Article Overview: Best National Park Road Trips
Planning a National Park Road Trip, Are We?
If you’re planning an epic national parks road trip I can assure you, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve spent the past decade in the national parks and have done just about every national park road trip imaginable.
There’s just nothing quite like that feeling of hitting the old open road, music on, windows down, breathing in that fresh air, without a care in the world.
From the southwest national park road trip to the California parks road trip, east coast national park road trip, southeast national park road trip, and more.
Of all the national park road trips out there, one scratches the soul of every national park fan… the granddaddy of them all some would say. Seeing all 63 national parks in a single swing.
The “ultimate” national park road trip doesn’t have to mean seeing them all however. We’ve included quite a few potential routes in here – one of them is bound to suit your fancy.
In this article I’ll cover everything you need to know for your national parks road trip.
Now, in the words of Andy Dufresne (Shawshank Redemption), “if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further…”
US National Parks List & Map
Check out our Complete List of National Parks with comprehensive resources for each one including FREE National Parks Maps, best hikes & trails, interesting facts, amazing things to do, & more.
National Parks Road Trips
I’ve included the basics at the top of the article and the more detailed stuff for the discerning road tripper after our list of the best road trips toward the bottom.
Table of Contents: Best National Park Road Trips
Best National Park Road Trips
- Planning a National Park Road Trip, Are We?
- National Parks Road Trips
- Deciding Where to Go & Which Parks to See
- Mapping Out Your National Parks Road Trip (Creating a Road Trip Map)
- Tips for Creating a National Parks Road Trip Map
- How Long Will the Road Trip Take & How Much Time Do I Need?
- Top 5 Best National Parks Road Trips
- 1. Utah National Parks Road Trip
- Utah National Parks Road Trip Route
- Utah National Park Road Trip Highlights
- 2. California National Parks Road Trip
- California National Parks Road Trip Highlights
- 3. See Every National Park Road Trip (ALL 63!)
- See Every National Park Road Trip Map
- 4. East Coast National Parks Road Trip + Virgin Islands
- 5. Southwest National Parks Road Trip | Texas, Colorado, Utah, & Arizona
- Top 10 Best National Parks Road Trips
- 6. California & Pacific National Parks Road Trip
- 7. Pacific Northwest National Parks Road Trip
- 8. Alaska National Parks Road Trip
- 8. Glacier, Yellowstone, & Grand Teton National Parks Road Trip
- 9. Great Plains National Parks Road Trip
- 10. Great Lakes National Parks Road Trip
- 11. Grand Circle National Parks Road Trip
- National Parks Road Trip Planning Tips
- Choosing a Starting Point
- Getting the Best Price for Rental Car + Airfare
- Choosing the Right Lodging Options
- Camping on a National Parks Road Trip
- Road Trip Food Planning
- Road Trip Groceries
- Fueling Up – National Parks Road Trip
- Planning a National Park Road Trip – Budget
- Flexibility Is The Key To A Happy Road Trip
- National Parks Road Trip Map (ALL 63)
- National Park Road Trips List
Deciding Where to Go & Which Parks to See
Step 1 of planning a national park road trip is deciding where to go and what parks to see. Are you in the mood for the desert? Maybe a Utah or southwest road trip is right for you. Or maybe you’re thinking something a bit greener, like a Pacific Northwest national parks trip.
We recommend making your decision around either a singular must see destination (“I’ve got to see Yellowstone!”) or a type of scenery (“I’m dying to see red rock country”). Having one of these in mind will help shape the rest of your trip.
Finally, check for closures on the official nps.gov website for the parks you want to visit. Rock slides, down trees, in-climate weather, broken elevators, government shutdowns, active lava flows, global pandemics, and especially wildfires are just some of the things that lead to favorite parks and trails closing.
Best to check ahead of time and save yourself the disappointment.
Mapping Out Your National Parks Road Trip (Creating a Road Trip Map)
One of the most fun parts of planning a national park road trip (at least for us anyway) is plotting it all out on a map. Seeing all those little points come together and the significance of each one gets us every time.
There’s just nothing like the feeling of seeing the map points come to life when you finally arrive.
Best National Parks Road Trip Map Tool
We always use google maps for this as the interface is hard to beat. However, they do currently have a 10 destination limit on the regular one.
If you want/need to add more points to your map than the 10 destination limit, google also has a “my maps” tool which is free and even savable right to your google account.
We’ve ranked the 15 BEST Road Trip Planning Tools if you’re looking for more!
Tips for Creating a National Parks Road Trip Map
- Try changing the order of the destinations. We find that often time what might seem the most logical route to us, in fact is not. Changing the order of your map points around can (and has for us) save you precious hours of drive time in between destinations
- It’s easy to get carried away adding pins to the map (we do this every time). “What’s an extra 5 hours on the trip of a lifetime!” or “When are we ever going to be out that way again?” can be dangerous questions that lead to trip stress. We recommend spending taking a good hard look at your map and eliminating extra time draining stops. You’d probably rather spend an extra few hours soaking in grand canyon views than fighting over bathroom stops with the back seat.
- Check the drive times between stops and determine approximately what time you will be arriving at each destination. Say you’ve always wanted to see a sunrise at Bryce Canyon, but you don’t calculate your drive and you end up getting there at 9am instead of the sunrise you always dreamed of. Not an ideal situation. This part can be a bit cumbersome but is well worth the effort.
How Long Will the Road Trip Take & How Much Time Do I Need?
Next step is determining how much time you have vs how much you “need”. On average, we recommend allowing for at least 1-2 days per park on your trip.
That means if you’ve got a week (5-7 days) to do your road trip, the most parks you should include is probably 5.
You want to be able to give yourself time to appreciate and enjoy each destination and not feel rushed.
National Parks Road Trips FAQ
A road trip through all the national parks would take at least 6 months going at a very fast pace. If you have the time and resources a 10-12 month trip would be more ideal.
The most popular national parks road trip is the Utah National Parks Road Trip which goes through all 5 Utah national parks.
Top 5 Best National Parks Road Trips
1. Utah National Parks Road Trip
Total Drive Time: 15hrs
Recommended Trip Time: 5-7 days
Utah National Park Road Trip Overview
Utah is home to one of the all-time most popular national park road trips out there. This route is a round trip that starts in Salt Lake City and takes you through the heart of red rock country. Featuring the five stunning Utah national parks, this road trip is hard to beat!
If this is the road trip for you be sure to check out our detailed article: 8 Day Utah National Parks Road Trip of a Lifetime
Destinations: Utah National Parks (All Five)
- Arches National Park (3.5hrs from SLC)
- Canyonlands National Park (30mins from Arches)
- Capitol Reef National Park (3hrs from Canyonlands)
- Bryce Canyon National Park (2hrs from Capitol Reef)
- Zion National Park (1.5hrs from Bryce)
Utah National Park Road Trip Map
Utah National Parks Road Trip Route
Salt Lake City to Moab (3.5hrs) > Moab to Capitol Reef (3hrs)
This route is a basic loop with a terminus in Salt Lake City and a first stop of the Moab parks (Arches & Canyonlands). After Arches & Canyonlands you’ll drive back the way you came (boring, I know but trust me, it’s worth it) and head on to Capitol Reef National Park. The route to Capitol Reef is pretty cool, especially as you get closer to the park itself.
Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon (2hrs)
From Capitol Reef we recommend you take the scenic route, Utah’s Hwy 12 which is one of the most spectacular highways in America. This drive is one of the absolute highlights of the trip and is not to be missed but it is not the natural way your GPS will route you. Be sure to add Escalante, Utah as a pin to your route or risk missing this stunner.
Bryce Canyon to Zion (1.5hrs)
From Bryce Canyon the drive continues through the Dixie National Forest (which is well worth the visit in its own right – a fraction of the visitors and equally stunning scenery) and the beautiful Red Canyon area to the east entrance of Zion National Park.
Zion National Park Drive (1.5hrs)
Upon entering the east entrance of Zion via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway the scenery changes drastically in a wonderful way. Watch out for Bighorn sheep as you near the third tunnel! After passing through this tunnel visitors are given their first look at the epic canyons of Zion.
Zion to Salt Lake City (4.5hrs)
After exiting Zion, jump onto I-15 and make tracks to Salt Lake City! Along the way there’s another Zion entrance that you should definitely check out if you’ve got an extra hour or so called Kolob Canyon. Its a jaw-dropper and totally worth the time if you’ve got it (did I mention no crowds?).
Utah National Park Road Trip Highlights
Arches National Park Road Trip
- Delicate Arch is on the Utah license plate for a reason. This arch is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful natural arches on the planet and is much bigger in person than in photos (at least we thought so!)
- Landscape Arch/Devils Garden Trail Behold, Landscape Arch is the longest arch in the world at over 300ft and by the look of it, seems like it could collapse any day which is why folks are no longer allowed to walk under it.
- Sand Dune Arch Take off your sandals and walk barefoot about a quarter of a mile through sandstone corridors to reach this beautiful arch.
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Arches National Park.
Canyonlands National Park Road Trip
- Mesa Arch is one of the most heavily photographed spots in the entire national park system. Get there for sunrise and you won’t be sorry (except for the crowds).
- Shafer Canyon 4WD Road is a world class four-wheel adventure featuring spectacular views and all the solitude you could hope for.
Capitol Reef National Park Road Trip
- Hickman Bridge is a beautiful natural bridge at the end of a short and rewarding trail.
- Grand Wash is a great and flat hike that follows a dry wash through a steep canyon.
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Capitol Reef National Park.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Road Trip Through Utah
- Wall Street Trail is one of my personal all time favorite trails in the national parks. The trail descends steeply down mesmerizing switchbacks into a golden tunnel of light up through which ancient pines ascend toward the sky.
- Inspiration Point Sunrise is one of the best places to see a sunrise in Utah and typically not very crowded as there is a nearby spot called “Sunrise Point” which seems to have folks fooled.
Zion National Park: Mighty Five Road Trip
- Angels Landing is the first of two main hikes in the canyon and features a steep ascent, switchbacks, a chain link railing to hold onto for dear life, and breathtaking views of Zion Canyon.
- The Narrows is the other of two major hikes everyone wants to do at Zion and features a watery walk through a breathtaking canyon. Get in line as early as possible.
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Zion National Park.
Alternate Utah Road Trip Routes
- The shortest route for this road trip starts and ends in Salt Lake City. However, starting & ending in Las Vegas is another great option and sometimes is cheaper depending on flights/rental cars.
- Another potential option worth considering is starting in either Salt Lake City & ending in Las Vegas or vice versa. This is the shortest route by 2 hours but can result in a significant increase in price due to flights & rental car.
2. California National Parks Road Trip
Drive Time: 36hrs
Recommended Trip Time: 8-14 days
California National Parks Road Trip Overview
Everyone has dreamed of the ultimate California road trip at some point in their lives. Cruising down the 101 with the top down, gazing out to see from the world’s most beautiful coastline, with not a care in the world. Well, imagine all that but way, way better.
In this road trip, not only do you get to see some California coastline but every single one of California’s 9 epic national parks.
We’re talking things like the hottest place on earth, tallest trees in the world, largest trees in the world (different park), the grandest natural cathedral on the planet, California’s own Yellowstone, and so much more.
Destinations: California National Parks (All Nine!)
- Death Valley National Park (2hrs from Las Vegas)
- Joshua Tree National Park (4.5hrs from Death Valley)
- Channel Islands National Park (3.5hrs from Joshua Tree)
- Sequoia National Park (5hrs from Channel Islands)
- Kings Canyon National Park (45mins from Sequoia)
- Yosemite National Park (3hrs from Kings Canyon)
- Pinnacles National Park (3.5hrs from Yosemite)
- Lassen Volcanic National Park (6.5hrs from Yosemite, woof)
- Redwood National Park (5hrs from Lassen – really 3.5hrs until you get to the first part though)
California National Parks Road Trip Map
Summary | California Road Trip Route
This route might look a bit wild (ok, really wild) but it’s actually the fastest route through the parks and is absolutely gorgeous.
For this trip we recommend starting in Las Vegas (usually great rental & flight prices) with a first stop of Death Valley National Park and final stop of Redwood National Park before flying out of Crescent City.
Logistically this is tricky (and pricey) with flights and the rental car but worth it if you can split between friends or splurge.
Las Vegas to Death Valley (2hrs)
Believe it or not Las Vegas is the closest major city to Death Valley National Park. A fast and hot drive takes you into the park through Death Valley Junction. If you’ve got some extra time I highly recommend a stop at Ash Meadows wildlife refuge where you can see the endemic pupfish, shockingly crystal blue waters, and Devils Hole (google it).
Death Valley Drive (1.5hrs with no route additions, boo)
If you choose to not see the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin – just an extra 40mins round trip, come on)
…or the kaleidoscopic colored hills of Artists Palette (just 60mins more round trip) or Ubehebe Crater (extra 1.5hrs round trip)
…or Eureka Dunes (requires 4WD – just 5hrs extra round trip), and so much more, then you can make it through the park in an hour and a half. But what’s the fun in that?
It’s actually a lot of fun with great stops including (in order) Zabriskie Point (spectacular view of the valley), Furnace Creek (hottest place on the planet), Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (most popular dune field in the park), Darwin Falls (a year-round waterfall in Death Valley), and more.
With that being said, it’s very easy to lose track of time in Death Valley (unless it’s summer and you’re flying through to stay alive) so be sure to plan accordingly!
Death Valley to Joshua Tree (4.5hrs)
Might seem wild to do the drive this way but it’s the fastest route. Doing Joshua Tree before Death Valley adds 2 hours and doing Sequoia & Kings Canyon before Joshua Tree & Channel Islands adds 3hrs.
One cool possible addition here is adding Whitney Portal & Alabama Hills to your route which adds 3 hours round trip and some Swiss Alps type scenery – your call. We feel like the drive to Joshua Tree is one of the less scenic parts of this road trip so buckle in and crank up the tunes.
Joshua Tree to Channel Islands (5hrs through the park)
This drive is a fun one (so long as you don’t run into infamous LA Traffic) as it takes you through Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Malibu (with a 30 minute detour).
Soak it in and enjoy. Have some good zen music in case you get caught in traffic. Once you arrive you’ll have to park the car and take the ferry (or fly) over the islands.
Channel Islands to Sequoia & Kings Canyon (5hrs)
Once you leave the coast the overall scenery declines in a hurry. While Bakersfield isn’t known for it’s scenic beauty a lot of the country’s citrus fruit comes from this region.
Upon approaching Three Rivers the scenery dramatically improves as the forests return and the impressive Sierra Nevada mountains come into focus.
The drive up into Sequoia feels like something out of Gran Turismo (on a difficult setting) with winding switchbacks that ascend 6,000ft to an elevation over 7,000ft. Often time the temperature at the bottom is downright hot while the temperature at the top is snowy so pack a jacket!
Kings Canyon to Yosemite (3hrs)
Descending the Sierras from the Kings Canyon side is much more gradual than the Sequoia side. While passing through Fresno be sure to grab some snacks and drinks before ascending the Sierras once again on your way to Yosemite.
There is no moment quite like driving through the tunnel and getting your first view of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View viewpoint. Take your time and soak it in before heading into the valley.
Yosemite to Pinnacles (3.5hrs)
Once back down into the valley the drive is fairly scenic with Tuscan-looking countryside through Mariposa. Arriving at Pinnacles one can appreciate why it achieved national park status.
Skipping this stop will save you two hours drive time. At this point in the trip you might be considering it and we aren’t here to blame you.
Pinnacles to Lassen (5.5hrs)
Settle in for the longest drive of the trip. Don’t worry, it’s a pretty nice one driving through San Jose and if you’re up for it why not cross the Golden Gate bridge into San Francisco? Live a little.
From San Francisco the drive is pretty straightforward up the I-5. Once you exit the scenery shifts rapidly from dry valley to coniferous forest with snowy mountain peaks.
Lassen to Redwood (5 hours – really 3.5 till you start seeing the mighty trees)
My personal favorite part of the drive begins just north of Trinidad and continues through to Jedediah Smith Redwoods north of Crescent City.
There’s just nothing like the sight of those massive trees flanking either side of the road, the cool coastal breeze, and the smell of the forest. From Jedediah Smith to the Crescent City airport is just a half hour drive.
California National Parks Road Trip Highlights
Death Valley National Park: California National Parks Road Trip
- Experience Badwater Basin: The lowest point in North America features dazzling geometric shapes made out of salt.
- Catch sunrise at Zabriskie Point: A beautiful overlook of Death Valley proper and the most popular place to see a sunrise in the park.
- Explore Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: The most popular dune field in Death Valley located next to Stovepipe Wells.
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Death Valley National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park: Road Trip California
- Hike to Arch Rock: A heavily photographed natural arch near White Tank campground.
- Explore Hidden Valley: One of the most beautiful groves of Joshua Trees in the park.
- See Skull Rock: A popular skull shaped rock located near the main road.
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Joshua Tree National Park.
Channel Islands National Park: California Road Trip
- Hike Inspiration Point
- Scuba Dive amongst the kelp belds
- Kayak around the islands
Sequoia National Park: California National Parks Road Trip
- Scale Moro Rock
- Hike the Congress Trail
- Walk along the Big Trees Trail
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Sequoia National Park.
Kings Canyon National Park
- See the second tallest tree in the world, the General Grant Tree
- Explore the magnificent Grant Grove
Best California Road Trip: Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite Valley is one of the most breathtaking and iconic natural destinations in the world. John Muir had this to say about it “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”
- Glacier Point is another incredibly scenic viewpoint of Yosemite Valley and one of the most heavily photographed spots in the park.
- Mariposa Grove is the largest grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park with several hundred ancient trees on display.
Pinnacles National Park: California National Parks Road Trip
- Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a beautiful hiking trail and cave tour that winds through narrow canyons and has a creek running through it.
Lassen Volcanic National Park: California National Parks Road Trip
- Bumpass Hell is an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of some of the thermal areas found in Yellowstone National Park. Boardwalks here wind through sulfurous, boiling, steaming pools.
- Manzanita Lake is a one of Northern California’s most beautiful lakes complete with a volcanic mountain view of Lassen Peak and Chaos Crags.
Redwood National Park: California National Parks Road Trip
- Stout Grove
- Lady Bird Johnson Grove
- Redwood Creek Overlook
Check out our article for more of the best things to do at Redwood National Park.
3. See Every National Park Road Trip (ALL 63!)
Drive Time: Varies widely
Trip Duration: 6-12 months (depending on how long you spend in each park)
Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to take on the ultimate national park road trip – seeing every single one of them. Well we sure have and while it’s impossible to drive to all of them given their locations, it is possible to see them all in one swing but be prepared to put everything else on hold for at least half a year to do so.
We’ve outlined the general route here and recommend choosing your starting point based on whichever park is closest to you and hopping on the loop from there.
Who’s ready to dive in!?
Destinations: Every Single National Park (All 63!!!)
Top 10 Best National Parks
- Olympic National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Mt Rainier National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Redwood National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Top 10 Worst National Parks (in case you’re looking for ones to skip)
- Gateway Arch National Park
- Hot Springs National Park
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Indiana Dunes National Park National Park
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Gates of the Arctic National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- American Samoa National Park
- Mammoth Cave National Park
See Every National Park Road Trip Map
4. East Coast National Parks Road Trip + Virgin Islands
This route starts at Acadia National Park in the northeast corner of America and works in a clockwise manner heading south covering the east coast national parks first.
After visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, we recommend catching a round trip flight from Miami to St Thomas (STT) in order to add Virgin Islands National Park.
5. Southwest National Parks Road Trip | Texas, Colorado, Utah, & Arizona
From Florida the route heads west along I-20 all the way to Big Bend National Park where the route heads North up to Rocky Mountain National Park just west of Denver.
From here we head West once again on an epic road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks. After Zion National Park the route turns to the Southwestern National Parks from Grand Canyon all the way down to Tucson’s Saguaro National Park.
Top 10 Best National Parks Road Trips
6. California & Pacific National Parks Road Trip
After Arizona it’s time to head into California to see the state’s nine national parks (we’ve ranked them here). Starting with Joshua Tree the route heads to Death Valley then back toward Los Angeles.
Before continuing on to the rest of California’s parks (and beyond) we recommend flying from Los Angeles to Hawaii’s national parks (Haleakala & Hawai’i Volcanoes) on a round trip flight. From Hawaii you’ll book another round trip flight to Pago Pago to see American Samoa National Park!
Once you return from this Pacific leg of the trip, you’ll head north again to round out the rest of the California national parks and then on to the Pacific Northwest (where our #1 best national park is located).
7. Pacific Northwest National Parks Road Trip
From Crater Lake you’ll cruise north through Mt Rainier, Olympic and finally the American Alps, North Cascades National Park. From here you’ll have a big choice to make whether or not to fly.
8. Alaska National Parks Road Trip
From Seattle you have the option of either continuing your drive (only in summer) north through the cascades and onto Alaska or just hopping on a flight.
If you opt to drive (you adventurous devil, you…) you should know that the leg of the trip from Seattle to Juneau (the jumping off point to Glacier Bay National Park) is 37 hours.
For reference, the driving time from Atlanta to Seattle is 39 hours. From Juneau it’s another 19 hours to Anchorage which means we’re talking a near 60 hour drive back to the states when you decide it’s time to return…
See our full Alaska National Parks Guide including how to get there, planning tips, maps, and more.
8. Glacier, Yellowstone, & Grand Teton National Parks Road Trip
North Cascades to Glacier National Park is a 10 hour haul and marks the first eastward turn of the trip. From Glacier we head South to grand old Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
9. Great Plains National Parks Road Trip
From Grand Teton the route heads east once more to the great plains of the Dakotas. Wind Cave, Badlands, and then onto Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (where a lot of folks get their 50th state!).
10. Great Lakes National Parks Road Trip
Finally the route heads to the watery wonderlands of the Great Lakes starting with Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. From Voyageurs you’ll head to Isle Royale, Indiana Dunes, Gateway Arch, and then Cuyahoga Valley. That’s a wrap!
11. Grand Circle National Parks Road Trip
- Grand Canyon NP
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
- Canyonlands NP
- Arches NP
- Capitol Reef NP
- Bryce Canyon NP
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Zion NP
National Parks Road Trip Planning Tips
Choosing a Starting Point
One of the toughest parts of planning a national park road can be choosing the right starting point. If you’re driving your own car and starting from your residence then feel free to skip on to the next part.
For everyone else, especially if you plan on flying to your destination and renting a car, there’s a bit of a decision matrix to consider.
The question we always ask ourselves which makes it easier for us is: what is the cheapest price we can pay combined for rental car + airfare?
We’ve outlined some more tips on how to do this towards the bottom of the article. Price is easily our biggest determining factor when choosing a starting point.
If you’re interested in a National Parks Road Trip, you might want to look over our post on ALL 63 National Parks Ranked that lists all of the national parks from best to worst based on our comprehensive 50 point rating system.
Getting the Best Price for Rental Car + Airfare
Consider the following example. You’re doing a Utah National Parks Road Trip to see the Mighty 5. The most convenient airport options are Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Say you find amazing flight deals to Salt Lake City – great, we fly into salt lake, right? Maybe.
Sometimes the rental car prices in one airport are so bad that it makes flying into another destination more worthwhile despite a great flight deal and vice versa. Always check both the flight price and rental car price at each destination before booking.
Choosing the Right Lodging Options
We’ve all been there before… arriving at the campsite late at night praying we there’s an open spot only to find nothing. Or pulling into town after a 4 hour cell-service blackout only to find that all the hotels are all booked up.
Or realizing upon arriving to your destination that you didn’t make reservations anywhere and the prices are astronomical (we’re looking at you, Yellowstone).
Like way more than a national park should ever cost seeing that it’s a tax-payer funded, publicly owned resource managed benefit and enjoyment of the people (all people).
The point is, planning ahead of time on lodging and deciding on the right accommodations for your budget is important. I recommend starting early and scanning what hotel prices are like during the time of year you want to visit (covered below).
This will give you an idea of what availability looks like and how expensive it is.
Camping on a National Parks Road Trip
If you plan on camping, check out recreation.gov to see if you can reserve a site ahead of time. One pro-tip we recommend is seeing if there are any nearby national forests where you might be able to camp.
National forest campgrounds are amazing for a number of reasons, two of them being price (they’re usually cheaper if not free) and availability (they’re usually way less crowded than national park campgrounds).
With that being said, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan for each night that you are unable to book something in advance.
Road Trip Food Planning
Ah, nothing says national park road trip quite like the smell of glistening hot dogs rotating over an open warming pan at Love’s gas station at 2 in the morning… With that being said, planning out your road trip food is absolutely essential.
We’ve all seen the beloved road trip companion turn Mr. Hyde after being forced to miss their self-appointed feeding hour.
Avoiding this doomsday scenario can mean the difference between a warm ride home full of fond reminisces or an unscheduled stop at the Twin Falls airport conducted in total silence.
We recommend a budget friendly mix of dining at local eateries and “cooler food”. Feeling the fatigue of too much fast food can tank a day in a hurry so we highly recommend finding a cooler for the trip to pack something on the healthier side.
Pro-Tip #1: We often pack a soft cooler (this is our current go-to) full of clothes on the way over (if flying) that can be removed upon arrival and replaced with ice and lunch food/snacks (sandwich fixings, dips, greens, drinks, etc).
Road Trip Groceries
Typically our first stop after the airport is to a Trader Joe’s (who is not paying us to say so) to stock up on essentials. We often end up in places during dining hours that either have no food options or very limited unhealthy options and so it’s nice to have an alternative in the car.
Making food stops also slows down trip momentum and can mean the difference between “making it there before sundown”.
Pro-Tip #2: A few years back we (finally) started packing a small, inexpensive one burner stove (this one) and it has made all the difference. Having the option to make hot food (we camp/car camp a lot) can make all the difference after a long day in the parks.
Finally, in the dining category of this post, comes the topic of coffee (should’ve been #1, I know). We are hopeless caffeine junkies and need our morning fix.
Jim swears by this piñon coffee that he always packs with us (I’ll admit, it’s pretty good). We use this gadget to heat the water and this metal pour over tin to do the job (usually with good results I must say).
Fueling Up – National Parks Road Trip
I’ll never forget running out of gas in the middle of the Mojave desert near Baker, California in 110 degree weather and no shade for miles…
Or the subsequent ride into town with my brothers and the sailor-mouthed tow-truck driver whose vernacular was completely free from the typical societal constraints one might expect with a 12 year-old (my youngest brother) present.
Good news is there was service, we lived, and Tom (youngest brother) went on to become the wisest of the bunch! And while I’d like to say I learned my lesson from that experience, sadly it took several more extremely close terribly inconvenient calls for me to remember to plan fuel stops and check the old fuel gauge regularly.
Planning a National Park Road Trip – Budget
It’s a good idea to come up with an overall budget at the outset of planning your national parks road trip. A budget makes it easy to remove unnecessary stops and keep everyone in check. A sample budget breakdown for one of our trips looks something like this:
Sample Road Trip Budget
- Food – $50/person/day
- Lodging – $150/day if hotels per two people
- Gas – $30/day (this is pretty variable depending on what kind of car you’re driving)
- Rental Car – $70/day (this is fluctuating wildly given the current vehicle shortages)
- Flights – $300 round trip/person (extremely variable)
- Fees/Attractions – $100 total (park pass, etc)
- Miscellaneous – $300 total (the unforeseen expenses)
- SAMPLE TOTAL for 7 Day Trip for 2 People = $3300 ($700/food + $900/lodging + $210/gas + $490/rental car + $600/flights + $100/fees + $300/miscellaneous)
*this is very fungible up or down depending on how many nights are spent in hotels (if any), if you can get cheap flight deals vs gauging prices, driving your own car vs renting, if you eat at nicer places vs average & groceries, how fuel efficient your vehicle is, etc
Flexibility Is The Key To A Happy Road Trip
The whole reason we take road trips is to see new sights, experience new things, and most importantly to have a good time. Being flexible is the most important factor we’ve found in overall trip happiness (and life).
A few tips based on many years of experience and running the whole gamut of trip emotions:
Tips for a Happy Trip
- Don’t plan out every second of your national parks road trip. Leave free space to either leave places early, linger longer, or just relax.
- There’s no such thing as being late on a road trip. If you miss a sunset it’s not the end of the world. If you have to nix a destination there’s always next time.
- Hydrate well and have plenty of snacks on hand. Hungry ≠ happy and neither does thirsty.
- Take time to enjoy the moment rather than always being concerned about making it to what’s next.
And Finally, The Weather
The most unpredictable factor and potentially biggest damper (intended was the pun) on any trip is the weather.
If you have a plan beforehand for how to spend your time or alternative routes if specific places have bad weather you won’t be as disappointed when it inevitably rains on your parade.
We like to check monthly forecasts to see average temperatures and precipitation before making plans.
Now who’s excited to look at some road trip itineraries? (we are!)
National Parks Road Trip Map (ALL 63)
National Park Road Trips List
- All 63 National Parks Trip
- Utah National Parks Road Trip
- East Coast National Parks Road Trip
- Southwest National Parks Road Trip
- California National Parks Road Trip
- Pacific Northwest Road Trip
- Alaska National Parks Road Trip
- Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Parks Road Trip
- Great Plains National Parks Road Trip
- Great Lakes National Park Road Trip
- Grand Circle National Parks Road Trip
National Park Road Trip Essentials
- Remember to bring cash for campgrounds and other random places that are cash only.
- We’re hooked on coffee and these are our go-to beans, Jim got us hooked on them.
- We like to boil water for tea, coffee, etc. and we like it to happen quickly.
- When we started packing a stove it totally changed the game for us. We love this single burner which packs small.
- We always have things to charge via a regular A/C outlet and highly recommend this adapter after going through a series of lesser quality ones.
- Be sure to pack a portable USB battery. There’s nothing worse than getting to the scenic overlook you’ve driven across the country to see only to realize you’re phone is dead.
- Wipes and sanitizer always come in handy for us. If we forget to pack them they’re the first thing we get at the store upon arrival.
Check out our article for the full list of: Road Trip Essentials
National Parks Road Trip Summary | What Did We Miss?
Well folks, that’s a wrap! Let us know what we missed and which road trips we should include.
We plan on updating this post with more road trip itineraries in the future. If you’ve got any suggestions please let us know!
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