6 Scenic Road Trips Through U.S. National Parks

Motor along unforgettable scenery on these 6 drives through national parks in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, Wyoming, Oregon and Tennessee.

Highway through the Painted Desert in Arizona

by NEA Member Benefits

Aug 04, 2021

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Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

Once the school year is underway and temperatures start to lower, you might be considering a quick road trip to take a break and soak in the season’s beauty. And what better place to do it then inside a National Park? The U.S.’s National Parks are home to some of the most stunning natural scenery, and those with forests and tree lines begin to glow red, orange, yellow and brown come autumn. Plus, fall is an ideal time to avoid crowds and find airfare and hotel deals since it’s the off season.

For your next fall foliage trip, get inspired by six can’t-miss scenic drives through some of our nation’s beloved national parks, and when you’re planning your trip, be sure to use your NEA membership benefits to find deals on rental cars, lodging and plane tickets.

1. Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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. A good stopping point along the way is the Alpine Visitor Center, which is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park system. It is typically open May to October. 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.

NEA member travel benefits: The closest airport to fly into is Denver International Airport (DEN), about 80 miles away. Check NEA Travel’s portal for the best prices on airfare. You’ll also find great car rental deals there. Check the hotels page to find fall deals like a cute cabin at Columbine Cabins for around $88 per night or at the rustic Gateway Inn for around $117 per night.

Plan your itinerary: Rocky Mountain National Park | Trail Ridge Road | Colorado Tourism

2. Park Loop Road, Acadia National Park, Maine

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 on the East Coast. 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.

NEA member travel benefits: Getting to Acadia National Park requires a flight in Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) and then a quick flight to Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport (BHB). Check NEA Travel’s portal for the best airfare deals. Visit the hotels page next to book your accommodations in Bar Harbor. The White Birches Motel averages $97 a night or try the Holiday Inn Resort Bar Harbor – Acadia Natl Park, which averages $193 a night and has a pool.

Plan your itinerary: Acadia National Park | Park Loop Road | Visit Bar Harbor | Visit Maine

3. Painted Desert Drive, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Unexpected color astounds visitors to this national park east of Flagstaff, Arizona. Oranges, blues and ochre 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 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.

NEA member travel benefits: Whether you fly into Flagstaff Pullman Airport (FLG), Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) or Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), it will require a drive of well over 100 miles to get to Petrified Forest. Check NEA Travel’s portal for the best deals on airfare and car rentals. Click on the hotels page to find the best deals on hotels in Holbrook, the closest town of significant size, about 20 miles from the park. For an average of $86/night, you can book a room at the Best Western Arizonian Inn, or for $76/per night you can stay at Lexington Inn Holbrook, which both have pools.

Plan your itinerary: Petrified Forest National Park | Painted Desert Inn | Visit Arizona

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.

NEA member travel benefits: Visit NEA Travel’s portal for the best deals on flights to Jackson Hole Airport (JAC). You’ll want to stay in or near Jackson, so visit the hotels page on NEA Travel’s portal for the best prices. For an average of $203/night, you can book a room at the Antler Inn just outside Jackson and about 5 miles from the park, or for $109/night you can stay at the charmingly rustic Teton Valley Resort, a bit further outside of town with glamping and cabin options. If you want to splurge a bit and be right in town, book a room at the boutique Anvil Hotel, with averages starting from $219/night.

Plan your itinerary: Grand Teton National Park | Grand Teton National Park Roads | Travel Wyoming

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. 

NEA member travel benefits: The closest major airport is Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport (MFR), which is about 70 miles away. Portland Internatioal Airport (PDX) is 289 miles away from Crater Lake. Head to NEA Travel’s portal to find the best deals on fall airfare and car rentals. There is very limited lodging close to the park but Medford, about 65 miles away from the southern entrance, has affordable options. Visit the hotels page on NEA Travel’s portal for deals like an average of $58 per night at Ramada Hotel & Conference Center by Wyndham Medford and $129 per night at Rogue Regency Inn and Suites. For a boutique option, try McCall House Boutique Inn, which averages $174 per night.

Plan your itinerary: Crater Lake National Park | Rim Drive | Visit Oregon

6. Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains is the country’s most-visited national park and it’s also the largest in the eastern part of the U.S. The atmospheric morning mist often seen around the mountains gave them their name, and the park is filled with waterfalls, streams, a variety of native plants and wildlife, 800 miles of hiking trails, and nearly 100 historic structures. There is also more than 270 miles of road, and while the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is one of the most visited areas of the park (so be prepared for traffic at times), it’s an ideal way to ogle kaleidoscopic fall colors and spot some of the park’s animal inhabitants, like black bears, foxes, elk and wild turkeys.

Be sure to hop out of the car at points to visit some of the area’s historic structures, which mostly date between 1818 and 1821 and include three churches, several log homes, cantilevered barns and Cable Mill, a working grist mill. Cable Mill is near the Visitor’s Center, which is around the halfway point, and there are also indoor and outdoor exhibits as well as other historic structures nearby. Note that on Wednesdays during summer 2021, Cades Cove Loop is closed to vehicles and only walking or cycling is permitted.

NEA member travel benefits: Fly into McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) just south of Knoxville to be closest to the park. Check NEA Travel’s portal to find the hottest airfare deals. Most people stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge to be closest to the park. Click on the hotels page on NEA Travel’s portal for an average rate of $89/night at Wild Bear Inn, $112/night at Clarion Pointe Downtown Gatlinburg and $179/night at Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Pigeon Forge.

Plan your itinerary: Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Cades Cove | Tennessee Department of Tourism

Plan your next road trip today