It’s a big, wild, beautiful country out here in America, and you have a lot of driving ahead of you if you want to see the country’s natural wonders. Why not plan a vacation that encompasses both the national parks and that other very American pastime, the road trip? The possibilities are endless, but here are five of the best national park road trip itinerary ideas that showcase parks that are within fairly easy driving distance of each other. Whether you want to see the high desert or a towering mountain range, snag an America the Beautiful pass (which will save you money if you’re visiting multiple national parks) and hit the road.
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Muir Woods + Point Reyes National Seashore + Yosemite
Experience the best of Northern California’s landscape, including towering redwoods and dramatic beaches with a road trip to three diverse national parks in the state. Just 30 minutes from San Francisco, Muir Woods inspires awe as you look up at a forest of old growth coast redwoods. Point Reyes National Seashore is a short drive away, but feels like a totally different world, with sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, and opportunities to spot wildlife from elephant seals to elk to whales. Spend the night before for the four-hour drive to Yosemite, dubbed by naturalist John Muir (namesake of Muir Woods) as a “temple to nature.” See famed rock formations Half Dome and El Capitan along with gorgeous lakes and waterfalls in the Sierra wilderness.
Yellowstone + Grand Teton + Fossil Butte National Monument
You can cover a lot of ground in Wyoming, home to two world-famous national parks that share a border. Yellowstone and Grand Teton are must-visits, known for sights like Old Faithful and Lower Falls in the 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone and the crystal-clear Jenny Lake in Grand Teton. For something a bit off the beaten path (and within a two-hour drive of Grand Teton), Fossil Butte National Monument will be fascinating for budding paleontologists. See more than 300 fossils in the visitor center, then head out to Fossil Lake to hunt for prehistoric fossils yourself.
Bryce Canyon + Zion + Arches
For never-ending red rock formation vistas, head to Utah. This state is home to the “Mighty 5” national parks, but you could narrow down your travels a bit by starting in Zion National Park. Go for a hike to Angels Landing or The Narrows, or just take a drive through the scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Tunnel. Less than two hours away is Bryce Canyon, which boasts the most hoodoos—defined as irregular columns of rock—in the entire world, making for surreal views. Drive four hours to Arches National Park, which lives up to its name with over 2,000 stone arches to explore (the most famous of which is free-standing Delicate Arch, accessible via three-hour hike).
Joshua Tree + Death Valley + Grand Canyon
Drive through desert ecosystems on your way to the epic vacation spot that is the Grand Canyon. Your journey begins in Southern California’s Joshua Tree, where you can hike through cactus gardens and toward a desert oasis. An even more famous desert with a foreboding name is approximately a four-hour drive away. Sights at Death Valley include Badwater Basin (salt flats known as the lowest point in North America) as well as scenic lookout Zabriskie Point. From there, it’s a long journey to the Grand Canyon (feel free to take a city break in Vegas to rejoin civilization). You’ll have plenty of time on the drive to plan your trip out ahead of time (North Rim or South Rim? Mule tour or rafting the Colorado River?)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park + Rocky Mountain National Park + Great Sand Dunes
Fly into Denver to explore Colorado’s national parks featuring all sorts of jaw-dropping landscapes. The narrow Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a rival to the Grand Canyon, with dark canyon walls that plunge 2,700 feet to the Gunnison River. For stargazers, try to time your visit to the park’s Astronomy Festival. Next up is Rocky Mountain National Park, where you’ll find over 300 miles of hiking trails within the park’s 415 square miles (and 150 pristine alpine lakes too). Your Colorado road trip must include a drive through the Rockies on the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road. For something completely different, hop in the car and be transported to an alien landscape at Great Sand Dunes, the tallest dunes in North America. Don’t forget the sand sled for dune sledding.
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