The Final Nationwide Park Highway Journey: The best way to See all 51 Nationwide Parks within the Continental U.S.

The USA is dwelling to 63 nationwide parks, most of that are positioned throughout the continental U.S. From expansive desert landscapes to among the tallest mountains within the nation to islands proper off the coast, there’s a lot to see.

The U.S. Nationwide Park Service manages over 400 models, together with nationwide parks, monuments, and recreation areas. All of them maintain a special designation primarily based on what’s being protected, whether or not it’s pure landscapes, historic relics, or some mixture. The 63 locations that maintain “park standing” are positioned all through america and are a mixture of each pure and historic significance.

Whereas it could be an extended haul, it’s greater than potential to do a large street journey that connects the entire nationwide parks within the continental U.S. In 2019, I personally drove via the entire contiguous 48 states solo with the objective of visiting as many parks as I may. Whereas I didn’t hit all of them on that first go, I’m now 52 parks in and work as an journey information in lots of our western parks.

So, from California to Florida to Maine, that is the final word nationwide park street journey. Pack your baggage, gasoline up the automotive, and don’t overlook your climbing boots—let’s go.

Picture by Mike Goad, Yellowstone Nationwide Park

A Tip From a Full-Time Nomad

I’ve been dwelling on the street and visiting nationwide parks for nearly 5 years now, and the primary piece of recommendation I’ve for anybody trying a visit like that is to buy an America the Lovely Move. This cross is $80 and permits entry into each Nationwide Park Service website within the nation, which saves you a lot cash on entry charges. Most parks are roughly $30 to enter, so when you’ve visited three parks, your cross has already paid for itself.

The Climate

One thing to bear in mind when doing a visit like that is the climate. It might be greatest to go to most of those parks in the summertime, and when you can go to a whole lot of them within the off season, it’s essential to examine situations. Figuring out once you’re going to start out your street journey goes to rely upon climate, street closures, and park accessibility. For instance: Lassen Volcanic and Crater Lake have plenty of winter street closures, and Isle Royale is totally inaccessible within the winter. Then again, visiting the Florida and Texas parks goes to be extra nice within the cooler months.

Because of this, I’ve divided this route into sections that make sense to do seasonally. You gained’t be leaping from the desert to the excessive alpine, so you possibly can keep protected and ready for what’s forward.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by Christiane Wilden, Grand Canyon Nationwide Park


There’s no higher place to start out and finish this street journey than the beautiful southwest. Since you’ll be touring everywhere in the nation, it solely is smart to have this street journey be a loop. A lot of the parks within the American Southwest are pretty heat within the winter, apart from Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. Nonetheless, it may be assumed that roads are usually open in these areas within the colder months.

Let’s begin our journey in Joshua Tree Nationwide Park in California. This park is a superb place to start out—it’s straightforward to navigate, accessible for many newbie nationwide park vacationers, has nice tenting, and nice views. It’s a incredible introduction to the southwest, with large granite rock options, desert natural world, and sunny skies many of the 12 months.

From Joshua Tree, drive east to Grand Canyon Nationwide Park, one of many seven pure wonders of the world. That is a kind of locations that’s on nearly everybody’s bucket checklist, and it’s a excellent place to camp, hike, or backpack. I’ll save the remainder of the Arizona parks for later, however for now, let’s head north.

Not too far north from the Grand Canyon, we’ll hit the primary of Utah’s Mighty 5: Zion. Recognized for beautiful crimson rocks and the notorious Angel’s Touchdown hike. Visiting the remainder of Utah’s parks is straightforward, merely drive east. This may permit you to witness the range in crimson rock formations, from hoodoos to pure arches. From Zion, you possibly can simply hit Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches in a single week or much less, perhaps throwing in some underrated state parks alongside the way in which. Understand that throughout peak season, Arches does require a timed entry reservation.

From Utah, it is smart to remain within the desert somewhat bit longer, stopping at Mesa Verde Nationwide Park in Colorado earlier than heading south. Mesa Verde is thought for its historic ruins, so cease and take a tour when you’re right here to see them up shut.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by Halle Homel, Mesa Verde Nationwide Park

South from Mesa Verde, you’ll go to Petrified Forest Nationwide Park, which is an ideal day journey vacation spot the place you possibly can recognize the fossilized wooden, and stroll your canine—it is a dog-friendly park. Saguaro Nationwide Park is subsequent, proper outdoors of Tucson, Arizona, the place you possibly can stroll amongst big cacti. Each of those Arizona parks are pretty small and take little planning.

As you head east, you’ll hit White Sands Nationwide Park, dwelling to an enormous gypsum dune area. That is your first of some sand dune parks, and whereas it’s smaller than the others, there’s nothing like sand that appears like snow. Go on a hike on the dunes or lease a sled and benefit from the downhill experience.

Staying in New Mexico for another park, head all the way down to Carlsbad Caverns. Stroll down into the cave and take a look at the underground rock formations. Ensure you keep for the bat flight program at sunset if you happen to go to in the fitting season—that is an unforgettable wildlife expertise.

Only a few miles south of Carlsbad Caverns is Guadalupe Mountains Nationwide Park, dwelling to the tallest peak in Texas. This can be a smaller park that doesn’t want a ton of time, in contrast to its neighbor to the south, Large Bend. This park’s title makes it clear; so as to see the entire park, you’ll want a pair days. Take a look at the Chisos Mountain space and the Rio Grande River right here. Go climbing or soak in a scorching spring, simply take into account that being up to now south, this park is a scorching one in the summertime months.

This concludes the southwest portion of the journey, and whereas there are a pair desert parks left, the way in which they’re accessed means they’ll be in your route later within the journey.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by Halle Homel, New River Gorge Nationwide Park


From Texas, you’ll hold driving east, heading to Arkansas, the place Sizzling Springs Nationwide Park is positioned. This park is extra of a historic district, however with a wonderful campground and a few climbing trails, it’s actually a mixture of the whole lot you can ask for in a park. Ensure you strive the pure spring water and go to one of many historic bathtub homes when you’re right here.

The factor in regards to the jap aspect of the U.S. is that the parks listed below are quite a bit much less condensed. The subsequent park on this route isn’t till southern Florida, the place we’ll go to three: Biscayne, Everglades, and Dry Tortugas. Everglades is thought for its swampy Florida panorama and is the one location on this planet the place you’ll have the possibility to see each crocodiles and alligators. Biscayne is greatest seen by snorkeling via the park’s protected waters. Dry Tortugas does require a ship to get there, which should be reserved upfront, however when you arrive, you’ll have the ability to discover this outdated fort and its surrounding tropical waters.

Because the Florida parks are proper subsequent to one another, we’ll head north from right here and begin heading up the east coast, stopping at Congaree Nationwide Park in South Carolina subsequent. This can be a nice park for wildlife viewing and is the right option to expertise the distinctive swampy landscapes of the southeast. Not too removed from Congaree is Nice Smoky Mountains, positioned on the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. That is essentially the most visited nationwide park within the nation and is a incredible place to hike, go to waterfalls, and chase views.

From Nice Smoky Mountains, you gained’t be removed from New River Gorge Nationwide Park in West Virginia. That is the most recent nationwide park within the nation, and it’s recognized for whitewater rafting and mountain climbing. Its river is the second oldest on this planet, and also you’ll have the ability to hike, camp, and a lot extra throughout your time right here.

From New River Gorge, head to a different iconic Appalachian park: Shenandoah. Shenandoah is much like the Smokies however with fewer crowds. Tackle one of many iconic hikes right here, like Outdated Rag, and camp in one of many park’s many lovely campgrounds.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by 12019 through Pixabay, Indiana Dunes Nationwide Park

New England and the Midwest

This part of the nation is tough to place a reputation on, since you’ll be touring via many states that don’t have nationwide parks in them. That’s to not say there aren’t lovely issues to see, however there gained’t be one other park till you attain Maine. In Maine, you’ll go to Acadia Nationwide Park. Positioned on an island off the coast, Acadia is thought for having the primary dawn within the U.S. daily. There are many climbing trails, and even alternatives for mountain climbing right here in Acadia, and don’t overlook to cease at one of many many seashores.

Arising subsequent, you gained’t have one other park till you hit Cuyahoga Valley Nationwide Park in Ohio. This park is a bit more city than others, nevertheless it’s recognized for waterfalls and its scenic practice experience. At this level, you’re heading west, and your subsequent park is Indiana Dunes. At first look, Indiana Dunes may not appear to be a lot, however the actuality is, it’s some of the biodiverse locations within the nation. Like plenty of sand dune parks across the U.S., that is one other excellent place to carry your canine.

Now, you is likely to be pondering we skipped a pair, however don’t fret—you’re heading to Mammoth Cave subsequent. Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest recognized cave system. Take a cave tour right here, and study in regards to the cave’s wealthy historical past. This park can also be dwelling to certainly one of my favourite campgrounds within the Midwest—positively spend the evening right here and benefit from your time in Kentucky.

Talking of historical past, Gateway Arch is your subsequent park. This iconic landmark might be essentially the most completely different from the remainder of the locations on our checklist. Throughout my go to, I used to be informed by a ranger that the explanation it grew to become a park was because of the historic significance of the land the arch was constructed on. Take the elevator to the highest of the arch and look over the town of St. Louis.

5 Beginner Friendly Backpacking Trips
Picture by Nelson Decker through NPS, Isle Royale Nationwide Park

Northwoods and Nice Plains

Whereas Isle Royale is in Michigan, you’ll drive as much as the Higher Peninsula via Wisconsin. Make a cease at Apostle Islands in your option to your boat harbor. Isle Royale can solely be accessed through boat, which should be reserved upfront. Isle Royale goes to pressure you out of your consolation zone: the boat experience is simply too lengthy for day journeys, so most individuals camp for not less than one evening on the island. That is additionally an ideal place to strive backpacking for the primary time.

When you reunite along with your automotive, you’ll drive to Voyageurs Nationwide Park in Minnesota’s Northwoods. This park does have climbing trails however is greatest seen and appreciated from the water. It’s a incredible place to lease a kayak or canoe and head out to one of many islands when you absorb a view of Canada within the distance.

From Voyageurs, you’ll hold heading west to Theodore Roosevelt Nationwide Park. This park can be your first style of badland formations. Theodore Roosevelt is thought for its wildlife, so hold an eye fixed out for prairie canines, bison, and wild horses. Ensure you discover each the north and south unit as nicely—they’re very completely different from one another and value seeing.

Subsequent, head south to Badlands Nationwide Park. That is simply some of the otherworldly landscapes within the nation, and right here, you’re in a position to hike anyplace, even when there’s no path. Due to this, there aren’t a whole lot of designated trails within the park, however a enjoyable, brief hike is the Notch Path. Ensure you stand up for dawn right here and take within the views of bison, coyotes, pronghorns, and prairie canines.

Wind Cave Nationwide Park is subsequent, the place you’ll have the ability to discover each above and beneath floor. Take a cave tour and go on a hike to expertise the bison herds on the floor.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by Halle Homel, Rocky Mountain Nationwide Park

Mountain West

You’ve made it again to the expansive west, and by now you’re a seasoned nationwide park traveler. Head south all the way down to Rocky Mountain Nationwide Park, the place you’ll be welcomed by beautiful mountain vistas, herds of elk, and beautiful climbing trails. This park does have timed entry necessities in the summertime, so hold that in thoughts and attempt to plan forward.

There are two extra Colorado parks that you simply haven’t visited but. Subsequent up goes to be Nice Sand Dunes Nationwide Park, dwelling to the tallest sand dune in North America. Similar to different sand dune parks, you possibly can carry your canine right here, so long as you keep within the entrance nation. The sand does get fairly scorching in the summertime, so my greatest tip is to plan a dawn hike. The dunes can be much less crowded and the sand can be cool sufficient so that you can hike barefoot.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is subsequent. This distinctive canyon is extraordinarily steep, nevertheless it’s additionally one of many solely canyon parks that permits you to drive down into it. For those who’d reasonably hike down, that is an choice too, simply be sure to get a allow from the customer heart. There are additionally many overlooks alongside the rim of the canyon, which is ideal if you happen to’re in search of a extra low-key journey.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by PDPhotos through Pixabay, Grand Teton Nationwide Park

Subsequent, you’ll head north to Wyoming, the place you’ll go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone Nationwide Parks. These distinctive parks are neighbors, however they couldn’t be extra completely different. Within the Tetons, you’ll discover towering rocky peaks, and in Yellowstone you’ll be within the depths of a volcanic panorama. Grand Teton Nationwide Park hosts the Jenny Lake path, some of the well-known trails within the park. In Yellowstone, go to among the many boardwalks via the volcanic springs, just like the well-known Grand Prismatic. Each parks are recognized for wildlife—be sure to’re carrying bear spray if you happen to select to go climbing and recognize all wildlife from a distance.

After Yellowstone, you’ll head north to certainly one of my favourite parks within the continental U.S.: Glacier. Positioned in northern Montana, Glacier Nationwide Park is known for mountains, wildlife, and nicely, glaciers. Drive the Going to the Solar Highway or hike one of many many trails to a glacial view and study how historic ice formed our panorama. The Going to the Solar Highway does require timed entry reservations, nevertheless it’s price the additional problem to get to drive via this beautiful panorama. Ensure you cease at Logan Move in addition to among the many different viewpoints as you make your manner from west to east Glacier.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture through NPS, Mount Rainier Nationwide Park

Pacific Northwest

After Glacier, drive west to North Cascades. You’ve formally arrived again on the U.S. West Coast. North Cascades is among the least-visited parks within the nation and is a superb place to go backpacking. For those who’re not into backpacking, try Diablo Lake or one of many many views and day hikes all through the park.

From right here, head west to Olympic Nationwide Park. This beautiful place requires a whole lot of time to correctly discover. Right here, you possibly can go to the tall Olympic mountains, the rocky Washington shoreline, and the Hoh Rainforest—one of many solely true temperate rainforests in North America. This park is dwelling to unbelievable coastal wildlife, corresponding to Roosevelt elk, banana slugs, and black bears, in addition to the invasive mountain goat.

South of Olympic, it’s time to go to Mount Rainier Nationwide Park. This park requires a timed entry reservation within the peak season (June-August), so plan forward. Right here, you’ll see the enormous 14,000-foot Mount Rainier, which is dwelling to wildlife corresponding to black bears, elk, and foxes. This can be a excellent place for a hike, and Dawn Level is dwelling to certainly one of my favourite sunrises within the nation.

After Mount Rainier, you’ll head south to Oregon’s solely nationwide park, Crater Lake. Crater Lake is the world’s ninth deepest lake, which fashioned as the results of the eruption of Mount Mazama. This park is wonderful for a scenic drive, boat tour, hike, or swim, however have in mind, the Rim Drive is barely open in the summertime months.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by Scott Stulberg through NPS, Dying Valley Nationwide Park

California and Nevada

Coming from Oregon, you’ll go to Redwoods Nationwide and State Parks first, the place you’ll see the tallest bushes on this planet. This unbelievable park is on the coast, so be sure to go to each the forest and the seashore when you’re right here.

After the Redwoods, make your manner again to the mountains, heading towards Lassen Volcanic Nationwide Park. This is among the most underrated parks within the nation, dwelling to the southernmost Cascade mountain: Lassen Peak. Lassen stands at over 10,000 ft tall, and the park is dwelling to volcanic exercise much like Yellowstone, in addition to alpine lakes and distinctive lava fields left over from previous eruptions. Understand that many roads listed below are closed within the winter.

Lassen Volcanic is the right gateway to the Jap Sierra, which is how you’re going to get to Nevada. A protracted drive throughout the state will permit you to lastly go to Nice Basin Nationwide Park. This park isn’t what you’ll anticipate from this desert state—it’s dwelling to Wheeler Peak, a 13,000-foot mountain that stretches up out of the desert panorama. Guide a cave tour to see the Lehman Cave, so you possibly can discover this park above and beneath floor.

From right here, you’re heading again to California and getting into Dying Valley Nationwide Park from the Nevada aspect. Dying Valley is the biggest nationwide park within the continental U.S. at over 3 million acres. There may be a lot to discover in Dying Valley, from the bottom level in North America at Badwater Basin to the magical Mesquite Sand Dunes to the 11,000-foot summit of Telescope Peak, and a lot in between.

From right here, you is likely to be questioning, what in regards to the Western Sierra parks? The factor about California’s geography is that there’s a large mountain vary that it’s a must to drive round to entry a whole lot of the parks right here. Since Tioga Move, which leads from the Jap Sierra to Yosemite, is closed for elements of the 12 months relying on snowpack, I’m going to counsel that you simply head south from Dying Valley to Sequoia Nationwide Park.

Sequoia is dwelling to the biggest bushes on this planet—to not be confused with the Redwoods, that are the tallest. This unbelievable old-growth forest is dwelling to large bushes, lovely mountains, and wonderful wildlife-viewing alternatives. Simply north of Sequoia is Kings Canyon—Sequoia’s sister park. These parks are so shut collectively, it solely is smart to go to them again to again. Kings Canyon is the underrated mixture of Sequoia and Yosemite’s landscapes, with wonderful rocky cliffs, canyon partitions, and sequoia bushes all through the park.

The ultimate national park road trip
Picture by oljamu through Pixabay, Yosemite Nationwide Park

From right here, you’ll lastly make your manner north to the coveted Yosemite. Yosemite does require timed entry through the summer time, and I extremely counsel reserving a campsite or lodging far upfront—it’s very exhausting to discover a place to remain right here. Go see the mighty Half Dome, watch the climbers on El Capitan, or hike to one of many many waterfalls like Vernal or Nevada Falls.

From right here, you’ll head southwest to Pinnacles Nationwide Park. I extremely suggest getting a campsite right here, as a result of the park is fairly distant and there aren’t a whole lot of locations to remain close by. That is California’s latest park and is dwelling to distinctive rock formations and the distinctive natural world of central California.

There’s just one park left: Channel Islands. This one is an journey worthy of being the ultimate park in your street journey. Guide a ferry ticket and park your automotive at Ventura Harbor. Your boat will take you to the island of your selection, and also you’ll have the possibility to see wildlife like whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Relying on the island you select, you would possibly even see the uncommon island fox, which solely resides in Channel Islands Nationwide Park. Go for a day journey or take your backpacking gear and keep in one of many established campgrounds on the islands.

You now have the information to perform a large feat that many dream of: visiting the entire nationwide parks within the continental U.S. Whereas there are nonetheless different parks to see, that is extra of the nation than most individuals see of their lifetimes. So, what are you ready for? It’s time to hit the street.

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