With more than four million miles of pavement on U.S. roads, travelers are faced with an abundance of scenic routes from sea to shining sea. And with 58 parks in the national park system, many of those roads zip straight through some of America’s finest landscapes. But which roads are the finest? We spent a summer driving across the country to find out.
These are the most drivable national parks in the U.S.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
The gates of Rocky Mountain National Park sit less than two hours from Denver, making this western 415-square-mile fortress one of the most accessible parks in the country. That shouldn’t deter travelers looking for unparalleled views, though, as Rocky Mountain serves up a surreal, arctic tundra atop America’s highest tarmac: Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road carries drivers 48 miles west from the city of Estes Park, across the continental divide and into the town of Grand Lake. At 12,183 feet, its highest point is often a swirling dreamscape of shifting clouds, spitting snow and wandering elk.
The most popular time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is during the elk rut from mid-September through mid-October, so plan accordingly. However, regardless of when you venture to Rocky Mountain National Park, the sky-high views are unrivaled.
There’s no stretch of American asphalt quite like Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. The perilous, 50-mile highway tattoos a path along the bones of North America’s geologic foundations, putting drivers face-to-face with death-defying views of a prehistoric glacial valley. The path here is precious, often opening only by June or July and remaining fully passable for just a few months, as the snow can pack back in by October.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is an unmissable experience; but travelers who want to ditch the crowds can leave the pavement for one of Glacier’s many loose gravel roads that dot their way through unblemished wilderness—and equally impressive views—near the outpost of Polebridge, Mont. (pictured), and the Canadian border.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You won’t escape the crowds in the Smokies, which are often open year-round thanks to their lower elevations and southern location on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. However, you’ll still find plenty of natural beauty cruising through the heart of one of America’s most ancient mountain ranges. Autumn views here, in particular, are hard to top.
Geologists say the Appalachian Mountains are at least four times older than the Rocky Mountains. These mountains have been aged like a fine, geologic wine, leaving travelers with sweeping panoramas of soft, rolling peaks that melt into the early morning fog and glowing afternoon sunsets.
4. Badlands National Park
Isolated from its nearest National Park neighbors by hundreds of miles, South Dakota’s Badlands National Park rewards travelers on Interstate 90 with an immense moonscape that’s easily accessible by car. For road warriors making a continental crossing of the U.S., the park’s surreal network of pinnacles, abundance of wildlife and roadside campsites make the Badlands a can’t-miss destination midway across America.
Home to temperate rainforests, glaciers and rocky Pacific Northwest coastline, Washington’s Olympic National Park serves up an unequalled array of diversity among U.S. parks. Tucked onto the lower 48’s westernmost coast on the Olympic Peninsula, this mega-park is easy to get turned around in.
Most visitors follow the famed U.S. Highway 101 towards rocky Ruby Beach before sidetracking up Hurricane Ridge Road for a treacherous, winding drive along its cliffs and unobstructed views of the Cascade Mountains at the road’s pinnacle. Olympic’s South Shore Road carries trail happy travelers to multiple trailheads for the Quinault Rainforest Trail, where a mystic, evergreen world awaits.
6. Yosemite National Park
A photographer’s paradise, California’s Yosemite National Park is renowned for first-class hiking and climbing in one of the most picturesque landscapes on Earth. Underrated, however, are the park’s roads, which ferry visitors to-and-from trailheads. The phenomenal Glacier Point Road puts drivers face-to-face with the iconic halfdome at Washburn Point and Glacier Point.
En route, drivers can pull off at Tunnel View, soaking in the sweeping views of Yosemite Valley that fueled Ansel Adams’ dreams, before driving across the spine of Sierra’s on the stunning engineering marvel that is the 9,943-foot Tioga Pass.
Pro tip: Avoid the crowds by making this drive at sunrise.
7. Bryce Canyon National Park
The most compact of Utah’s Big Five national parks at just 55 square miles, Bryce Canyon punches above its weight with an all-star caliber driving tour that carries travelers to scenic vista after scenic vista. Parking areas at Inspiration Point, Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Natural Bridge give quick and easy access to views that are sure to make your jaw drop.
Paired with a sublime mountainous drive up U.S. Highway 89 to the park’s entrance, Bryce Canyon earns a top 10 spot among drivable national parks.
8. Death Valley National Park
With radiator-busting temperatures, tire-puncturing rocks and a spare supply of gasoline, Death Valley is few people’s idea of a leisurely cruise. What the park is, however, is humbling. One hundred miles outside of Las Vegas, U.S. Highway 190 carries wary travelers under the shadow of the Funeral Mountains and into the heart of Death Valley. Here, the highway dances like an obsidian ribbon through the Martian landscape, making pit stops at Badwater Basin, the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
Those who survive the westward journey will soon find themselves in the relative oasis of Lone Pine, Calif., near the base of the Lower 48’s tallest peak, Mount Whitney.
Arches needs no introduction to park junkies. The 155-square-mile stretch bordering the Colorado River and Moab, Utah houses some 2,500 natural stone arches. Rookie visitors may be surprised to learn that many of those arches, including the storied Landscape and Turret arches, are clearly visible from the road. Rock formations like the Parade of Elephants, Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers also lie along Arches Scenic Drive, which beckons travelers off of U.S. 191 before carrying them on towards another member of Utah’s Big Five: Canyonlands.
10. Sequoia National Park
Rounding out our list in the southern reaches of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the narrow General’s Highway puts drivers under the shadows of the Giant Forest. This ancient grove of sequoia and redwood trees deep in the heart of Sequoia National Park dwarfs even the largest vehicles on the road. Here, drivers can feel the power of some the world’s largest trees right from their seat.
Hiking trails, however, abound from a parking lot at the Giant Forest Museum. From there, the stout of heart can make a trek through the Giant Forest and the Congress Trail towards the largest tree (by volume) in the world: the General Sherman Tree.