Grand Circle Tour through Utah’s Big 5
If you’ve saved up all your PTO in anticipation of your next great adventure, consider spending it in the great American Southwest on a Grand Circle Tour. The 11-day-ish (depending on how often you stop) road trip traverses 1,500 miles, six national parks—that’s Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Grand Canyon—plus Monument Valley (as seen in our fave HBO thriller, Westworld), and a slew of tiny desert towns. Along the way, you’ll be treated to sheer sandstone cliffs, canyon floor hoodoos, soaring arches, and unrivaled sunsets.
Grand Teton to Yellowstone to Glacier National Park
The 3,000-mile Rocky Mountain range—spanning from British Columbia through ID, MT, WY, CO, and even NM—harbors some of America’s most adored national parks. Get to know the Northern Rockies by knitting together a road trip through three of them: Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. The 450-mile route (one way) weaves together vast backcountry, erupting geysers, and alpine meadows for an epic western escape. Pro tip: take a detour along Glacier’s stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile scenic stretch that crosses the Continental Divide as it winds its way through Logan Pass alongside Saint Mary Lake.
Pacific Coast Highway from Golden Gate Bridge to Redwood to Olympic National Park
We’ll take any excuse to cruise down the PCH, but throwing some national parks into the mix takes it to the next level. Starting in San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge off your bucket list before continuing your 15-hour drive up the winding coast en-route to Redwood National and State Parks, and then on to Washington’s Olympic National Park. With 850-ish miles (and three states) to explore, there’s much to see beyond the tallest trees on earth and the perpetually misty million-acre wilderness; don’t miss out on pit stops in smaller state parks like CA’s Humboldt Redwoods (home of Avenue of the Giants) and WA’s Capitol State Forest.
California’s Majestic Mountain Loop
All it takes is five hours of (speed-limit-abiding) driving to knock three of California’s most iconic parks—Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—off your list. Known as the Majestic Mountain Loop, this long-weekend-friendly road trip can be done in as little as three days, but the more you can add on, the merrier. Key points of interest include Sequoia’s beloved General Sherman Tree (the world’s largest tree by volume), Kings Canyon’s trout-filled Hume Lake, and Yosemite’s Half Dome day hike.
Denver to Rocky Mountain to Mesa Verde to Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you’re feeling ambitious and find yourself in Colorado, this multi-park tour can’t be missed. Unlike other states (see: Utah and Wyoming), Colorado’s national parks don’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder, but that’s what makes this trip so great. A 1,000-mile loop from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve to Mesa Verde National Park and then back to Denver will require about 19 hours of driving, but you’ll cross more than half the state in the process. Between the three parks, you’ll find drastically different attractions like 12,000-foot alpine peaks, North America’s tallest dunes, and ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings. Just make sure you have your playlists ready to go.
Seattle to Mount Rainier to Olympic National Park
A Washington two-for-one is what this short Pacific Northwest trip is all about. Start in Seattle and head southwest through Enumclaw, a tiny Mount Rainier National Park gateway town that offers stellar pre-park vistas. How long you stay in Mount Rainier is up to you, but don’t miss out on a hike up the eponymously-named glacier-capped summit; a romp through Paradise, the park’s most popular wildflower meadow; or a leisurely drive down the Chinook Scenic Byway. From there, set off about 115 miles northeast to Port Angeles, the entry point of Olympic National Park. This nearly one-million-acre swath of wilderness follows the Pacific coast for 70 miles in a show of old-growth rain forests, glacier-capped mountains, and foggy, wave-eroded sea stacks.
Park Loop Road through Acadia National Park
When it comes to exploring Maine’s Mount Desert Island—and taking in Acadia’s best coastal views—by car, this scenic 27-mile route is the only way to go. Beginning at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center (just off Route 3 on the northern side of the island), the road loops past Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, and the 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain—the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. Even if you don’t stop at all the main sites, you’ll still find unparalleled panoramas of the stunning Maine landscape including snow-capped mountain peaks, rocky stone shores, and pink granite summits along the way.
Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains to Mammoth Cave National Park
If you’ve got a week to spare, this East Coast route is one for the books. Along Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive (just 75 miles from D.C.), you’ll find more than 70 overlooks where you can stop for a view of the protected park’s 200,000 acres—home to cascading waterfalls, wooded hills, and meandering backcountry. From there, it’s about 350 miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (470 miles if you take the scenic route—a.k.a. the Blue Ridge Parkway). After a few days in the foggy, heavily forested park, it’s time for your final stop: Mammoth Cave National Park. The Kentucky cave system contains more than 400 explored miles—the longest in the world—and ranger-led excursions are offered season to season.