Road Trip through National Parks
At Khala & Company, we have a special connection to our National Parks. In 2019, we won the ‘People for the Planet’ award for our partnership with the National Parks Conservation Association. We pride ourselves on doing what’s right for our planet, our future and our friends and families’.
There are 63 national parks in the United States; 4 of which have been added in recent years. Millions and millions of people flock to these beautiful destinations year-round, and we’re sure at least one of these parks is on your bucket list! With summer in full swing and life slowly returning to normal, we have crafted together a road trip including 33 of this country’s national parks. This list is in order of how we would drive the trip (starting in our home state of Colorado, of course); However, you can start at any point that you desire.
- Leave No Trace: Leave nothing behind, take out all your trash, litter, and food crumbs
- Preserve these ecosystems: do not take anything from national parks
- Do not approach wildlife: respect their space and habitats and never feed the animals
- Plan well ahead: large crowds especially with the pandemic, research hiking trails, permit information and anything else you might need to know
- Annual Pass: America the Beautiful Pass is well worth your money (I think I got my money’s worth after three days into national parks). There are also different pass options depending on other qualifying criteria
- Visit in fall: You can’t miss the changing colors of autumn leaves
- Visit in spring: Catch wildflowers blooming and maybe you can spot some young wildlife
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
We are so lucky that Colorado is home to America’s 10th and extremely well-known national park, the Rockies. Getting over 5 million visitors annually, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to over 100 peaks reaching over 11,000 feet and 48 miles of forest, meadows and wildlife. You are bound to see animals like elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, marmots, and pikas, etc. Always remember to respect the wildlife and their habitats and never approach the wildlife for any reason, not even for a close-up photo. If you choose to head to Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure you cruise down Trail Ridge Road, America’s highest continuous paved highway. This two-lane highway sits at 12,183 feet high and is open from May to late October. Trail Ridge stays closed in the winter and spring due to heavy amounts of snowfall.
September and October (‘elk-tober’) is a great time to visit to experience elk mating season. However, September and October can still be hot months, creating a high risk of wildfires, as we saw especially last year. Much of Rocky Mountain National Park was devastated last October due to East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, so many trails are still closed. Make sure to check out https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/fire-information-and-regulations.htm for info on closures due to fires.
When you are visiting the Rockies, you might want to experience the Continental Divide, hiking to Bear Lake, Flattop Mountain, or even Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest peak at 14,259 feet, Long’s Peak. The Rockies are filled with gorgeous mountains views you won’t want to miss.
Arches National Park (Utah)
Utah is home to many National Parks with beautiful, red rocks. Arches National Park has been formed through 300 million years of erosion, and it is somewhat ironic that this erosion is what will eventually destroy these rocks (over 40 arches have fallen since the late 1970’s). Established in 1971, this park has 18 miles of scenic drives and there are even more amazing views found via hiking. The main park road allows you to easily drive the scenic route through the park; you’re bound to see endless amounts of red spires, pinnacles, stone fins, balanced rocks and more!
Arches is well-known for many of its iconic arches, overlooks and trails; there are over 2000 named arches in the park. Delicate Arch, Devil’s Garden, The Windows Loop, Park Avenue, Sand Dune Arch, Corona and Bowtie Arch, Skyline Arch or even the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint are great options for amazing views.
Bryce Canyon (Utah)
Getting over 2.5 million visitors annually, Bryce Canyon is Utah’s 2nd national park established in 1928. It contains 55 square miles of beauty and is an amazing destination for anyone from outdoor enthusiasts to photographers, year-round. Not only is Bryce Canyon made of amphitheaters that took over 60 million years to form, but it also contains the densest collection of rock pillars. These pillars were carved by freezing and thawing over thousands of years and can reach up to 10 stories tall.
There are endless activities for you at Bryce; mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding or even just taking a scenic drive through the park! Great scenic spots include Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Bryce Point, Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point. If you are looking for hiking and biking trails, maybe check out the Navajo Trail to Queen’s Garden, Fairyland Loop to Tower Bridge or even Mossy Caves to experience the waterfalls.
Zion National Park (Utah)
Located about an hour and a half southwest of Bryce Canyon, you can find Zion National Park. This thousand-foot-deep red rock canyon was established in 1919 and get nearly 5 million visitors annually.
At Zion, you’ll want to venture through the Narrows, maybe to cool off after a long, hot hike—You can hike along the riverbed instead of viewing it from above or below. For this reason, you may want to bring waterproof hiking gear. Angel's landing is one of the most hair-raising hikes; you’re definitely in for a thrill on this steep, narrow trail with amazing views. Some other stunning views include Canyon Overlook, Emerald Pool Trails, The Subway and Kolob Canyons.
Joshua Tree (California)
One of California’s MANY national parks is Joshua Tree; nearly 800,000 acres of twisty trees, rock climbing, gold mine ruins, and desert views for days. Those unique twisty trees have been growing for hundreds of years. Joshua Tree was formed in both the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, two very different ecosystems, due to the drastic change in elevation. The Colorado portion is considered ‘low desert’ and the ‘high desert’ in Mojave.
You might want to hike Arch Rock Trail, Lost Palms Oasis Trail, or Lost Horse Mine Trail, watch the sunset at Keys View, or even take a scenic drive down Geology Tour Road.
Death Valley National Park (California)
You may have heard of the Western Hemisphere’s lowest, hottest and driest spot, Death Valley. This area became a National Monument is 1933 and was upgraded to a National Park in 1994. Filled with deep sand dunes, rocky ridges, and desert plains, Death Valley is home to over 1,000 species of plants and over 400 species of animals. At 282 ft below seas level, you can see the lowest spot in all North America, Badwater Basin.
Trails like the Natural Bridge, Telescope Peak, Mesquite Salt Flat Sand Dunes and the Mosaic Canyon will have you experiencing amazing views. Or you could catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point, take a drive down Artist’s Drive, walk along the rim of the 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater or check out Scotty’s Castle.
Pro Tip: Be aware that Death Valley can reach up to 130°F, the highest record temperature anywhere in the world was 134°F in July 1936.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park (California)
Established in 1890 in the Sierra Nevada, you can find America’s second national park, Sequoia National Park. And while Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are technically two separate parks, they are actually interconnected by the Generals Highway.
You can find endless amounts of sequoias in both parks; sequoias are some of the largest, tallest, and oldest trees in the world. Adventure through 8000 sequoias and drive through Log Tunnels on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. These parks are also home to the largest living organism on the planet-General Sherman. No, it’s not a human, but the largest tree in the world by volume. This sequoia is 272 feet high and 30 feet wide! Kings Canyon is home to the largest remaining groves of sequoia trees in the world, and the deepest canyon in North America. Hence the name, Kings Canyon reaches 8,200 feet deep.
At Sequoia National Park, trails like General Sherman Tree Trail, Marble Falls Trail, Big Trees Trail, Heather Lake, Pear Lake or even Mount Langley and bound to show off their amazing views. At Kings Canyon National Park, trails like Mist Falls, Sugar Bowl, Paradise Valley Trail and Hart Tree Trail Loop. If you have time, Rae Lakes Trails is a multi-day trek or take the John Muir Trail into King’s Canyon for another 84 miles of amazing views!
Pro Tip: Mountain Loop is another way to drive through both parks, and it lets you experience the next stop on the road trip, Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park (California)
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant into effect, making Yosemite the first land set aside for preservation, and it became a national park in 1890. Prior to this, the Ahwahnee Chee Indians called Yosemite home for 4000 years. Yosemite is home to North America’s tallest waterfall and well as the world’s tallest granite monolith.
Yosemite is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. What does it mean to be a UNESCO World Heritage site? UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to protect and rescue endangered monuments and sites. These sites must follow certain criteria to confirm its cultural or natural significance. Today, there are over 870 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world.
Some must see sights include the Half Dome, El Capitan, the Mist Trail, Mono Pass, Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Valley. And of course, you won’t want to miss the view that Ansel Adams famously photographed- Tunnel View. From here, you can see El Capitan, the Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. There are endless possibilities for adventures at Yosemite; there is no chance you can get bored! The best part—this national park experiences nice weather year-round.
Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)
Oregon’s only national forest, Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 and gets less than a million visitors annually. Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, was formed after the violent eruption of Mt. Mazama. It is said to be the cleanest and clearest large body of water on planet Earth; it is so blue that there is a Native American myth that says the mountains bluebird was gray before bathing in the waters of Crater Lake. You can find pine forests, blooming meadows and stunning peaks, all surrounded by cliffs, as well as Wizard Island. Wizard Island is a cinder cone that erupted out of Crater Lake thousands of years ago (making it a volcano within a volcano!!)
Great hiking trails include Crater Peak Trail, Annie Creek Canyon Trail, Wizard Summit, and Plaikni Falls. If you are looking for a beautiful, scenic drive, check out Discovery Point, Watchman Overlook, Pinnacles Overlook or even just driving around the rim of the park; you won’t be disappointed.
Olympic National Park (Washington)
One of Washington’s three national parks and one of the top ten visited national parks in the country, is Olympic National Park. Established in 1938 as a national park and spanning over almost a million acres, 3.4 million people travel to this beautiful destination. This park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Olympic National Park has lush rainforest as well as lakes, Pacific coastline and snow-capped peaks. The rainforest remains intact and is well-kept as if it sees little people traffic. Summertime may be the best time to visit if you are wanting to experience less rain. It’s also home to wildlife, and you can do some birdwatching or be mesmerized by the fish at Salmon Cascades. You might spot a bald eagle, a Puget Sound Chinook Salmon or a Northern spotted owl!
The Pacific Northwest has many challenging trails; like taking Wolf Creek Trail to Whiskey Bend or the Hoh River Trail. If you are looking for less strenuous trails, Lake Crescent, Sol Duc Falls Nature Trail, Spruce Nature Trail or Mink Lake.
Mount Rainier National Park (Washington)
Mount Rainier is filled with meadows of wildflowers, mountains views and waterfalls, lakes and rivers. It’s the perfect destination for any nature lover. It is split up into five main sections: Longmire, Paradies, Ohanapecosh, Sunrise and Carbon River/Mowich. If you in search of blooming wildflowers, a scenic drive between Paradise and Sunrise is for you.
The Grove of the Patriarchs, Naches Peak Loop, Comet Falls, Fremont Lookout will show you amazing views of this national park, and you can climb the Skyline Loop Trail to see Washington’s highest peaks.
Pro Tip: Mount Rainier is home to an active volcano—it can be a great way to train for Denali or even Mount Everest.
Glacier National Park (Montana)
Established in 1910 and America’s 10th national park, is Glacier National Park in the heart of Montana to the border of Canada. This park reaches more than a million acres and you can venture through 700+ miles of hiking, 700+ lakes, 175 mountains and many species of wildlife. As you might have guessed from its name, Glacier National Park was shaped by ancient glaciers. However, in our lifetime, we will see the park’s glaciers completely melt due to climate change and other circumstances. Because of this, it is so important to take care of and preserve the land we live on, as we never know how long it will last.
Trails like the Highline Trail, Pita Makan-Dawson Loop, Apgar Lookout, Avalanche Lake, Grinnell Glacier, Hidden Meadow, Hidden Lake Overlook will amaze you with stunning views.
Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)
In Minnesota, you can find Voyageurs National Park, one of the only national parks to share a border with Canada. This park has been inhabited by the Cree, Monsoni, Assiniboine and Ojibwe tribes, and was traveled by French-Canadian voyageurs (hence the name!!) during the early 1800’s and late 1700’s.
Since water makes up over 1/3 of its 218,000 acres, accessing the park can only be done via boat, making a perfect spot for any canoeing, kayaking or fishing. However, in the winter you can easily explore around the park via snowmobile, snowshoe or cross-country skiing. You might want to check out Beast Lake, Beaver Pond Overlook, Blind Ash Bay Trail or Cruiser Lake.
Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
Congaree National Park might not be as well-known as many other national parks, but that doesn’t take away from its beauty and uniqueness. Congaree National Park is the ‘largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States’.
Much of Congaree is swamp, so the best way to fully experience the 26,000-acre park is via canoe. However, there are 25 miles of hiking trails waiting for you. Check out the Boardwalk Loop, River Trail, Kingsnake Trail or even Fork Swamp for amazing views.
Great Sand Dunes (Colorado)
In Southern Colorado, you can find the tallest sand dunes in North America: The Great Sand Dunes. Upon arrival, you will find Medano Creek; take a dip in the shallow water before starting your trek up the Dunes (or you can cool off in the creek after). You will want to check out the High Dune on First Ridge; you get an amazing view of the entire dune field! After that climb, sand sledding down is the perfect way to celebrate that hike. Snow sleds don’t work well for sliding down sand, but you can bring your own board or rent one at the Dunes.
Once you reach the Point of No Return, a 4WD vehicle is going to be your best friend. You’ll be able to cross through soft sand, creeks and rocks, and venture to more remote hiking trails and campgrounds. You’ll be able to check out the upper and lower Sand Creek Lakes, Mosca Pass Trail, Medano Lake, Music Pass Trailhead, and more.
Pro Tip: Check the weather before you go, in the mid-summer months, the sand can get up to 150°.
Mesa Verde (Colorado)
The formation of Mesa Verde can be traced all the way back to A.D. 600 to 1300 when Ancestral Puebloans made home in what is now known as Southwest Colorado. Mesa Verde was established as national park in 1906 but was formally declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Mesa Verde spans over 81 square miles and is home to over 5000 archeological sites and cliff dwellings (many of which are nearly 13 centuries old!): the biggest of the dwellings being “The Cliff Palace”. These dwellings have been carved with sandstone and sealed with mortar; some of these dwellings would have one single room for storage or would have a village of up to 150 rooms. The Cliff Palace however, had as many as 217 rooms, housing up to 250 people.
The park is accessible by car or foot; Point Lookout Trail, Petroglyph Point Trail, Spring House, Balcony House Loop Trail, Prater Ridge or Long House Trail all offer great views on foot. And while you’re there, you could swing by the Four Corners and stand in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada at the same time.