SUMMER IS A TIME TO PACK UP THE CAR AND SEEK OUT NEW ADVENTURES. AFTER ALL, THE BEST PART OF TRAVEL IS OFTEN TIMES THE ACT OF GETTING THERE ITSELF. SO HERE ARE SOME STUNNING ROUTES WORTH EXPLORING WHILE ROAD TRIPPIN’ TO YOUR NEXT NATIONAL PARK VACATION.
Believe it or not, there was a time in our not-so-distant past when there were no paved roads bridging the gap between civilization and the North American wilderness. Then in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was formed under the watch of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In an effort to boost the economy and the nation’s workforce, the CCC began building infrastructure in the great outdoors that would carefully grow yet still preserve the wild for future generations to enjoy. Pretty darn smart, that FDR.
While cities and towns continue to grow rapidly around the National Parks, they remain mostly rugged. There are, however, amazing roads that weave throughout each park, allowing anyone of any age to experience nature, wildlife, mountains, forests, rivers, streams and wide-open spaces that we might otherwise never get a chance to see.
In 2016, we road tripped to all 59 National Parks and got to sample the best of America’s great driving roads (gallery) in and around each one. In no particular order, here are seven of our favorites.
GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD, GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
When Governor Frank H. Cooney dedicated Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1933, he offered this sentiment: “There is no highway which will give the seer, the lover of grandeur of the Creator’s handiwork, more thrills, more genuine satisfaction deep in his being, than will a trip over this road.” His sentiment was clearly right on as this thoroughfare has become the park’s main attraction and is known as one of America’s most iconic scenic driving roads.
Bisecting the one-million-acre wilderness, the 50-mile drive starts at the west entrance and courses into the parkland passing evergreen forests, glacier lakes and endless, stunning views of snowcapped peaks. Panoramic vistas don’t get any better than they do when you are standing at Logan Pass, where you’ll find yourself surrounded by breathtaking scenery amid what is called “the backbone of America” (aka the Continental Divide), separating the watersheds that feed into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. You can complete the drive on this well-paved road in just two hours, but you can guarantee that with so much beauty to behold, it will take much, much longer.
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO
Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) is Rocky Mountain National Park’s “Highway Into The Sky.” It starts in Estes Park on the east side of the Rockies, and ends in Grand Lake on the west side of the park, topping out at 12,183 feet in elevation (two-miles above sea level) and crossing the Continental Divide. At this high vantage point, it is just you and the atmospheric rooftop of the Rocky Mountain dreamscape, which is rich with forests, wildlife and pieces of Earth left behind from the last Ice Age.
HIGHWAY 50, GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK, NEVADA
Spoiler alert: this road isn’t in the National Park but it is just around the bend from Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. It rivals Route 66 in terms of historical wonder as it was an original Pony Express Route in the late 1800s. Dubbed by LIFE Magazine as ‘the Loneliest Road in America,’ it is a prime spot to capture picturesque southwest long-road shots leading into the landscape to share on social media, while fueling your wildest road trip dreams.
THE ROAD TO HANA, HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII
The Road to Hana between Maui’s North Shore and Haleakala National Park is the most famous driving road on the Hawai'ian Islands. Along the 54-mile highway, a canopy cover of lush Hawaiian rainforest enfolds visitors with endless waterfalls, pools and a few cool landmarks to stop at along the way. This is not an easy road for the impatient as there are approximately 59 one-lane bridges and 620 curves slowing the course. But you are on the island of Maui after all, so take your time and enjoy the aloha spirit.
BADLANDS LOOP ROAD, BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH DAKOTA
Windows down, music up, warm wind blowing across the grasslands…the driving roads in and around Badlands National Park are what road trip adventures are made of. Badlands Loop Road is the main vein in the park offering plenty of opportunities to take photographs that capture the feel of any great American road trip, while providing access to visitor centers, hiking areas and nearly 30 overlooks that peer onto the mysterious sandstone formations. Along Sage Creek Rim Road, you’re in for a little more of a rugged ride en route to areas that have denser wildlife habitats which are heavily populated with bighorn sheep, bison and prairie dogs. Look for Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, the most populous “town” in the park.
RIVER ROAD…AND MORE, BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, TEXAS
Big Bend is a huge park and with more than 100 miles of paved scenic roadways. Anyone with a car can explore the landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert and see some of the very special features that make Big Bend so special — fascinating geology, over 450 bird species and, of course (being that you are in an International Dark Sky Park) those dark skies and starry nights. We recommend going off road to explore River Road which skirts the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border. You’ll get a chance to wet your beak with road trip fever as you drive into Terlingua from the northern town of Alpine. The highway, which seems to disappear into the weathered Texas landscape, is nothing short of epic.
THE ALASKA (FORMERLY THE ALCAN) HIGHWAY, AKA THE ROAD TO ALASKA
The Alaska Highway is a freeway of dreams for road trippers. The two-lane historic asphalt belt winds 1,520 miles from Dawson Creek in British Columbia (about 825 miles northeast of Seattle) to Fairbanks, Alaska. The highway is known for its ruggedness — at one time the unpaved road had wild turns, steep grades of up to 25% and dirt and gravel breaks that would kick up thick clouds of dust, quashing visibility and revealing cracks in car windshields after the dust had settled. It is still rugged (sure enough, we got a crack in our windshield that remains today); though times have changed for the storied highway. Engineers have been working to improve it continuously since the mid-20th century to benefit travelers and to improve the time-distance continuum for truckers bringing supplies into Alaska. Today, it is almost entirely paved and is indeed a kick-ass start to your journey into the Last Frontier.
AND A SHOUT OUT TO WALLY THE AIRSTREAM... we couldn't have made it to every national park during one year without the support of our trusty home on the road!