With 63 national parks and over 420 national park sites including monuments, lakeshores, and recreation areas — to name just a few! — it can be overwhelming just deciding where to visit first. After all, each one has something unique to offer!
Well, good news: there’s a wonderful way to see several parks in one shot, and that’s planning the ultimate national park road trip.
Regardless of which corner of the country you plan to visit or how much time you have, there are epic routes everywhere. Here, we’re highlighting our top five. Which national parks road trip itinerary will you tackle first?
Tips for Planning the Ultimate National Park Road Trip
In addition to planning out your actual national parks road trip itinerary, there are a few things that will help you get the most out of your trip.
Buy an America the Beautiful Pass, AKA an annual national parks pass. The $80-per-year pass pays for itself in just three park visits.
Keep in mind that several parks now require advance reservations, completely separate from having an annual pass. For example, in 2021, Glacier started accepting reservations for the summer back in April.
Dedicate at least one full day to each national park. For larger parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, set aside 2-3 days if at all possible.
National parks tend to be surrounded by spectacular national forests and other accessible public land. Consider bringing camping gear to save money on accommodations (and create some awesome memories!).
If your budget allows, rent a campervan for the ultimate national park road trip. Although it’s more pricey upfront, it combines the cost of your vehicle and accommodations. Some campervan rental companies, like Moterra, specialize exclusively in national park destinations.
National Parks Road Trip Itinerary, 5 Ways
1. East Coast
National parks included: Congaree, Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, New River Gorge, and Shenandoah
The Eastern Seaboard offers up some major bang for your buck when it comes to a national parks road trip itinerary. Five stunning parks are close enough to visit them all and different enough that you’ll want to do exactly that.
From scenic drives and water activities like fishing and kayaking to hiking and exploring the longest cave system in the entire world, this ultimate national park road trip on the east coast has a little something for everyone.
Oh, one more thing — take our word for it and visit in the fall if possible. The leaf-peeping in this section of the country is outstanding in late September and most of October.
Highlights for your east coast national parks road trip itinerary:
Hike iconic Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smokies
Drive the incredibly scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah
Tour Mammoth Caves (get tickets in advance; they sell out!)
Raised wooden boardwalk trails in Congaree
The catwalk of the New River Gorge Bridge
2. Utah’s Mighty Five
National parks included: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion
Utah is kind of the ultimate national park road trip destination in and of itself, with five heavy-hitting parks all within easy driving distance of one another.
Start in either the southwest corner of the state near Zion or over in Moab, then work your way across to hit all five parks, situated in a near-perfect line.
Zion and Bryce Canyon are close to each other at one end of the “line,” as are Arches and Canyonlands at the opposite end. Capitol Reef is almost dead-center, two hours from both Arches and Bryce Canyon.
Hiking is the main event on this particular national parks road trip itinerary, so you’ll definitely want to have a sturdy pair of boots, a good hiking backpack, and plenty of trail snacks.
Highlights for your Utah national parks road trip planner:
Delicate Arch hike in Arches at sunset
Canyonlands’ Mesa Arch at sunrise
Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon
Picking fruit from the public orchards in Capitol Reef
Zion’s Angels Landing...for those without a fear of heights!
3. Pacific Northwest
National parks included: Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood
If you’re looking for a national parks road trip itinerary that includes dramatic coastline, old-growth forests, snow-capped mountains, and actual rainforest, look no further than the PNW.
Regardless of whether you want to visit all five parks or just a couple, your best bet if you’re not driving your own vehicle is to fly into Seattle and rent a car. From Seattle, make a loop and visit the three Washington parks (Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier), then head south to Oregon.
In Oregon, head to Crater Lake National Park, home of the deepest lake in the U.S. If time allows, cross the border into California and visit Redwoods National and State Parks to gawk at some of the world’s largest trees.
Depending on your travel arrangements, consider cruising back up the Oregon coast and flying home out of Portland. The beaches and scenic drives here are unmatched and worthy of a road trip all on their own!
Highlights for your PNW ultimate national park road trip:
Walk through a real-life fairytale in Olympic’s magical Hoh Rainforest
Drive the scenic North Cascades Highway
Myrtle Falls in Mount Rainier
Drive or bicycle Rim Drive, completely encircling Crater Lake
Redwoods’ Fern Canyon and Stout Grove
National parks included: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain
Colorado is easily one of the most magnificent and diverse U.S. states. It’s got all those 14ers (a whopping 58, to be exact), beautiful mild weather, and gorgeous scenery ranging from the famous Rocky Mountains to steep red rock canyons and even sand dunes.
Best of all, you can experience a little of everything Colorado has to offer with a national parks road trip itinerary hitting its four major parks.
If you aren’t driving yourself, fly into either Denver or Durango. From either city, it’s easy to make one big loop and visit as many (or as few!) parks as you want.
Note that while you technically can take this Colorado ultimate national park road trip any time of year, it’s best to plan for summer or early fall to avoid seasonal road closures.
Highlights for your Colorado national parks road trip itinerary:
RMNP’s Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in America
Oak Flat Loop Trail in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Try sandboarding in Great Sand Dunes
Tour Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace
5. Northern Rockies
National parks included: Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone
You “only” hit three parks on this particular national parks road trip itinerary, but trust us, each one packs a tremendous punch. In all reality, you probably won’t have enough time to see and do everything you want to!
The hiking and backpacking are, of course, epic in all three parks, but so are the water activities, mountain biking, and — something a bit more unique to this part of the country — wildlife viewing. Seriously, don’t forget to pack a pair of binoculars...and bear spray.
Of all the ultimate national park road trips we’ve discussed, this one has arguably the most spectacular scenery along the entire route. It also has some of the most easily accessible public land, which means the camping opportunities are epic. If there’s one trip to splurge on a campervan for, this is it.
Highlights for your Montana and Wyoming ultimate national park road trip:
Hike the loop around Jenny Lake and take a short detour to Hidden Falls
Lamar Valley in Yellowstone for wildlife watching
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier
Also in Glacier, get a huckleberry bear claw from the Polebridge Mercantile (get there early!), then check out Bowman Lake
As you hammer out the details of your national parks road trip itinerary, don’t forget to commemorate it in a special way.
The Wander Club’s U.S. National Park Tokens help you highlight all the stops on your road trip, plus they make excellent gifts. We have tokens for every national park, plus you can have them engraved with the date you visited. Happy road tripping!