Top U.S. national park road trip ideas

By Eric Wright

Over two hundred years ago, a courageous group of 48 pioneers set out on an epic journey, battling through a severe winter, rugged mountains, and vast wilderness to cut a new trail westward from Massachusetts to Ohio. These bold American heroes started the expansion of the modern day United States, opening up new routes through the Northwest Territory. They were the bravest of the brave, and now it's your turn to follow in their footsteps and carve your own route through the unknown.

Release the adventurer inside you with one of our remarkable road trip ideas through a U.S. national park!

1. The Grand Circle Tour

With its awe-inspiring canyons and seemingly endless skies, the Grand Circle Tour in Utah offers 1,500 miles of incredibly scenic highways, six national parks, and huge lakes in the desert—meaning it's no wonder that this stunning region is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the states.

Start your tour by visiting Zion National Park, hiking Canyon Overlook Trail and watching the sunset light the entire canyon. On the second day, explore the spectacular Zion Canyon by taking the handy shuttle bus. Bryce Canyon National Park is then just an hour's drive away and boasts more majestic overlooks from Sunrise Point and Bryce Point.

The famous All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12, will then lead you through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into Capitol Reef National Park and its unique rock formations. Be sure to add Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point, and Canyonlands National Park to the itinerary, too.

To end the vacation on a high, soak up the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon's mile-high cliffs from the South Rim, while wondering how on earth four Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other could fit within its monumental walls!

2. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park

As the world's first National Park, Yellowstone contains more than 290 waterfalls, over 500 active geysers, and 67 species of mammals amid its sprawling 2.2 million acres. The vibrant and bizarre scenery at this one-of-a-kind spot means a road trip here is sure to evoke the senses.

Grand Teton National Park makes a great starting point for the road trip and the vistas of Phelps Lake from Death Canyon Trailhead are simply astounding. Jenny Lake, Hidden Falls, and Inspiration Point should also all make the list before getting back on the road to Yellowstone for terrain that seems like it could be from another planet.

Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs are all a must-see while on a scenic drive through Lamar Valley, where you'll see the bison at their watering hole for the ideal end to the road trip.

3. Yosemite National Park

The iconic valley of Yosemite is a photographer's dream, as well a paradise for rock climbers. With its towering waterfalls, giant Sequoia trees, and thousands of plant species, the area is a true natural wonder steeped in dramatic scenery.

Driving through the Wawona Tunnel to Tunnel View, the unrivaled beauty of the valley makes its instant and unforgettable impression on all its visitors. The majestic granite rock formation of the famous Half Dome and the panoramic views of the distant horizon at Glacier Point are the perfect way to start the vacation while the Four Mile Trail, which makes its way up to a 3,200-foot peak, is the ideal way to take in the diverse ecosystems and wildlife habitats in the park.

The Yosemite Valley Loop lets you burn some rubber while taking in the landscape and make some well-earned pit stops for more breathtaking sights, like climber's obsession and adversary El Capitan, Vernal Falls, and the tallest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls. As the Scottish-American influential naturalist John Muir once so aptly put it, this area really is "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

4. The Great Smoky Mountains

Generally regarded as one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, with rock formations dating back over 200 million years, the rolling valleys and dense forests of the Smoky Mountains are home to more native trees than the whole of Europe combined.

Encompassing 244,000 acres in Tennessee, 276,000 acres in North Carolina, and a 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail, this region is an outdoor adventurer's playground that is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Cades Cove offers a scenic 11-mile loop road, where travelers can embrace the rich wildlife, historic buildings, and access to trails to delve deeper into the enchanting terrain.

The popular Newfound Gap Road also winds its way from Cherokee to the center of the park, crossing the 5,000-foot mountain pass of Newfound Gap and ending in Gatlinburg. The 66-mile round trip offers visitors a 3,000-foot ascent up through the backbone of the Smokies, with extraordinary mountain and forest views. Balsam Mountain Heintooga Ridge Road, accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, gives drivers even more sweeping vistas, while Cataloochee Valley gets you up close to majestic elk grazing, all from the comfort of your car.

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Covering 1,235 square miles, Joshua Tree National Park is an ecological crossover, in which the Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert meet, resulting in two distinctly different ecosystems. The rugged mountains and broad valleys covered in twisted Joshua trees create an unfamiliar and extraterrestrial landscape.

Having previously lay hidden deep underwater for 250 million years, the area now offers a paranormal expanse that is perfect for an unforgettable road trip with friends and family. Starting off in the town of Joshua Tree and heading south on Park Boulevard will lead to mythical Hidden Valley, with its iconic massive boulders, and a short trip back on the road will leave you at Keys View. The 5,185-foot lookout point has panoramic views of the Coachella Valley below, as well as San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain.

Jumping back in the car for a short cruise through the desert gives you the chance for some photo ops at famed Skull Rock and Arch Rock, while driving south on Pinto Basin Road places you in the intriguing Cholla Cactus Garden, with its unusual strands of cacti sprawling across the barrens for as far as the eye can see.


Looking to head further afield? Check out these national parks around the globe!