America's National Parks are road trip heaven. They preserve the unique landscapes that make our country so special, and with so many different and individual parks, it can be hard to choose just one to visit. Why not, then, take the Greatest American Road Trip, stopping off at the country's most iconic National Parks? It's the adventure of a lifetime!
Start off your journey at one of the country's most unique National Parks: the more-developed Hot Springs National Park. A reminder that not all National Parks are located in the wilderness, this park features more than 40 hot springs, many contained within turn-of-the-century bathhouses, all set in the quaint, vintage town of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Believe it or not, the largest system of caverns in the world is in Kentucky, and it's been preserved as Mammoth Cave National Park. Despite the fact that many fossils have been found here, the name comes from the size of the system rather than a literal mammoth. There are loads of ranger-led tours through the caves every day, so pick a few that interest you, or hike around the forest that sits atop the cave.
Mammoth Cave, KY
One of the most visited National Parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has earned its popularity. Whether you're hiking Clingmans Dome for the sweeping views, cruising Cades Cove to see the wildflowers and historic sites, or going off the beaten path and exploring Elkmont, the park's ghost town, the beauty of these misty mountains is completely undeniable.
It's hard to believe that the mountainous wonderland of Shenandoah National Park is less than an hour and a half from the hustle and bustle of Washington, DC. Forests burning bright with colorful leaves in the fall, rocky mountains providing vast overlooks, cozy and fascinating historic sites, and cool waterfalls tucked away among the woodlands and mountains make this a delightful spot to do some hiking.
Acadia National Park preserves a special landscape, the rugged Maine coastline. It's where rolling mountains meet the majestic Atlantic Ocean, and the whole thing is criss crossed by trails and carriage paths from the days when the ultra-rich of the early 20th century built their vacation homes here. Hike Cadillac Mountain to catch the country's first rays of sun, explore Bar Harbor, swim at Sand Beach, and enjoy the luxurious vacation vibes.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is another slightly different park. A former toxic dump that's been cleaned up and restored to its former natural beauty, Cuyahoga Valley also protects the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail, a former canal towpath that runs along the river, through quaint small towns and peaceful forests. There's also a train that runs through the park, stopping off at various villages and visitor centers. The park is also super bike-friendly, so rent a set of wheels and explore all this park has to offer!
Named for early French-Canadian settlers, Voyageurs National Park is so filled with unspoiled natural views that it's not hard to imagine yourself as a 17th century explorer! The park is mostly lakes and streams. Rent a canoe and paddle out to the various islands for a quick hike, or even to camp out.
Follow in the footsteps of one of our most spirited presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. TR had a special love for the American West-- North Dakota in particular. Part of this park protects one of his old vacation retreats, and the rest encompasses the landscape he loved so much. Scrubby and scrappy, with wild rivers, prairies, and badlands landscapes and loads of wildlife, the park is a fitting tribute to Teddy.
The ancient, rough, and rocky landscape of Badlands National Park might not initially appear as appealing as one of the country's more famed parks, but everyone who visits Badlands comes away speechless. Describing the park, though, can't compare to actually walking among the colorful, rolling rocks.
The Black Hills is a remarkable place, but hidden below the prairies and forests of South Dakota lies even more beauty in the form of Wind Cave National Park. You can experience the unique beauty of these dense caverns, with their one-of-a-kind boxwork formations, through one of several guided tours.
Yellowstone is a completely iconic road trip stop, and one of the most popular National Parks... but with good reason. Of course, there's Old Faithful, but take time to explore the other features here, like the multihued Grand Prismatic Spring, the bubbling mudpots, the majestic waterfall in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the wildlife-strewn Lamar Valley, and the Old Faithful Inn, one of the oldest and biggest log cabin lodges in the country.
Grand Teton National Park is right next to Yellowstone, and highlights the mountain beauty of the region. It's tiny in size compared to Yellowstone, but it's jam-packed with historic ranches and cabins, clear lakes set in alpine-forested valleys, and hiking trails and scenic drives through the jaw-dropping landscapes.
America's most impressive sand dunes are nowhere near the water... they're in Colorado! The massive, 750-foot tall mountains of breezy sand are perfect for climbing up and sledding down. The park also has a river that you can tube in, and offers primo stargazing.
Carlsbad Caverns is an incredible stop for any National Parks fan. From the controversial Underground Lunchroom, where you can mail a letter from 750 feet below the Earth, to the switchbacks that you can hike down into the cave itself, to the tours and guided walks, to the historic district above ground, you can easily spend a few full days exploring the history, geology, and sheer wonder of this special park.
Big Bend National Park is very hot, very remote, and very beautiful. It's one of the least-visited parks, which means you'll have the trails, like the ones to The Window, Cattail Falls, the hot springs, and Balanced Rock all to yourself. And definitely plan to spend at least one night here... it's an International Dark Sky Park famed for its insane stargazing!
Sandwiching the city of Tucson, AZ, is Saguaro National Park, named for the cactus species that grows in abundance here. Saguaros only can grow in a very limited habitat, and you won't find any better views of this famed cactus than here at the park. They can grow to be 20 feet tall and more than 100 years old... proof that life can thrive in the harsh desert climate.
Petrified Forest National Park might be the smallest National Park, but it protects a one-of-a-kind sight: a forest of sparkly, gemstone logs in the middle of the Painted Desert! Petrified wood occurs when minerals replace the organic material in the wood, fossilizing it into stone. Take a day to explore the desert and examine these interesting specimens!
It's not hard to see why ancient Pueblo Indians built their settlement into the cliffs of Mesa Verde: The views are stunning. A visit here gives you the chance to walk in the footsteps of the Pueblo people. The park features several complexes, some that you can visit on your own and others that you must visit on a guided tour. It's also worth it to take a drive through the park and see the structures from a distance; it's incredible that the Pueblo people were able to build such homes into the side of a cliff, and that the buildings have lasted so long!
A favorite of adrenaline junkies and outdoor enthusiasts, Canyonlands National Park is filled with heart-stopping activities and beauty. Native American ruins, hidden canyons, sandstone hoodoos, and more can keep even the most extreme adventurer's pulse up. The park also features some intense scenic drives, for those who want a thrill without getting too physical.
Each National Park provides its own unique American landscape and its own unique view of the United States. America is truly a melting pot of different landscapes and different cultures, and it's part of what makes America such an exciting, road-trip-worthy place!
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