If you’re planning a road trip this summer in the western United States, there are so many spectacular national parks in the region that it might be hard to decide which to choose for a visit. Our national parks are a bargain for travelers, filled with magnificent scenery and natural attractions as well a variety of wildlife.
As someone who has traveled extensively throughout the western U.S. visiting the majority of our wonderful parks, I’ve developed an itinerary that includes the top five national parks that first-time travelers should consider spending time at. Keep in mind, as this list is specifically catered for those making a road trip, I have not included parks in either Hawaii or Alaska.
Yellowstone National Park
Start your trip at Yellowstone National Park, located in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. This park is one of the most beautiful destinations on earth, with several unique features you’ll find only within its borders or just a handful of other places on the entire planet. It is here that you’ll find Old Faithful, the famous geyser that erupts about every 91 minutes. While it’s certainly a highlight, there are many other attractions that I’ve enjoyed even more.
The Fountain Paint Pot area includes geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. You’ll find brightly colored turquoise pools and fascinating multi-colored bubbling pots of mud that provide endless entertainment for guests to the park.
During one of my visits, I was privileged to witness a herd of wild buffalo cross one of the park’s rivers, as seen here. Watching these massive creatures make their way through the water is a rare and incredible sight. There are more than 60 mammals that call the park home, with deer, elk, fox, and coyote commonly spotted. If you’re lucky you might see moose, bears, wolves, cougars, mountain goats, and much more.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is picturesque seven-hour drive north through Montana. Going-to-the-Sun Road is not just a scenic drive, but a mystical experience trip to what feels like the top of the world. The road winds through mountain peaks, turquoise pools, and rushing waterfalls, with numerous mountain goats and bighorn sheep often presenting a picture-perfect photo opportunity.
The park also offers world-class fly fishing for those who want to try their luck at catching one of many varieties of trout found there, as well as one of the largest populations of grizzly bears in the nation.
Olympic National Park
Heading west to Washington state, there is an endless amount of wild and beautiful scenery to take in. You’ll want to make several stops along the way on the 11-hour journey from Glacier to your next destination, Olympic National Park.
This park is less well-known, but it contains a remarkably wide variety of terrain, including ocean shores, Pacific temperate rainforest, and alpine glaciers, as well as 600 miles of trails that meander throughout its 900,000 acres of wilderness.
What makes this park a favorite for me is that it’s easy to find a tranquil experience with fewer visitors and an endless array of amazing scenery. The park is dotted with many towering waterfalls, including Marymere Falls, which drops a stunning 90 feet into an emerald pool below; hidden lakes; and even hot springs where visitors can take a soothing dip after a long hike.
Yosemite National Park
If you can, take your time on the drive south from Washington to California and experience the Oregon Coast Highway. The breathtaking coastline is well worth the longer journey, about a 10-hour drive from Forks, Washington, to Crescent City, California. From here, you’ll drive through the glorious giant redwood trees, hills dotted with wineries and grape vines, and historic gold country.
Yosemite’s highlights include the famed Yosemite Falls and Half Dome, but my favorite area of the park is the side less traveled, Tuolumne Meadows. Here, the crystal clear Tuolmne River winds through one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its backdrop is rugged mountain peaks and glacially carved domes that soar into the sky above.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is a 12-hour drive southeast from Yosemite and includes some of the most inspiring scenery in the world. The view of the canyon is something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime; pictures do not do it justice.
If you’d prefer to get away from the crowds once you’ve taken in the grandeur of this 277-mile-long, 18-mile-wide canyon, consider visiting the Havasupai Native Reservation on the remote west end of the Grand Canyon. Havasupai is world renowned for its incredible scenery, including magical Havasu Falls.