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National parks aren’t just for hikers and campers — they’re also for road-trippers. As some of the most scenic destinations in the country, these famous parks in the U.S. can easily be explored from the safety and comfort of your own vehicle.
Since national park roadways are often well-maintained, with plenty of outlooks and trails along the way, driving through a park is an excellent way to take in the sights. From dramatic desert canyons to the remote wilderness of the Last Frontier, here are 10 of the most scenic drives in U.S. national parks.
Acadia Park Loop (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Situated on Mount Desert Island, Park Loop Road stretches for 27 miles through Acadia National Park, offering dramatic views of the rugged Maine coastline. The road is fully operational between April 15 and December 1, with a two-mile section open in winter.
When open in its entirety, the one-way road is the best way to see the park’s most famous sights, including Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain. The paved roadway also provides access to long stretches of Acadia's pink granite coast, with plenty of parking available to get some fresh air and stretch your legs.
Beginning at Hull’s Cove Visitor Center, the journey takes roughly three to four hours, depending on the number of stops and the time of day. As it is often very busy between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., driving the loop during off-hours is recommended, especially in the early morning when the sun is rising.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (Big Bend National Park, Texas)
Without a doubt, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of the best ways to take in the staggering beauty of Big Bend National Park. The 30-mile paved road meanders between the Chisos Mountains and Burro Mesa towards the border of Texas and Mexico, culminating at Santa Elena Canyon — a 1,500-foot-deep limestone canyon carved by the Rio Grande.
Visitors can access the canyon via a short trail, but that’s not the only reason to make the drive. Pullovers along the way make it easy to see Big Bend’s most impressive geological sites, including incredible views at Sotol Vista and Mules Ear Overlook and memorable hikes through Tuff Canyon and Lower Burro Mesa.
History buffs will appreciate the roadway’s historic sites, including Sam Nail Ranch, an old Texas homestead, and Castolon Historic District, a cavalry camp from the early 1900s. Although the drive can be completed in a couple of hours, it’s best to dedicate a day to driving out and back in order to allow ample time to see all the sites.
Haleakalā Highway (Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii)
Climbing from sea level to over 10,000 feet over the course of 37 miles, Haleakalā Highway in Maui has the highest elevation gain in the world over the shortest distance. Driving to this mountain summit is not for the faint of heart, however, as the switchbacks are narrow and winding, traveling above the clouds for most of the way.
From the town of Kahului, the journey take a minimum of four hours round-trip, not accounting for pullover stops. With two visitor centers and several scenic lookouts along the way, visitors don’t access the entrance to Haleakalā National Park until 7,000 feet — from there, they still have over 3,000 feet to climb in altitude.
Although the summit is open year-round, it’s best to plan ahead of time. Reservations are required to drive up the road for sunrise — a popular activity that is recommended in order to avoid fog. At the top, visitors can take in the views, check out the ranger-led programs, or stay the night at the park’s two wilderness campsites or three historic cabins, before making the harrowing journey back down to sea level.
North Cascades Highway (North Cascades National Park, Washington)
North Cascades Highway runs through North Cascades National Park, one of the least-visited national parks in the country. This national park route is a smaller section of a 140-mile scenic byway that travels from the Cascade Mountains to Skagit Valley.
The 30-mile highway takes roughly an hour to drive in one direction, offering views of rocky peaks, roaring waterfalls, and alpine glaciers along the way. Requisite stops include Gorge Creek Falls, a 242-foot-tall waterfall that can be viewed from a pedestrian walkway, and the Happy Creek Forest Walk, a short but lovely jaunt through an old-growth forest.
The overlook at Diablo Lake provides ample views of the ice-blue glacial lake, as well trail access to view Ross Lake, Davis Peaks, and Jack Mountain. Closed in the winter due to avalanches, the national park highway opens in the spring depending on the amount of snowfall, with snow clearing lasting for four to six weeks.
Artists Drive (Death Valley National Park, California)
Artists Drive in Death Valley National Park is a short but sweet, nine-mile loop that can be completed in under an hour. The scenic byway drives through the Artists Palette, a cluster of rainbow-colored hills featuring rocks in unusual shades of greens, pinks, oranges, and reds, while also winding through the Black Mountains and past white salt flats.
Open year-round, the one-way loop is best driven before dusk, as the sun begins to set, lighting up the surrounding mountains with a golden glow. Accessed from Badwater Road off Highway 190, Artists Drive has a few sharp bends and sudden dips, which means vehicles exceeding 25 feet in length are prohibited.
Although the loop does not offer access to hiking trails, there are parking lots along the way that allow visitors to stretch their legs and explore the landscape on foot. If timed right, drivers can exit Artist Drives onto Badwater Road and drive 12 miles to Zabriskie Point, a scenic viewpoint ideal for watching the sunset over the desert landscape.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan)
Situated above Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a seven-mile loop providing unparalleled views of Lake Michigan. Named for Pierce Stocking, an outdoorsman and lumberjack, the scenic byway was conceived of and constructed by Stocking as a way to share the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes with the public.
Today, visitors can access the roadway along Route 109 between the towns of Glen Haven and Empire and can expect the journey to last two hours. With 12 stops along the way, the road meanders through a beech and maple forest, with overlooks offering vistas of the turquoise-colored Glen Lake, the sand dunes, and Lake Michigan.
To access the dunes, Cottonwood Trail loops for one and a half miles past wildflowers and birches, before leading to the high dune trails with views of the Dune Climb. During winter, the road is closed to vehicles but open to foot traffic, making it a popular spot for cross country skiers and snowshoers.
Skyline Drive (Shenandoah National Park, Virginia)
Running a total of 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive provides ample views of rocky peaks, dense forests, and seemingly endless mountains that turn blue at sunrise and sunset. With a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour, the roadway traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains and requires a minimum of three hours each way.
The north-to-south roadway has four entrance stations at Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run, and Rockfish Gap — allowing for the drive to be completed in shorter legs. With 75 overlooks in total, notable stops include Buck Hollow Overlook at mile 32.8, the perfect spot for watching the sunrise, and the Point Overlook at mile 55.5, which is recommended for sunset.
Skyline Drive’s South District is the longest and most remote section of the roadway, with fewer facilities and more dense wilderness. Stops on this 40-mile drive include Doyles River, Loft Mountain, and a 6.7-mile loop hike from Brown’s Gap that travels past three different waterfalls.
McCarthy Road (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska)
Perhaps no national park road is wilder than McCarthy Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Beginning at mile 33 off Edgerton Highway, the 60-mile, out-and-back road is an unpaved adventure through the heart of the remote Alaskan wilderness.
Providing scenic views of the park’s eponymous mountain ranges, McCarthy Road is filled with an abundance of waterways and acres of untouched forest. Lucky travelers may also get a chance to see wildlife, including salmon spawning beds, moose, bears, and eagles.
Open year-round, travelers should be forewarned that the journey is not always easy. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, as is a spare and jack, as the gravel road can be treacherous to tires. The road also provides little cell service and few facilities, while requiring a minimum of four hours to complete round-trip.
The drive does not have to be without purpose, however, as the terminus leads travelers to a footbridge that crosses the Kennicott River. From there, a shuttle whisks travelers to and from Kennicott Mines, a national historic landmark and ghost town.
Lamar Valley (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana
From Yellowstone National Park’s northeast entrance in Cooke City, Montana, travelers are treated to 33 miles of breathtaking vistas through Lamar Valley. Arguably one of the best places to see wildlife in the country, those who venture through Lamar can expect to see bison, bears, and elk along the way. Since Lamar Valley is also known for its reintroduction of the wolf population, spotting these wild creatures from the road isn’t uncommon.
In addition to the abundance of wildlife, Lamar Valley is as picturesque as the West can be. Located on Route 212 between Cooke City and the Roosevelt Lodge, Lamar Valley is open to visitors year-round and is especially stunning in early summer when the region is carpeted with green grass and wildflowers. Expect more than two hours of driving time, perhaps more for wildlife stops and traffic, as the roadway can be busy in summer.
Petrified Forest Road (Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona)
Under three hours from the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest National Park is a lesser-known Arizona park with a fantastic scenic route. Linking Interstate 40 and Highway 180, Petrified Forest Road travels for 28 miles from north to south, offering access to many of the park’s landmarks.
The hour-long drive can include numerous stops, such as the Painted Desert Rim Trail, a short trail leading to a historic building constructed of petrified wood, and Tiponi Point, which provides an arresting view of the park’s distinctive topography. Even more intriguing, Newspaper Rock is decorated with ancient petroglyphs drawn by the Indigenous Pueblo people 2,000 years ago.
One of the main reasons to drive through the Petrified Forest is to see the ancient slabs of petrified wood found throughout the park. Dating back 200 million years, these logs still have their original tree rings, but upon closer inspection, reveal they’ve been transformed into quartz crystals, iron, manganese, and carbon — providing visitors a look into the region’s distinct geological landscape.