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A National Park Expert Shares Her Favorite US National Park Road Trips For Summer

This summer is gearing up to be one for the books — with the dramatic lessening of restrictions and newly vaccinated travelers anxious to get out of the house. Despite the travel surge, it is still complicated or even impossible to travel to many places outside of the United States, making a classic summer road trip a no-brainer. Interest in National Parks is at an all-time high, so I’ve outlined five of my favorite itineraries for summer road travel that will maximize your time in parks and your level of stoke.

1. The Washington Parks Circuit

Washington is known for Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, but many people wouldn’t be able to name the third — and arguably best — National Park in the state. North Cascades is one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever traversed. It is dramatic and mountainous while also feeling small and somewhat secretive. Like you just happened to drive into a fairytale.

While technically open year round, many services can only be accessed during the summer months, so this circuit is a perfect excuse to take a Washington Parks road trip. I would fly into Seattle (if I wasn’t driving from another Western location) and start by spending a few days on the Olympic Peninsula — visiting Hurricane Ridge, the western beaches, and the Hoh Rainforest before heading down to Lake Quinault.

From there, it’s just a three hour drive to Mount Rainier. Spend some time in the aptly named Paradise to marvel at the wildflowers and — hopefully — get a clear view of the massive mountain. Then it’s just a three and a half hour drive to North Cascades. Swim, hike, camp, and marvel at the beauty that is somehow still considered “underrated”.

Pro Tip:

There are several beautiful spots to swim in Olympic and North Cascades. Bring your swimsuit!

Where to stay:

In Olympic your options are fairly limited outside of camping. I’d stay in Port Angeles or Forks for a night or two and then Lake Quinault or even Olympia/Tacoma — a great central location to the southern part of the Peninsula and Mount Rainier.

Reminders:

Mount Rainier will be very busy this time of year. They all will be very busy, I’m sure. So plan ahead, get there early, and have a plan B if you can’t find parking at the trailhead you planned on.

2. Grand Teton To Yellowstone National Park

Grand Teton and Yellowstone are perennially some of the busiest National Parks in the summer months — but for good reason. They are both bucket list destinations that happen to only be 31 miles from each other.

Our avice? Brave the crowds this summer and take yourself to both. If I was flying I’d book a ticket straight into Jackson — the only commercial airport entirely within a National Park — then rent a car and spend a few days exploring Grand Teton before hitting the (short) road to Yellowstone.

Despite their proximity I find these two parks to be vastly different experiences, and definitely both worth your time. If you’re coming from the Tetons you’ll enter at the South entrance in Yellowstone, but you’ll want to spend time in all of the major areas and, yes, even the touristy areas.

Pro tip:

Watch Old Faithful erupt from the bar balcony at the Old Faithful Inn (if and when COVID restrictions have fully lifted). You get a unique vantage point above the ever present crowds, and a chance to cool down with a drink (or two).

Where to stay:

The obvious choice is Jackson, WY, but be prepared for crowds and very high prices. The less obvious and also less crowded (and least likely to break the bank) is a stay on the Idaho side or even West Yellowstone.

Reminders:

While there are no reservations needed for GTNP or Yellowstone this summer, visitation is already over 2019 numbers — so get there early and be prepared for some crowds.

3. The California Parks Route

As the state with the most major National Parks, of course there are many great options for road trips in California this summer. I’d generally recommend two different itineraries — one in and around LA and one with a more Northern trajectory. Around LA, you can easily visit Joshua Tree, Channel Islands and even Death Valley in one loop of a trip — but summer isn’t going to be enjoyable in two out of those three. So I’d opt for heading North.

I often fly into San Francisco as a jumping off point to Yosemite, Pinnacles and Lassen National Parks. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are also within 4 and a half hours from the city — giving you truly endless options. Spend a week or a month, you’ll never get bored with these diverse landscapes.

Pro Tip:

Lassen is super underrated (many of you are probably scratching your head as to what I’m even talking about as we speak) so plan to spend more time there than you originally think. Yosemite will be super crowded, but the banks of the Merced always have a spot to cool down.

Where to stay:

You won’t want to base yourself in SF for more than bookends to your trip. Outside of camping I’d recommend looking to Airbnb. There are tons of great options around each park.

Reminders:

Yosemite is on a reservation system. If you opt to head down towards the Channel Islands you’ll also need advance ticketing (they are only accessible by boat).

4. Colorado National Parks

Emily Hart

There are four major National Parks in Colorado, all located near opposite corners — making a National Parks road-trip an obvious choice. I would start in Denver and, depending on my timed entry tickets to Rocky Mountain National Park, either begin or end there. (I wrote a detailed guide here.)

Pro Tip:

Like most of the places on this list, Colorado is very crowded in the summer and most camping is now reservation only. So head to recreation.gov or Airbnb far in advance if you want any sort of unique lodging.

Where to stay:

So many options here. Summer is especially perfect in Boulder, Buena Vista, Salida, Aspen and Crested Butte.

Reminders:

RMNP is on a timed entry system! And to drive Bear Lake Road (where many popular insta-worthy hikes originate) you’ll need another permit on top of the entry ticket on top of admission. Spend some time understanding the reservation system before you go.

5. Great Smoky Mountains and New River Gorge

One of the most classic (and most visited) National Parks just happens to be just four and a half hours from our newest National Park — New River Gorge. If you haven’t been back to the Smokies since your childhood family vacation, now is the time to go. Not only to experience the majesty of the range, but to visit New River Gorge while it’s still slightly under the radar.

Pro Tip:

New River Gorge is known for rafting! Book a tour as far as possible in advance

Towns to stay/play:

Gatlinburg is a touristy, but fun gateway to the smokies where you may want to spend a night. Pigeon Forge is just down the road — and home to Dollywood! For New River Gorge there really are no large towns to speak of — part of it’s charm — but there are many Airbnbs and bed and breakfasts that dot the area and are worthy of checking out.

Reminders:

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited major US National Park every year. It’s large, sure, but it will still be crowded. Like most parks on this list, plan ahead. New River Gorge is the newest park so info is still a little scratchy. So again, plan ahead.

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