park: best for sunrises
The route: Haleakalā Highway, from Crater Road
Route length: 37 miles
Bucket list nature highlights: cinder cones, volcanic crater
As you drive up this dormant volcano, you’ll travel from sea level up to just over 10,000 feet – the world’s largest elevation gain in the shortest distance. On your way to the summit, you’ll pass through as many ecosystems as if you had driven all the way from Canada to Mexico – the colorful changing topography is worth the drive alone. Once at the top, the temperatures are chilly enough to warrant a sweater and make you forget you were sunning on a Maui beach a few hours prior. So why come? Haleakalā translates as “house of the sun,” and sunrise here is especially memorable as the sun rises below you and shifting morning colors illuminate the mountain (sunset is pretty great, too).
How to choose the best Hawaiian island for your trip
Best scenic drive through Rocky Mountain National Park: best for mountains
The route: Trail Ridge Road, start at Fall River Entrance
Route length: 48 miles
Wildlife bucket list: elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes
The highest paved road in America can be reached through Estes Park, then it’s a steep climb up the “Highway to the Sky” to the peak at 12,183 feet in this Colorado national park. (On the way you’ll cross the Continental Divide.) Up here the foliage is sparse and the views are epic, with the snow-capped Rockies spreading below your elevated perch. Heading down the mountain you’ll see the treeline emerge and become more verdant, and this is when to keep an eye peeled for wildlife, especially elk which you’ll hear bugling in the distance.
Note: This road is only open Memorial Day through October.
How to conquer the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Best scenic drive through Grand Tetons National park: best for mountains
The route: The Grand Teton loop drive from Moose Junction to Jackson
Route length: 42 miles
Wildlife bucket list: pronghorn sheep, bison, bald eagles
Follow the waters of the Snake River for views of this Wyoming national park that take in rambling green meadows and the craggy, powder-dusted peaks of the Grand Tetons. This popular loop actually encompasses a few different routes in the park including Moose Wilson Road and Grand Teton Park Road, and from here you can head up to famed Jenny Lake as well. Keep an eye out for wildlife on this route while you check out the sky-high vistas of the mountains and park.
The top 10 most visited national parks in the US
Best scenic drive through Glacier National Park: best for glaciers
The route: Going-to-the-Sun Road, from West Glacier Entrance
Route length: 50 miles
Wildlife bucket list: bighorn sheep, mountain goats
Stunning scenery is the calling card of this national park in northern Montana, with highlights including 26 glaciers and nearly one million acres of breathtaking mountains, waterfalls and lakes. Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most popular driving routes of all the national parks in the country. It’s an engineering marvel, created from carving roads into what feels like the very edge of the mountains. Plan on spending at least two hours to navigate the snaking turns and spend time at viewing points such as the Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Note: Reservations are required to drive this road in the summer. Reserve here.
These Glacier National Park hikes will make you want to get your backpack
Best scenic drive through Great Smoky Mountains: best for fall foliage
The route: Newfound Gap Road from US 441
Route length: 30 miles
Wildlife bucket list: black bears, elk
The largest national park in the east, and the most visited park in the country, this national park that stretches from North Carolina to Tennessee is ideally situated for driving itineraries. In fact, it’s designed for “car hiking” with 384 miles of roads from which to choose your driving adventure. Newfound Gap, named for the high mountain pass at the state line, offers views for days, great animal spotting and a high perch to view the hardwood forests and changing leaves come the fall.
First-timer's guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Best scenic drive through Arches National Park: best for natural architecture
The route: Arches Scenic Drive
Route length: 22 miles
Bucket list nature highlights: Balancing Rock, Windows Arch, Delicate Arch
The red sandstone arches that give this Utah national park its name seem too perfectly balanced to be created by something as fickle as wind and sand. Surely, you’ll think as you drive around the amazing structures, a human architect must have lent a hand? This drive will take you past all of the soaring highlights; be sure to get out the car to get the full scope and perspective of these towering rock formations.
Introducing Utah's national parks
Best scenic drive through Crater Lake National Park: best for lake views
The route: Rim Drive from North Junction
Route length: 33 miles
Wildlife bucket list: mule deer, elk, black bear
Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park offers the scenic Rim Drive, which was actually designed to give visitors optimal views of the volcanic crater formed more than 7000 years ago that’s now the deepest lake in the US. Looping the crater, you’ll follow the contours of the deep blue water and have the opportunity to stop at 30 different lookout points, nearly one per mile of your drive.
A complete guide to Crater Lake National Park (including whether you can swim)
You might also like:
10 of the most scenic drives in the USA
The Grand Circle is the ultimate US Southwest road trip
10 national parks in the US you can reach by train