Road Trip: The Best Drives in the U.S. National Parks

By: Bridget Clerkin July 14, 2018
With views tumbling from a mile high to the Pacific Ocean beyond, roads like Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park are as good a reason as any to visit the National Parks.
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In 1839, an English professor named Katharine Lee Bates took a trip from the Massachusetts campus of Wellesley College to Colorado Springs for a guest lecturing role. Along her journey, the traveling teacher saw the hardscrabble northeast give way to mighty moving rivers, blossom into horizonless fields of swaying amber, and rise up to majestic heights.

Bates was so moved by what she had seen, and inspired by the view atop Pike’s Peak, that she took to writing down her thoughts on the trip. The resulting poem was published two years later, and was so instantly beloved, it was enshrined in a song: America the Beautiful.

The title may be simple, but it covers a broad range of truth.

America is home to some of the world’s most stunning and scenic lands, showcasing nearly every type of climate and full of rare and wonderful flora and fauna.

Fortunately, nearly 80 million acres of the country’s most pristine parcels have been preserved as national park land, with dedicated stewards watching over our precious shared inheritance to ensure the beauty and breathing room won’t be lost to future generations.

There are 59 national parks dotting the country, and all are worthy of a visit. But if you’re pressed for time, some are much more drivable than others and offer awe-inspiring experiences from behind the wheel.

Buckle up for a beautiful ride. 

Hurricane Ridge Road, Washington State

Though open only occasionally in the winter, Hurricane Ridge in Washington's Olympic National Park whisks you from temperate rainforest to snow-covered alpine beauty.

Part of Olympic National Park, this road is located 17 miles south of Port Angeles, Washington.

The stunning byway is full of hairpin turns, with gorgeous views around every corner, thanks in part to its lofty perspective. The road curves around the majestic Olympic Mountains at an altitude of 5,242 feet. From that height, drivers are treated to a variety of vistas, from glacier-capped mountains, to vibrant fields of wildflowers, to moss-draped old-growth forests.

Travelers can also take the thoroughfare to a number of trailheads, recreational hotspots, and camping locales within the park, or stop at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center for maps, snacks, and information.

But before departing for the drive, keep an eye on the weather—and the road’s website. The ridge is prone to ice and snow, and may be closed more frequently in winter months. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana

Shots of Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun road were plucked for scenery in the memorable, creepy intro to Stephen King's The Shining.

This 50-mile stretch through Glacier National Park may not actually leave Earth, but the views are out of this world.

Among its nearly countless vistas are a number of prime perches to view some of the pristine waterways the park is known for, including rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and—yes—glaciers, which feed into tributaries that flow to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. The importance of the area as the home of the headwaters feeding such diverse marine routes is what earned the park its nickname: The Crown of the Continent.

And its beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Going-to-the-Sun Road has made appearances in a number of films, including Blade Runner and The Shining, thanks in part to the death-defying engineering that went into its mountain-hugging design.

But the small-screen version could never compare to the experience of whipping around the road in real life.

Northeast Entrance Road, Wyoming

Share the road with massive bison through Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley on U.S. Route 212.

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What this road’s name lacks in creativity, its route makes up for in abject beauty.

The path—also technically the terminus of U.S. Route 212, the famed Beartooth Highway—marks one of the official access points to Yellowstone National Park. And visitors couldn’t ask for a better welcome.

The road winds through Wyoming’s Lamar Valley, a vast expanse of gentle green plains, sleepy brooks, and occasional far-off peaks. Watered by the Yellowstone River, the area makes for great natural grazing and is a known hotspot for wildlife, including some of the country’s most powerful indigenous fauna like bison, bears, wolves, elk, and pronghorn. (Binoculars are recommended for a more bountiful view—as well as morning drives, when the creatures are more likely to be out.)

The byway eventually leads to less-wild areas where you can safely leave your vehicle to take in the rest of the park’s natural wonders.

White Rim Road, Utah

White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park requires a permit and a four-wheel-drive vehicle to traverse, but is well worth the hassle.

This 100-mile loop offers a ruggedly gorgeous 360-degree view of Canyonlands National Park, home of strange sandstone structures and high desert scenes.

To take a turn on the road, drivers must secure a permit and use a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, and backcountry camping gear is recommended, as there are no recreational campgrounds along the route.

But the extra effort pays off in unique access to stunning stretches of land, like the park’s famed Island in the Sky mesa. Adventurous types can go off-roading further by bringing a mountain bike: White Rim Road offers access to some of the park’s most challenging bike paths, including the Shafer Trail, Lathrop Canyon Road, Murphy Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks. 

Still, the road offers thrills for those staying behind the wheel, with deep sand, steep dips, and rocky stretches to traverse through. Just proceed with caution—and make sure to check road conditions before leaving home.

Trail Ridge Road, Colorado

Soar through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, which takes visitors over North America's backbone range.

Covering 48 epic miles through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, this scenic byway is ensconced in the towering peaks, traveling between Estes Park and Grand Lake.

While the mountainous views of the road are monumental—and all-encompassing—the immediate environment it traverses has its own unique beauty, with windswept alpine meadows blanketing the area.

Sitting at points above the tree line, the route climbs to over 12,000 feet at its zenith, offering a bird’s-eye perspective on the tundra-like world resting between the rocky ranges. Keen-eyed visitors can often spot other wildlife from the vistas, including some of the park’s largest residents, like moose, big horn sheep, and elk.

The path also crosses the Milner Pass, a location of the Continental Divide, where the country’s eastward and westward flowing rivers are separated. But no matter which way you travel along the road, the direction leads to a beautiful American scene.

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