Ready for a road trip? Here are five can’t-miss scenic drives through our national parks.
This 48-mile drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake climbs over the Continental Divide as it traverses Rocky Mountain National Park. Topping out at 12,183 feet, it offers rare access to a high-alpine tundra environment usually experienced only by mountaineers. Midway along the drive, the Alpine Visitor Center hosts exhibits. Nearby trails lead through fragile tundra dotted with tiny wildflowers.
After cresting the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, Trail Ridge Road makes a twisting descent westward toward the Kawuneeche Valley. Trails lead to the gold-mining ghost town of Lulu City and a young Colorado River, here just a mountain stream of snowmelt flowing down from the Never Summer Range. Herds of elk often browse in the broad valley near the park’s Grand Lake entrance.
Acadia National Park is a microcosm of Maine—with thick pine forests, rocky coves and ragged cliffs topped with lighthouses. The 27-mile Park Loop Road begins at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and encircles the park’s eastern half, leading to many of its most popular attractions. Atlantic surf booms into the rocky seams at Thunder Hole. A mile south, low tide at Otter Point reveals tide pools brimming with sea urchins, crabs and other aquatic life.
Few visitors can resist the 3.5-mile spur that twists up Cadillac Mountain, the highest point along the east coast of the U.S. Arrive at the summit’s granite dome before dawn, and you’ll be the first in the nation to see the sunrise. (Early in the day is the best way to avoid Park Loop Road’s summer crowds, too.) From your 1,530-foot-high perch, the coastal village of Bar Harbor spreads out below and the Porcupine Islands scatter across the Atlantic’s Frenchman Bay.
3. Painted Desert Drive, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Unexpected color astounds visitors to this national park east of Flagstaff. Oranges, blues and ochres stripe the desert landscape, scattered with the stone trunks of petrified trees that shine like jewels. The 28-mile Painted Desert Drive guides visitors past the park’s highlights and many short hiking trails. Just beyond the park’s southern entrance on US-180, the Long Logs Trail leads to the park’s greatest concentration of petrified wood, crystallized over the eons into colorful quartz.
Near the midpoint of the drive, conical hills of bluish clay create an otherworldly landscape that visitors can explore on the 1-mile Blue Mesa Loop Trail. The drive continues north, passing under Interstate 40 before arriving at the Painted Desert Inn. Built in 1924 as a park lodge, this National Historic Landmark today serves as a museum and venue for the park’s cultural demonstration programs. The interior features elegant murals of Native American life by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
4. Teton Park Road, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The peaks of the Teton Range rise precipitously from the flat valley floor of Jackson “hole,” a term 19th-century mountain men used to describe a deep mountain valley. You’ll get a magnificent look at the landscape on the 25-mile Teton Park Road. A few miles beyond the park’s Moran Entrance Station, the Oxbow Bend Turnout offers an imposing view of Mt. Moran, rising more than 6,000 feet above the valley floor.
Mountain lakes sparkle to the west as Teton Park Road meanders south among the high peaks. At North Jenny Lake Junction, a one-way route loops off Teton Park Road toward Jenny Lake Lodge. Trailheads lead hikers on routes that skirt the shorelines of Jenny, String and Leigh lakes, with 13,770-foot Grand Teton for a backdrop. The route rejoins Teton Park Road just north of the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. The main road continues south, where moose and other wildlife often frequent the creeks and wetlands near the park’s Moose Entrance Station.
5. Rim Drive, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
The nation’s deepest lake fills the collapsed crater of an ancient volcano to a depth of 1,932 feet. That impressive statistic is rivaled only by the lake’s brilliance, so pure it seems to glow an electric blue. The 33-mile Rim Drive that circles the lake offers countless views; follow it clockwise, so you can more easily pull off at the many overlooks. Most visitors begin at Rim Village, home to Crater Lake Lodge and the Steel Visitor Center.
As Rim Drive bends around Crater Lake’s north shore, the Cleetwood Trailhead marks the only trail in the park that leads down to the water’s edge. Farther along the drive, the Cloudcap Overlook provides excellent views of the entire lake, including the 700-foot-high hump of Wizard Island. A hiking trail scales Mt. Scott, the highest point in the park.