Best National Park Road Trips

Plan three road trips packed with national parks, historic sites and wonder

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A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

Today, perhaps more than ever, we appreciate the awe and delight of being in wild places. So prepare for your grand return starting in the grandest of all places: our national parks, which offer an unparalleled opportunity to explore extraordinary places, discover stories of history and culture, and help out.

We’ve created a few road trip itineraries that mix all three activities. If you’re not able to travel at the moment, we hope these routes spark inspiration for future adventures or your own close-to-home road trip.

Before you go: Be sure to follow local orders and responsible recreation guidelines, and check access to parks and sites prior to visiting.

Blue Ridge Parkway

590 miles, three parks, a mile-high bridge and exotic squirrels

Road trip along Blue Ridge Parkway

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Smokies’ menagerie of black bears, birds and endemic salamanders is a bounty for wildlife lovers. Enter the lottery in April for free passes in late May or early June each year and a chance to be one of the lucky few to catch the bioluminescent mating dance of synchronous fireflies—the only species in America whose individuals harmonize their flash patterns.

2. White Squirrels

Just south of Asheville, the town of Brevard is home to rare white squirrels. (Rumor has it that the population derives from an escaped carnival squirrel.) Help out by “adopting” a squirrel through the White Squirrel Institute, with your contribution going toward the preservation of the animal—plus, you get a certificate and a photo of a white squirrel.

3. Biltmore Estate

The largest privately owned house in the U.S., the Biltmore is famous for its 250-room French Renaissance château and luxurious gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

4. Asheville River Arts District

Visit the studios and galleries of hundreds of artists, ranging from jewelry to pottery to painting. Plus, there’s food for every palate.

5. Grandfather Mountain

A walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge gives an exhilarating perspective on Appalachia.

6. Coyote Kitchen

A hole-in-the-wall with great Southwest Caribbean soul food.

7. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

The site where the Civil War came to an end. Give yourself at least two hours to tour the dozen-plus restored buildings on-site, including a county jail, a tavern and the McLean House where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

8. Daedalus Bookshop

This three-story shop of out-of-print books is a great place to pick up a good read for the campfire.

9. Shenandoah National Park

Just 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is a place you can trade in traffic and cityscapes for waterfalls and wooded hollows. Human history in the region encompasses nearly 9,000 years of hunting, gathering, farming and homesteading. Now is your chance to protect the land by becoming a Habitat Defender. You can join the park’s restoration team, salvaging native plants, transplanting seedlings and handpulling invasive weeds.

Illustration of Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

 

Midwest

435 miles from arch to dunes, seven parks and historic sites and pre-Columbian burial mounds

Midwest road trip map

1. Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Twelve miles from Missouri’s Gateway Arch, Ulysses S. Grant NHS preserves five historic structures on 10 acres of the original estate, including the 18th president’s home (with garish green paint job). After taking a guided tour, walk or cycle along Grant’s Trail, an 8-mile pathway that leads you by Grant’s Farm, one of the homes of the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, and Father Dickson Cemetery, one of the first public cemeteries for African Americans in the St. Louis area.

2. Gateway Arch National Park

This national park, which celebrates the iconic 630-foot steel arch, is the system’s smallest and most urban—marking a growing trend to bring access to public lands to city dwellers. Spend hours here analyzing terrazzo maps, artifacts and dioramas that take you through two centuries of American history. The beautifully renovated museum is free to the public.

3. Granite City Art and Design District

In a postindustrial landscape, this district of Granite City, Illinois, is repurposing the land for innovative gardens, interactive exhibitions and gritty art shows.

4. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Ten miles across the Mississippi River in Illinois is the largest pre-Columbian earthen construction in the Americas north of Mexico. These burial-mound structures represent the Indigenous history of the area.

5. D’Arcy’s Pint

This pub’s locally famous “horseshoe” meal of Texas toast, meat and fries smothered in cheese sauce is perhaps America’s best answer to Canada’s poutine.

6. Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Get your free ticket and take a tour of the Springfield home Abraham Lincoln lived in for 17 years.

7. Allerton Park & Retreat Center

One of the “seven wonders of Illinois,” this Georgian-style mansion is an extravagance of expansive windows, marble fireplaces and elegant decor on 1,500 acres of woodlands, prairie, sculpture gardens and hiking trails.

8. Turkey Run State Park

Stretch your legs in this state park that offers hiking through ravines and gorges, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, swimming and more.

Illustration of Turkey Run State Park

Turkey Run State Park

9. Indiana Dunes National Park

Finish the road trip at one of America’s newest national parks, exploring the dunes, wetlands, prairies, rivers and woods. And if you happen to live nearby, think about becoming a railroad crew volunteer with the Trails & Rails program, helping to educate the public on the National Park Service’s history with railways and encourage the use of public transportation into parks.

California

766 miles of the state’s less-trafficked parks,plus kringle and roaming zebras

California road trip map

1. Parks Project

Based in Los Angeles, the Parks Project collaborates with land managers to connect volunteers to projects, which include trail restoration, planting events and cleanups—they’ve logged more than 2,000 volunteer hours to date. Sign up for a stewardship project and start off your road trip with a little dirt under your nails.

2. Solvang

Heading up the coast, stop in this historic Danish town to see the wooden windmills and munch on dark limpa bread, kringle and strudel delicacies at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery.

3. The Great American Melodrama

Before finding a campsite for the night, stop by Oceano for a vaudeville show that includes song, dance and comedy.

4. Madonna Inn

Need a restroom break? Stop here to see their famous motion-activated waterfall urinal (which looks more like an Alice in Wonderland grotto).

5. Hearst Castle

A tour of one of the most lavish estates in California includes sights of the outdoor Neptune Pool and indoor Roman Pool, a wine cellar built during Prohibition, 127 acres of gardens—and even a herd of zebras roaming the property.

6. Pinnacles National Park

This newest edition to the California national parks is the least visited of the state’s nine. You’ll find terrain split by the San Andreas Fault and an opportunity to see the rare and critically endangered California condor.

7. Blossom Trail

Central California erupts in the spring with tree blossoms, from almond to orange to apple. Take a back-road drive to Fresno and be astonished by the endless fields of fruiting life.

8. Fossil Falls

This place has neither fossils nor waterfalls, but it does offer an eroded lava chasm that looks like a pitfall into the earth.

9. Manzanar National Historic Site

End your trip at Manzanar, touring one of the 10 camps where Japanese American citizens were incarcerated during World War II and learning about this somber period in American history. Start at the visitor center, where you can watch the Remembering Manzanar film and check out exhibits and artifacts, then explore excavated Japanese gardens, foundations and other remnants of the camp.

Illustration of Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada

Illustrations by Todd Detwiler

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