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Best National Park Road Trip: Western US

12 min read

United States national parks are home to some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. The natural wonders on a national park road trip are breathtaking, from active volcanoes to mysterious sea caves and soaring redwoods to dazzling waterfalls. Whether you’re considering a quick trip or a lengthier tour of the national parks, California is the best place to start. The Golden State has more national parks than any other state, with spectacular coastlines, towering rock formations, and the haunting beauty of desert landscapes under a starry sky. Buckle up for our top tips for your California national parks road trip.

Decide On Your National Park Road Trip Itinerary

First, determine how much time you have available for your road trip and where you want to go. For a quick, three-day trip, visit the iconic Yosemite National Park. Start by exploring Yosemite Valley, home to the stunning El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Then, on your second day, hike in Mariposa Grove and take in the wonder of the giant sequoias. Head to Glacier Point before heading home.

For a two-week tour, you could start with the extraordinary hydrothermal wonders of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Proceed to Yosemite’s majestic cliffs and waterfalls. Then, venture south to visit the adjacent Sequoia and King’s Canyon parks, with stunning canyons, mountains, and lakes surrounded by towering redwoods.

Take CA-99 south, then head east on CA-58 to absorb the austere desert landscapes of Joshua Tree.. Finally, take CA-62 east to experience the mesmerizing beauty of Death Valley National Park. You’ll find hotels, motels, and campgrounds in the national parks and right outside, as well as bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, and rentals. Consider booking accommodation halfway between two parks for convenience.

Changing weather can cause slick roads and occasional closures. Check with the National Park Service website for the most current information on road conditions before starting any National Park road trip.

National Park Road Trip In California

Nothing beats a California National Parks road trip for sheer drama and extraordinary natural beauty. Follow your heart in choosing which to visit but do yourself a favor and challenge your expectations. Each spectacular park has the power to enchant.

Northern California Parks

Redwood National and State Parks

Giant sequoia tree in Redwood National Park

In addition to the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park includes vast prairies, home to the most challenging rapids in the state. You’ll always remember the 40 miles of rugged coastline and the prehistoric Fern Canyon. Spring and fall are the best times for this trip when, typically, the weather is mild, and the parks are a riot of either colorful wildflowers or flaming maple trees changing color.

Pro Tip: Redwood National Park is a glorious national park to visit in April when a kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers begins blooming. Explore from the coastal regions to the forested inland for the best views.

Popular Hikes

  • Fern Canyon Loop Trail — Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 1.1-mile loop
  • Tall Trees Grove Loop Trail — Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 3.6-mile loop

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Lassen Volcanic National Park is about 250 miles southeast of Redwood National Park. Heading in the opposite direction from Redwood National Park for about 300 miles will take you to Crater Lake National Park.

Yosemite National Park

Bridalveill Fall of Yosemite National Park

With cascading waterfalls, majestic mountains, and ancient giant sequoias — Yosemite never disappoints. Every vista is breathtaking. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, white water rafting, rock climbing, skiing, and sky diving are exciting options at this stop on your national park road trip.

Visiting April through June lets you see the waterfalls at their peak. Still, the fall foliage is exquisite from October to early November. Summer brings crowds, so plan around it or make your reservations early. For quiet contemplation, try weekdays or go early in the morning or late in the day. Be aware that winter snow requires chains for driving and closes the Tioga and Glacier Point roads.

Pro Tip: Visit Yosemite in mid-to-late February for thinner crowds and a heart-stopping display. Horsetail Fall glows like liquid fire when backlit by the setting sun.

Popular Hikes

  • Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls— Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 3.5 or 7 miles round trip
  • Half Dome Hike — Difficulty: Expert | Distance: 17 miles round trip

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are about 115 miles south of Yosemite, and Joshua Tree National Park is 365 miles south. Death Valley National Park is roughly 320 miles southeast. For a shorter drive, check out Pinnacles National Park, which is just 150 miles to the west.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia National Park Miter Basin

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are close together and utterly spectacular if you're doing a tour of national parks. These two parks are home to the world’s largest trees and a vast granite cliff canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon. The canyon floor is lush and green, fed by the Kings River.

Most people visit during the summer months, enjoying the warm weather and full access to the park's many activities. Choose from horseback riding, fly fishing, spelunking, and hiking the gorgeous trails throughout both parks. Off-peak times, like in spring when the melting snow joins rushing waterfalls, sees fewer crowds. During winter, Generals Highway connecting the parks may close or require chains due to heavy snow.

Pro Tip: Make sure to catch General Sherman Tree, Moro Rock, or the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.

Popular Hikes

  • Congress Trail — Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Distance: 2 miles round trip
  • Mist Falls — Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 8 miles round trip

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Yosemite National Park is about 115 miles north of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, with Joshua Tree National Park roughly 340 miles south. Death Valley National Park is approximately 365 miles southeast.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Monument

In central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose, the remains of an ancient lava field have created a wonderland. Formed by a volcanic field, violent tectonic upheaval, and millions of years of erosion, this park's magnificent pinnacles are far taller than they are wide. Explore the extraordinary talus caves, enjoy starry skies, and take in the incredible diversity of wildlife.

Spring is ideal for this national park trip when vast blankets of wildflowers are in bloom and the waterfalls flow fully. However, the park is less crowded in autumn, when the fall leaves put on a dazzling display. The park’s East Entrance is near Hollister, and the West Entrance is near Soledad. Please note that no road connects the two sides of the park.

Pro Tip: Summers are brutal in Pinnacles National Park and can exceed 100°F (38°C). Carry plenty of water or aim for a spring or fall visit.

Popular Hikes

  • Bear Gulch Cave Trail— Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
  • High Peaks Trail— Difficulty: Strenuous | Distance: 6-to-8 mile loop, depending on the starting point

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Yosemite National Park is approximately 150 miles north of Pinnacles, with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks about 200 miles southeast. Joshua Tree National Park is about 350 miles southeast.

Southern California Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Hikers in Joshua Tree National Park

Less than an hour outside Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park offers hiking trails and rock climbing among stunning rock formations. The austere beauty is mesmerizing, and the starry night sky is extraordinary. Spring is the best time to visit when the desert blooms with wildflowers and daytime temperatures are comfortable. Explore the park at dawn or during the week to avoid crowds, from Monday through Thursday. For most, it’s best to avoid the park in summer, with temps soaring above 100°F (38°C). Roads within the park are beautifully maintained, but many cars overheat in the summer, so know and pack plenty of extra water.

Pro Tip: Plan your national park road trip for the new moon when the sky is darkest. Visit the Sky’s Limit Observatory for a dazzling view of the stars.

Popular Hikes

  • Hidden Valley Trail — Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 1-mile loop
  • Ryan Mountain Trail — Difficulty: Moderate | 3 miles round trip

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Death Valley National Park is just 200 miles northwest of Joshua Tree, with Channel Islands National Park about 200 miles west, although this one requires a boat trip! Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are roughly 350 miles northwest.

Death Valley National Park

Salt Flats at Badwater Basin

Heading northeast on our California National Parks road trip, Death Valley offers extraordinary views of rippling dunes, vast salt flats, and shimmering mirages. Call the park to learn if springtime conditions are right for the world-famous super bloom in spring. The winter months from December through February are the most pleasant time to visit, with mild temperatures for hiking and seeing Darwin Falls at their fullest.

The park is vast, so crowding rarely occurs, even in the high season of winter. Featuring several entrances, the park has main access points through CA-190. Some remote areas require high-clearance or four-wheel drive.

Pro Tip: Get up before the birds and watch the sunrise paint Zabriskie Point in gold, rose, and purple splendor.

Popular Hikes

  • Badwater Salt Flat — Difficulty: Easy | Distance: 1 mile round trip on the salt flats
  • Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral — Difficulty: Moderate | 3 miles round trip

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Joshua Tree National Park is about 200 miles southwest of Death Valley. To the northeast, Yosemite is roughly 320 miles, with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks about 365 miles from the desert park.

National Park Road Trip Outside Of California

There’s no need to restrict your travels to California. If you have the time, extend your national park road trip to enjoy some extraordinary beauty in nearby states.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park

In Northern Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is home to the mighty Colorado River and the spectacular canyon it has carved from the high desert landscape. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its magnificent scenery, staggering rock formations, and exceptional biodiversity, the Grand Canyon is a must-see for your tour of national parks.

To avoid big crowds, visit in spring or fall for mild temperatures. The South Rim remains open year-round, but the North Rim closes with winter snow. Bring chains for winter driving and plenty of water in the summer.

Pro Tip: Arrange to watch the sunset over the vast expanse of the canyon, painting the canyon walls in rich shades of purple, ochre, and rose. Hopi Point offers the best vantage point.

Popular Hikes

  • Rim Trail — Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Distance: Up to 13 miles one way (can be accessed at various points for shorter walks)
  • Bright Angel Trail — Difficulty: Strenuous | Distance: Up to 6 miles round trip to Skeleton Point

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Joshua Tree National Park is approximately 290 miles west of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. If you head about 260 miles northwest, you can cross Utah’s Zion National Park off your park bucket list. Bryce Canyon National Park is roughly 300 miles north of Joshua Tree.

Zion National Park, Utah

The Narrows at Zion Canyon National Park

Zion National Park, in southwestern Utah, is beloved for its breathtaking landscapes, towering rock formations, and stunning canyons. One of the most-visited national parks in America, Zion is home to gorgeous pools, waterfalls, and canyoneering through its iconic slot canyons.

Spring (April to June) and fall (September to November) offer ideal weather for exploring the park. Summers are scorching, and winter snows close some trails. Due to crowds, limited parking, and a desire to protect the environment, a shuttle system takes you to many of the park’s sites and trailheads. Start your day early to beat the crowds.

Pro Tip: If you plan to hike The Narrows on your national park trip, invest in or rent water shoes, neoprene socks, and a walking stick to help you as you wade through the Virgin River.

Most Popular Hikes

  • Emerald Pools Trail — Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Distance: 1.2 miles round trip to the Lower Pool; options to extend to Middle and Upper Pools
  • The Narrows — Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous | Distance: Up to 16 miles round trip; shorter options available

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Bryce Canyon National Park is just 72 miles northeast of Zion, with Capitol Reef National Park about 200 miles to the northeast. Head southeast for roughly 120 miles to Grand Canyon National Park.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon is one of the most dog-friendly destinations on any national park road trip. The crystalline blue waters of Crater Lake lie in a sleeping volcano. The collapse of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago created this gorgeous gem of the Pacific Northwest.

For comfortable weather, ideal hiking, and boat tours of the lake, plan to visit July through September. Avoid crowds by entering the park on weekdays before 9 am or after 4 pm. While the South Entrance is open year-round, the North Entrance and Rim Drive are typically closed from late October to early June due to snow.

Pro Tip: Take advantage of the free, ranger-led programs, talks, hikes, and boat tours for fascinating insights into the park’s geology, history, and ecology.

Popular Hikes

  • Cleetwood Cove Trail — Difficulty: Moderate | Distance: 2.2 miles round trip
  • Garfield Peak Trail — Moderate to Strenuous | Distance: 3.6 miles round trip

Other National Parks Within Driving Distance
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve is about 110 miles southwest, with Redwood National and State Parks approximately 200 miles southwest.

Get Your Vehicle Inspected Ahead of Time

When planning your national park road trip, remember to get your car inspected. You’ll rely on your vehicle and travel through some remote areas. Consider these tips when renting a car if it is not up to the trip. Be sure to download your proof of insurance and include it in your car’s emergency kit.

National Park Road Trip FAQs

What is the #1 visited National Park?
Just outside Knoxville, TN, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America's most visited national park.

What is the best time of year to visit National Parks?
The best time of year to visit national parks varies by the climate and region of the park. December through February is ideal for visiting Death Valley National Park, while summer in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is spectacular.

Are National Parks open in the winter?
Many national parks are open in the winter, which can be a magical time to visit. Fewer visitors and snowy landscapes make this the “secret season.”

Which National Park has the most visitors?
In 2022, Great Smoky Mountain National Park had nearly three times as many visitors as Grand Canyon — the next most visited park.

How many days should I visit Yosemite National Park?
Spend four days in Yosemite, and you’ll have the chance to enjoy all the highlights, including Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Tenaya Lake, and so much more.

California Auto Insurance From Wawanesa

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