America's National Parks are road trip heaven. They preserve the unique landscapes that make our country so special, and with so many different and individual parks, it can be hard to choose just one to visit. Why not, then, take the Greatest American Road Trip, stopping off at the country's most iconic National Parks, from the Everglades to Olympic, and everything in between? It's the adventure of a lifetime!
Start off your journey at one of the country's most unique National Parks: the more-developed Hot Springs National Park. A reminder that not all National Parks are located in the wilderness, this park features more than 40 hot springs, many contained within turn-of-the-century bathhouses, all set in the quaint, vintage town of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Believe it or not, the largest system of caverns in the world is in Kentucky, and it's been preserved as Mammoth Cave National Park. Despite the fact that many fossils have been found here, the name comes from the size of the system rather than a literal mammoth. There are loads of ranger-led tours through the caves every day, so pick a few that interest you, or hike around the forest that sits atop the cave.
One of the most visited National Parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has earned its popularity. Whether you're hiking Clingmans Dome for the sweeping views, cruising Cades Cove to see the wildflowers and historic sites, or going off the beaten path and exploring Elkmont, the park's ghost town, the beauty of these misty mountains is completely undeniable.
It's hard to believe that the mountainous wonderland of Shenandoah National Park is less than an hour and a half from the hustle and bustle of Washington, DC. Forests burning bright with colorful leaves in the fall, rocky mountains providing vast overlooks, cozy and fascinating historic sites, and cool waterfalls tucked away among the woodlands and mountains make this a delightful spot to do some hiking.
Acadia National Park preserves a special landscape, the rugged Maine coastline. It's where rolling mountains meet the majestic Atlantic Ocean, and the whole thing is criss crossed by trails and carriage paths from the days when the ultra-rich of the early 20th century built their vacation homes here. Hike Cadillac Mountain to catch the country's first rays of sun, explore Bar Harbor, swim at Sand Beach, and enjoy the luxurious vacation vibes.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is another slightly different park. A former toxic dump that's been cleaned up and restored to its former natural beauty, Cuyahoga Valley also protects the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail, a former canal towpath that runs along the river, through quaint small towns and peaceful forests. There's also a train that runs through the park, stopping off at various villages and visitor centers. The park is also super bike-friendly, so rent a set of wheels and explore all this park has to offer!
Named for early French-Canadian settlers, Voyageurs National Park is so filled with unspoiled natural views that it's not hard to imagine yourself as a 17th century explorer! The park is mostly lakes and streams. Rent a canoe and paddle out to the various islands for a quick hike, or even to camp out.
Follow in the footsteps of one of our most spirited presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. TR had a special love for the American West-- North Dakota in particular. Part of this park protects one of his old vacation retreats, and the rest encompasses the landscape he loved so much. Scrubby and scrappy, with wild rivers, prairies, and badlands landscapes and loads of wildlife, the park is a fitting tribute to Teddy.
The ancient, rough, and rocky landscape of Badlands National Park might not initially appear as appealing as one of the country's more famed parks, but everyone who visits Badlands comes away speechless. Describing the park, though, can't compare to actually walking among the colorful, rolling rocks.
The Black Hills is a remarkable place, but hidden below the prairies and forests of South Dakota lies even more beauty in the form of Wind Cave National Park. You can experience the unique beauty of these dense caverns, with their one-of-a-kind boxwork formations, through one of several guided tours.
Yellowstone is a completely iconic road trip stop, and one of the most popular National Parks... but with good reason. Of course, there's Old Faithful, but take time to explore the other features here, like the multihued Grand Prismatic Spring, the bubbling mudpots, the majestic waterfall in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the wildlife-strewn Lamar Valley, and the Old Faithful Inn, one of the oldest and biggest log cabin lodges in the country.
Grand Teton National Park is right next to Yellowstone, and highlights the mountain beauty of the region. It's tiny in size compared to Yellowstone, but it's jam-packed with historic ranches and cabins, clear lakes set in alpine-forested valleys, and hiking trails and scenic drives through the jaw-dropping landscapes.
America's most impressive sand dunes are nowhere near the water... they're in Colorado! The massive, 750-foot tall mountains of breezy sand are perfect for climbing up and sledding down. The park also has a river that you can tube in, and offers primo stargazing.
Carlsbad Caverns is an incredible stop for any National Parks fan. From the controversial Underground Lunchroom, where you can mail a letter from 750 feet below the Earth, to the switchbacks that you can hike down into the cave itself, to the tours and guided walks, to the historic district above ground, you can easily spend a few full days exploring the history, geology, and sheer wonder of this special park.
Big Bend National Park is very hot, very remote, and very beautiful. It's one of the least-visited parks, which means you'll have the trails, like the ones to The Window, Cattail Falls, the hot springs, and Balanced Rock all to yourself. And definitely plan to spend at least one night here... it's an International Dark Sky Park famed for its insane stargazing!
Sandwiching the city of Tucson, AZ, is Saguaro National Park, named for the cactus species that grows in abundance here. Saguaros only can grow in a very limited habitat, and you won't find any better views of this famed cactus than here at the park. They can grow to be 20 feet tall and more than 100 years old... proof that life can thrive in the harsh desert climate.
Petrified Forest National Park might be the smallest National Park, but it protects a one-of-a-kind sight: a forest of sparkly, gemstone logs in the middle of the Painted Desert! Petrified wood occurs when minerals replace the organic material in the wood, fossilizing it into stone. Take a day to explore the desert and examine these interesting specimens!
It's not hard to see why ancient Pueblo Indians built their settlement into the cliffs of Mesa Verde: The views are stunning. A visit here gives you the chance to walk in the footsteps of the Pueblo people. The park features several complexes, some that you can visit on your own and others that you must visit on a guided tour. It's also worth it to take a drive through the park and see the structures from a distance; it's incredible that the Pueblo people were able to build such homes into the side of a cliff, and that the buildings have lasted so long!
A favorite of adrenaline junkies and outdoor enthusiasts, Canyonlands National Park is filled with heart-stopping activities and beauty. Native American ruins, hidden canyons, sandstone hoodoos, and more can keep even the most extreme adventurer's pulse up. The park also features some intense scenic drives, for those who want a thrill without getting too physical.
From its Wild West history (Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch roamed the park) to its stunning red rocks, Capitol Reef might not be Utah's most famous National Park, but it's still pretty rad. Hike through the striking desert landscape, and take in the unique views and history of this fascinating and lovely park.
One of the most underrated National Parks in the country, Great Basin National Park definitely doesn't seem like the kind of place you'd stumble upon in the middle of Nevada. Glacier-capped mountain peaks, stands of ancient pines, serene lakes, and dark caves make Great Basin a park that can provide days of outdoor entertainment.
Of course, no Great American Road Trip is complete without a stop at the Grand Canyon. Words really can't describe the overwhelming feeling of seeing the massive, deep, twisting, and colorful canyons carved into the Earth. Less crowded than the South Rim, the park's North Rim offers equally impressive views, the Bright Angel Trailhead, and a nice visitor center. Come at sunset or sunrise for extra mind-blowing scenery.
The hottest, driest, and lowest place in the country is also a stunning National Park. Death Valley National Park might seem like a barren wasteland at first, but one only needs to read about the strange sailing stones of Racetrack Playa, the odd salt flats of Badwater Basin, the singing sand of Eureka Dunes, and the views from Zabriskie Point to realize that it's actually teeming with things to see and do. Just remember to pack plenty of water and sunblock.
Home to gnarled Joshua trees, enchantingly strange rock formations, and endless desert views, Joshua Tree National Park is probably one of America's quirkiest parks. It's a perfect spot for boulder scrambling, rock climbing, and hiking. Also, some of the most scenic campsites in the country can be found here, and the park's SoCal location puts it near all kinds of roadside attractions worth visiting.
Everything at Sequoia National Park is over the top... it's home to the tallest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, and the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree. The majority of the park is backcountry wilderness, but there are several trails and groves of trees that are easy to access. Moro Rock, the Crystal Cave, the tunnel tree, and, of course, Crescent Meadow, called "the gem of the Sierra" by John Muir himself, are all absolutely worth visiting here.
Set adjacent to Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon is home to some rugged Sierra Nevada landscapes and (of course) massive sequoia trees. Nestled within the glacial valley is the roaring, crystal clear Kings River, soaring cliffs, lush stands of trees, and boundless wilderness waiting to be explored.
Yosemite National Park is almost too beautiful to be true, and once you reach Glacier Point or the Tunnel View Overlook and see the views into the valley, you still might not believe that it's all real. From Half Dome and El Capitan to the many waterfalls and stands of trees, the landscape of this Sierra Nevada wonderland is one of the country's most iconic parks.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a science enthusiast's dream come true. The many geothermal features in addition to the fact that it's home to all four kinds of volcano (shield, lava dome, cinder cone, and composite, also known as stratovolcanoes) mean that there's tons to learn about and observe here. See geothermal power at work in the steaming geysers, bubbling mudpots, and strangely pigmented features across the park.
For a more serene experience, head to Northern California's Redwood National Park. Home to stands of massive, stately redwood trees, the forests here are unlike anything anywhere else in the world. Trails take you through mossy, fern-covered woodland and past some of the country's tallest and thickest trees.
Crater Lake National Park is a very unique place. The calm waters of the deep, clear lake hide an explosive past: The lake is actually a filled in volcanic crater, left behind from a violent eruption. Drive around the rim of the lake for ever-changing and beautiful views of the landscape, or take a boat ride out to Wizard Island to experience what it's like right in the middle of it all.
The mountains of Washington state are a beautiful sight to behold. At Mount Rainier National Park, hike among alpine forests, fields of wildflowers, and glacier-studded mountains. Even if climbing mountains isn't your thing, you can visit the bubbling Christine Falls and Ohanapecosh forest and enjoy the Pacific Northwest's beauty.
Olympic National Park is another Pacific Northwest gem. Drive along Hurricane Ridge for sweeping panoramas of the Olympic Mountains; head to Ruby Beach to walk along the shore and explore the coves, seastacks, and tidepools; or hike into the lush Hoh Rainforest on the Hall of Mosses Trail. There's so much beauty in such a small area here!
You can never experience too much mountain beauty; every few feet you can see different view more stunning than the last. North Cascades National Park is no exception. Jagged peaks crowned with glaciers and verdant valleys filled with pine trees and flowers provide a landscape that's simultaneously serene and exhilarating.
Glacier is often called the "Crown Jewel of the Continent", so it makes for a great spot to end your trip. Bright blue lakes made of glacial melt, soaring snowcapped mountains, alpine valleys filled with stands of evergreens and wildflowers, adorable bighorn sheep, forests loaded with huckleberry bushes ripe for the picking, lush waterfalls, and adorable Swiss Alps-inspired lodges where you can unwind. Even after all of the amazing parks you've seen, driving Going-to-the-Sun Road will remain one of the top most memorable experiences!
Each National Park provides its own unique American landscape and its own unique view of the United States. America is truly a melting pot of different landscapes and different cultures, and it's part of what makes America such an exciting, road-trip-worthy place!
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