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A few summers ago, I was lucky enough to embark on a three-month-long, 13,000-mile cross-country drive on my motorcycle. After using a few bungees to strap a fly rod, camping gear and a bag full of clothes and tools to the back of the bike, I set off to explore the nation’s backroads and stunning parks.
Fortunately, you don’t have to own a motorcycle to complete a similar journey. With just a few weeks of vacation time and careful planning, anyone can tackle a road trip to explore the vast network of US national and state parks and forests.
Planning your national park road trip
Before you leave, consider whether or not you want to make this a round-trip drive, or if you’d prefer to fly back. If you opt for the latter, consider a repositioning rental and make sure to rent your vehicle with a credit card that offers primary car rental insurance (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred and United Explorer Card).
Drivers making a one-way trip will need to book a return flight home. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), located just a few minutes from the Grand Teton National Park, is serviced by United, Delta, American and Frontier. If you end the trip at North Cascades National Park, however, you’ll be just 120 miles from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).
When you’re driving up to 13 hours a day, it’s smart to bring along a good credit card for earning points on gas purchases. With the Citi Premier Card, for example, you’ll earn 3x points when you fill up, along with 3x points on many travel purchases, 2x points on dining and entertainment and 1 point per dollar on everything else.
Another tip? Make sure to buy a national park pass to save money on entrance fees. An annual pass can be purchased from the National Park Service for just $80, and is valid at any National Park for 12 months. Current US military members are eligible for a free annual pass, while seniors ages 62 or older can opt for the $20 annual or $80 lifetime pass.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on the coast of Maine, Acadia is the Northeast’s only national park. Here, a mountainous landscape converges with the Atlantic Ocean, creating a rugged and rocky shoreline, reminiscent of what you might find out west. Spend a night or two in Bar Harbor’s newest property, the Inn on Mount Desert. And while you’re in the area, be sure to drive the loop road around the park, stopping at classic destinations such as Otter Cliffs and Jordan Pond. Head to the Schoodic Peninsula during busier times if you need a break from lingering summer crowds. During fall, the summer tourists retreat, and the foliage serves as the perfect backdrop to the rocky cliffs and coastline.
When you’re ready to officially embark on your national park road trip, head south for about 13 hours until reaching Shenandoah National Park. Break up the drive with a stop in either Boston or New York City. Distance: 780 miles.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Shenandoah extends along the ridge of Virginia’s section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and offers 200,000 acres of protected lands and over 500 miles of hiking trails. Rolling hills reach down into green valleys and farmland, offering views that are easily accessible from points along Skyline Drive, the main road that cuts through the center of the park. Stay at the Residence Inn or Fairfield Inn & Suites, in the city of Harrisonburg, for 17,500 Marriott points per night. If you are up for a strenuous and technical hike, don’t miss Old Rag — but be sure to reach the trailhead early to avoid crowds.
Then, drive south for about five and a half hours to the Pisgah National Forest. Distance: 330 miles.
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Home to some of the tallest mountains on the East Coast, North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest is filled with grassy balds (treeless summits covered only by native grasses and shrubs) affording hikers uninterrupted views and an “alpine” feel that is rare in climates such as this. The nearby mountain town of Asheville has a number of accommodation options, ranging from a Hyatt Place Asheville Downtown ($198 or 12,00 World of Hyatt points per night) to The Omni Grove Park Inn (from $239). Head into town to sample classic North Carolina barbecue at the 12 Bones Smokehouse.
The drive to the next destination, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, is just over two hours away, which leaves plenty of time to explore both areas. Distance: 100 miles.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
In 2017, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited in the country — and for good reason. With more than 800 miles of hiking trails meandering around some of the oldest mountains on Earth, coupled with the area’s distinct southern hospitality, the Smokies are a highlight any time of year. But the mountainscape is especially lovely in autumn, when the fall foliage transforms the park. Spend the night at the The Park Vista, a DoubleTree by Hilton in nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee for $104 or 31,000 Hilton Honors points per night. Travelers can also retire to a rustic lodge or cabin rental in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. Be sure to hike or drive to the top of Clingman’s Dome — the highest peak in Tennessee — for 360-degree views of the iconic mist-covered mountains.
The drive to the next destination, the Ozarks National Forest, will take approximately 11 hours. Luckily, the most direct route will bring you through Nashville and Memphis, both of which are great options for splitting up the drive. Distance: 750 miles.
Ozarks National Forest, Arkansas
Arkansas is home to deep valleys and rolling mountaintops blanketed in the wild Ozarks National Forest. Hike to the 209-foot Hemmed-in-Hollow Falls, which is the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies; explore the nearby town of Fayetteville, Arkansas; and spend the night at The Chancellor Hotel. Book with your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card at Hotels.com/Venture to earn 10x miles on your stay. (You can also take advantage of the Hotels.com Rewards program to earn one free night for every 10 paid nights, effectively boosting your return to 20% when you pay with the Venture card.) If you want to do some leaf-peeping this autumn, venture over to the Sylamore District of the Ozarks. The nearby Mountain View area hosts a handful of fall festivals and bluegrass concerts.
The next drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park will be another long one: just over 12 hours. Get it all out of the way in one shot, or spend a night in Oklahoma City. Distance: 760 miles.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Discover towering sand dunes, similar to what you might expect to find in the Sahara Desert, in the middle of Colorado — along with snow-covered mountains and prairie-like grasslands. These are just a few of the diverse ecosystems you’ll find in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. Although there are no towns immediately near the park, Zapata Ranch offers overnight lodging and vacation packages for road trippers who’d prefer not to camp. Don’t forget to try your hand at sand boarding or sand sledding before heading to the next destination.
After the last long stretch, you’ll be delighted to find that the drive to Rocky Mountain National Park is only five hours north of the Dunes. Distance: 300 miles.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Glacial basins, towering ridges and alpine terrain, accessible by more than 300 miles of hiking trails and two scenic roads (one of which is the highest paved road in the US), make Rocky Mountain National Park one of the most beautiful places in the country. Enjoy the diverse wildlife and hikes suitable for all experience levels before bedding down at The Ridgeline Hotel, located in Estes Park. The property boasts modern amenities in a casual mountain-inspired space (expect lots of blonde wood and ensuite fireplaces). When you’re finished in the park, head over to Elkins Distilling Company, one of only a handful of high-altitude distilleries in the nation.
The next destination — Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks — are five and a half hours southwest. During the drive, you will see the landscape morph from snow-capped peaks to red sandstone cliffs. Distance: 400 miles.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah
Located just outside of Moab the Arches and Canyonlands parks offer an impressive introduction to the vast and dramatic desert landscape that makes up much of Utah. Arches National Park is filled with spectacular, natural sandstone (you guessed it) arches, formed by erosion. Many of these arches are easily reached from the road or with short walks, and because Arches is the more accessible of the two parks, it is often the most crowded. Canyonlands is the less-popular neighbor. Though the landscape is similar, it’s a much larger park — and somewhat more stark and wild. The town of Moab offers a handful of lodging options and restaurants, including a Holiday Inn Express & Suites ($180 or 40,000 IHG points).
After a restful night in Moab, begin the drive to the Grand Canyon. This will take between five to seven hours, depending on which part of the park you decide to visit first. Distance: 300 miles.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
This bucket-list destination is home to the deepest and most spectacular canyon in the country, and cracks open millions of years of geologic history. While many choose to view the canyon from the park’s numerous pull-outs and viewpoints, one of the best ways to get a sense of perspective is by embarking on one of the many hiking trails that trace the canyon’s rim and even descend into its depths. The Grand Hotel at Grand Canyon, located just one mile from the entrance to the South Rim, is the only three-diamond hotel in the region. If you are looking for a more extreme and off-the-beaten-path adventure, try the 3,200-foot-long zip line at Grand Canyon West; or take the 20-mile round trip hike to the emerald-blue waters of Havasupai Falls. Camping permits for Havasupai must be acquired in advance, and can be difficult to claim.
Once you’re ready to move on, head north back over the Utah border — a drive that can take between two and four hours — to Zion National Park. Distance: 100 miles.
Zion National Park, Utah
Located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park encompasses nearly 230-square-miles of red and pink sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons and the prominent Zion Canyon, which spans more than 15 miles and cuts up to a half-mile deep. Spend the night at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Springdale ($175 or 39,000 Hilton Honors points per night) to take advantage of the free breakfast, before starting one of the most popular hikes in the park, called The Narrows. Hikers will move through the most tapered section of Zion Canyon, and the trail requires wading in the Virgin River. Depending on the route you choose, a permit may be required to complete this hike.
After Zion, head west for about eight hours until reaching Yosemite National Park. Enter from the east side of the park, from the town of Lee Vining, California. Distance: 470 miles.
Yosemite National Park, California
Famous for its sheer granite cliff faces, spectacular waterfalls and glacier-carved valleys, Yosemite has been a mecca for rock climbers and mountaineers for nearly two centuries. But that doesn’t mean non-climbers will enjoy the park any less. Yosemite has a well-maintained network of auto roads and 750 miles of trails. Located in June Lake, the Double Eagle Resort and Spa is a four-season resort perfect for travelers who want a relaxing place to unwind after a long day driving. And the resort is just 12 miles from the park entrance. One of the best ways to experience Yosemite is by hiking and backpacking. For road-trippers who’d rather not venture into the backcountry without a guide, REI Adventures offers a variety of trips that cater to hikers of all experience levels, ranging from four to seven-day outings, depending on your schedule. After Labor Day, the crowds thin significantly, and the foliage on the oaks, maples and dogwoods begins to transform into a riot of hues.
After spending time in Yosemite, the route shifts north, with an eight-hour drive to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Distance: 450 miles.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Formed by a violent volcanic eruption some 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake is the deepest in the United States and arguably the most pristine in the world, making it worthy of the creation of Oregon’s singular national park. From the loop road, visitors can admire the deep sapphire blue waters and imposing silhouette of the Cascade Mountains. There are also excellent hiking trails that lead to the multiple summits framing the lake. Garfield Peak, for example, is accessible via a 3.4-mile out and back trail. The hike can get very crowded, however, and is strenuous at times. Built in 1915, Crater Lake Lodge, which has a rustic northwest vibe, is the perfect place to rest a road (and trail) weary head.
Next, continue north for about seven hours to Olympic National Park. The cities of Portland and Seattle are great destinations to visit if you are looking for a break from nature (read: better food and coffee). Distance: 400 miles.
Olympic National Park, Washington
One of the most unique national parks in the country, Olympic is home to several different ecosystems scattered across its almost one million acres. Visitors will find glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rainforests and ragged coastline. Due to its vastness, the best way to explore this park is to leave the car behind and head out on foot. Hurricane Ridge is a great year-round attraction, offering hikes in the summer and lift-access skiing and snowboarding during the winter. The Lake Crescent Lodge is located within park boundaries, and it’s a tranquil retreat with a mix of rooms and cabins. If you decide instead to stay in Seattle, book a room at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel with The Platinum Card® from American Express. As it’s a member of Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts, you’ll get an upgrade upon arrival (depending on availability), a $100 food and beverage credit and complimentary breakfast for two, along with other perks.
You can spend a long time in Olympic National Park and its surrounding cities. But when you’re ready to move on, head north again for about four hours to the North Cascades National Park. The most direct route from the northern part of the park requires a ride on the Port Townsend-Coupeville Ferry. Distance: 170 miles.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Located just a few hours from Seattle, the North Cascades National Park is a pristine alpine escape. There are two properties in the national park, including a lake resort and the North Cascades Lodge at Stehekin. For something more casual, consider an Airbnb (and put it on your Chase Sapphire Reserve for 3x points). Anglers will be happy to know that the park is home to a variety of salmon and steelhead trout and other species. Try your luck in the Skagit River, one of Washington’s major watersheds. Grab a drink (after you’re done driving for the day, of course) in the town of Bellingham at the new Twin Sisters Brewing Company.
At this point in the trip, you can make the decision to fly back east, or head eastbound by road, stopping at a few more major national parks. Distance: 500 miles.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Straddling the continental divide, Glacier National Park is home to headwaters that feed the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. Over a thousand different plant species, along with hundreds of animal species, can be found in the park’s mountainous alpine terrain, making it a great place to search for wildlife. While in the park, be sure to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, enjoying its many viewpoints along the way. Whitefish is a fun town to check out, and it’s filled with plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants. Book a room at a historic lodge or inn, such as the Lodge at Whitefish Lake or the upscale Grouse Mountain Lodge.
Fill up your vehicle in town, and press on about six more hours to see Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Distance: 400 miles.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is a geologically unique landscape: of mountains, bubbling geysers and steaming hot springs. The adjacent Grand Teton National Park, on the other hand, offers some of the most rugged and rocky mountains in the country — with a fraction of the crowds. Spend a night at the 385-room Jackson Lake Lodge (a mix of suites, cottages and rooms), located in the Tetons, where guests can admire the view from 60-foot floor-to-ceiling windows. While in the area, be sure to visit the iconic Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone, easily accessible via a paved walkway. Once you make your way south toward the Tetons, spend an evening wandering around the western mountain town of Jackson, and grab a meal at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse.
If you decide to drive back instead of catching a flight, spend the next two or three days pressing eastward, stopping to visit a few more nation parks and forests. The George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, for example, are great options.
And while the suggested route starts in the Northeast, there are endless variations of this trip, depending on where you live. For travelers based on the West Coast, consider beginning at Olympic National Park and working your way to Glacier, Yellowstone and the Tetons before heading east.
Featured image by jaredkay/Getty Images
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