10 Eye-Popping Road Trips with Scenic Drives at U.S. National Parks
Like the Louvre and Rihanna, U.S. national parks reward various levels of engagement, whether that means hitting the highlights or delving for deep cuts. You don’t have to rough it in the backcountry to appreciate places like Yellowstone (pictured) and the Great Smoky Mountains—the parks’ best scenic roadways make it possible to see forests, mountains, waterfalls, and wildlife from car windows.
For travelers without the time, inclination, or ability to go traipsing into the wilderness, we’ve gathered some of the most spectacular drives in the American national park system. We’ve also recommended some noteworthy stops and short, manageable, well-marked hikes along the way. As Rihanna would say, let’s shut up and drive.
Click here to read about more unforgettable road trips across the United States.
Heady views and heady elevations accompany a drive along Tioga Road, the highest-altitude segment of California’s state highway system. The 46-mile journey cuts through the mountainous middle of Yosemite National Park, from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet above sea level. The curvy, two-lane road links the eastern side of the park with the high desert and old mining towns of Mono County. The route is usually closed from November to late May depending on how heavy the Sierra Nevada snowfall has been, but warmer weather brings alpine scenes of picnics next to crystal-clear Tenaya Lake and a carpet of blooming wildflowers at Tuolumne Meadows. Stop at Olmsted Point for a vista encompassing pine forests, lakes, and the northern side of Half Dome, one of the park’s famed granite monoliths.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/yose.
Shenandoah National Park’s main artery is aptly named. Running along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive is exactly that: a 105-mile drive on a line in the sky that divides the Shenandoah Valley on one side and the rolling hills of the Piedmont region on the other. Ideal for stopping often and taking things easy, the north-south route has around 70 overlooks for admiring the mountains and leafy scenery. Most of the park’s hiking paths, including access points to the Appalachian Trail, start from Skyline Drive, too. Depending on the time of year, motorists are treated to roadside displays of pink azaleas, golden fall foliage, or, if you’re lucky, black bears lumbering across the asphalt.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/shen.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the national parks' best routes, crams an embarrassment of scenic riches into its 50 miles bisecting northern Montana’s Glacier National Park. Winding alongside the screensaver-worthy St. Mary Lake, cars climb past cedar forests, mountain peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls (one of which spills right onto the road) before crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, a favored haunt of mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Due to the region’s heavy snowfall during a large portion of the year, the road is only open for a brief annual window—typically late June to mid-October, depending on weather conditions. Pity the souls tasked with plowing the drive’s hairpin turns and towering snowdrifts come springtime.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/glac.
There’s no better introduction to Acadia National Park than the Park Loop Road—which is why it’s usually congested in the summer months (for smaller crowds, do the drive early or late in the day, or save it for autumn). From spruce- and fir-capped ridges over the town of Bar Harbor, the 27-mile roadway meanders through eastern Mount Desert Island, eventually descending to a rocky coastline abutting the slate-blue Atlantic. Many of the park’s most deservedly popular stops are situated along the way, including Sand Beach, the rocky seaside crash-boom phenomenon known as Thunder Hole, and the 110-foot-tall, pink granite Otter Cliff headland. You can take a detour to mighty Cadillac Mountain from the Park Loop Road as well, and plenty of easily accessible towns will keep you supplied and satisfied.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/acad.
To experience an often-forgotten corner of Yellowstone National Park, leave the busy Grand Loop Road at Tower Junction and head for the park’s northeast entrance on the Wyoming-Montana border (if you plan to use that gate, check ahead to see if it's open). You’ll quickly enter the Lamar Valley (pictured), known for its abundant wildlife-spotting opportunities. Elk, bison, and bears often gather here, along with the wolves that were successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s. Farther along, you’ll come to the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch, where an earlier preservation effort helped restore the park’s dwindling bison herd. Then it’s onto views of 10,000-foot-tall peaks and, beyond the park’s gates, more alpine meadows, sparkling lakes, and Rocky Mountain highs along Montana’s Beartooth Highway.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/yell.
As they do at Shenandoah, a lot of the 11 million visitors who pass through Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a typical year see the misty Appalachian landscape from their cars. In the busy summer months, get a breather from clogged roadways such as Newfound Gap Road and the Cades Cove Loop Road by hitting the heavily forested Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Though only 5.5 miles long, the narrow one-way loop encompasses much of what the Smokies are known for: rushing mountain streams, primeval woodlands, and old-timey farmsteads with log cabins and gristmills. Hiking trails branch off to waterfalls, and at least one cascade, the Place of a Thousand Drips, can be spied from the car. Once your hankering for natural beauty is satiated, the down-home thrills and Tennessee barbecue of Dollywood are just 17 miles north.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/grsm.
Of Utah’s five national parks, Arches is the most drivable and the easiest to see in a single day—and when the weather is hot, inside a car is the perfect place to be. The main road shoots up the middle of the park, through a fiery desertscape of more than 2,000 red and orange sandstone formations shaped like giant archways, towers, and Martian skyscrapers. If you only stop for one hike, we recommend the Devils Garden Trail, which shows off around 20 unique arches, including the park’s longest span, Landscape Arch. With more time, head south from Arches and through the city of Moab to reach nearby Canyonlands National Park, though its remoter mesas and buttes are best appreciated on wilderness hikes.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/arch.
Pictured above: Delicate Arch
One of the most out-of-the-way expanses of federal land in the continental U.S. is Big Bend National Park in far southwest Texas. Big Bend covers the Chisos Mountains, a chunk of scrubby Chihuahuan Desert, and several abandoned human settlements. In its 30 miles, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive acquaints visitors with many of the park's significant sights, stringing together commanding viewpoints of the desert floor, ashy cliffs, and deep canyons carved by rivers. The Rio Grande is responsible for the park’s most spectacular landmark: Santa Elena Canyon (pictured), a narrow limestone chasm with 1,500-foot-tall cliffs straddling the Mexican border. From there, you can turn onto the 14-mile Old Maverick Road, which rangers call "an improved dirt road"—talk about getting off the beaten path—for a bumpy ride to the park’s western entrance. Before setting off down that gravel byway, ask a ranger if your car can handle it. Most cars can, but there are occasional washes that challenge low-clearance vehicles.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/bibe.
The highest paved road in the United States climbs to a head-spinning elevation of 12,183 feet during its 48-mile route between the town of Estes Park on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Lake on the west. After ascending through pine forests, drivers continue above the tree line into the windy alpine tundra, where showstopping overlooks like Rainbow Curve present high-altitude panoramas combining imposing peaks, the Colorado River threading through the Kawuneeche Valley, and endless sky. Trail Ridge Road also crosses the Continental Divide (at Milner Pass) and supplies good chances for glimpsing elk and bighorn sheep. The roadway is closed in winter due to snow.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/romo.
Visiting multifaceted Olympic National Park is like smushing several outdoorsy adventures into one. Glacier-capped mountains, lush rainforests, and sandy beaches can all be found on the overachieving Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. The Pacific Northwest’s famed Highway 101 circles the entire park, but if you don’t have time to drive the whole 300-mile loop, you can still get a good daylong overview of the park’s diversity by focusing on the northern area near the towns of Port Angeles and Forks, which are about 56 miles apart. Make inland detours for hiking in the Olympic Mountains at Hurricane Ridge (a popular ski area in winter) and the mossy Hoh Rain Forest (pictured) before reaching Rialto Beach in time for a Pacific Coast sunset.
To plan your trip: Visit nps.gov/olym.