From Death Valley to Shenandoah National Park, these scenic drives are worth the trip.

By Patricia Doherty
April 12, 2020
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Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

National Park Week is celebrated each year in April as a reminder of America’s rich heritage of lands set aside for preservation and enjoyment. Taking a scenic drive through the national parks is a perfect way to appreciate their beauty and timelessness, so we have selected a few favorites. Lovers of the outdoors with time to explore might take advantage of hiking and camping in the parks, while others want to experience the beauty of the parks in a more relaxed way. For everyone, a road trip is an ideal start. The parks are usually remote, so gas up, check the spare tire, load up on maps, and plan your outing with these tips.

Death Valley Scenic Byway, Death Valley National Park, California & Nevada

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Death Valley is known for spectacular mountains, salt flats, rich history, extremes in temperature, and varied elevation from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin to 11,049 feet above sea level at the top of Telescope Peak. Mild temperatures and wildflowers make spring a great time to visit, but summer is popular with hardy travelers who want to experience the extreme heat, which often reaches temperatures in the 120s.

Scenic Drive

The scenic drive begins in the town of Olancha, a starting point that will be convenient when driving from Los Angeles. Heading towards Panamint Springs, your first stop should be Father Crowley Vista Point. A short hike takes you to Rainbow Canyon, where, in addition to a gorgeous view, you might see Air Force or Navy jets making practice runs through what they call “Star Wars Canyon.” Explore some of Death Valley’s most scenic views at Zabriskie Point, a special treat at sunrise and sunset. Take Badwater Road to Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, and Natural Bridge.

If You’re Not a Hiker

The nine-mile ride on Artist’s Drive with a stop at Artist’s Palette is a must-see, and other scenic stops that require only a few steps from the parking area are Badwater Basin, Mesquite Sand Dunes, and Ubehebe Crater.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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The state of Virginia is home to Shenandoah National Park, set along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state. The park features a range of environments including forests, wetlands, and mountain peaks, as well as waterfalls, hiking trails, picnic areas, and wildlife.

Scenic Drive

Starting at the Front Royal Entrance, you’ll get to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center in about four miles. Take in the view and make plans for hikes to take and waterfalls to see. Skyline Drive is the starting point for a variety of hiking trails, many of which permit dogs, making Shenandoah one of the most pet-friendly national parks.

If You’re Not a Hiker

You’ll very likely spot wildlife like bears, deer, groundhogs, or wild turkeys crossing the road from your car, and many overlooks from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provide stunning views.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, Zion National Park, Utah

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Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is known for spectacular scenery that includes colorful mountains, peaks, sandstone formations, canyons, waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife. Zion’s popularity has led to vehicle limitations and two shuttle routes for transportation through the park from March to November.

Scenic Drive

The 54-mile route starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and I-15, about nine miles east of St. George, Utah and ends at the Mt. Carmel Junction. From November until March, you’ll be able to drive the entire route, but from spring through fall, the Zion Canyon section is closed to cars. Take the free shuttle which makes nine stops and takes about an hour and a half. In the northwest section of the park, a five-mile scenic drive takes visitors through the less-traveled, but no less stunning, Kolob Canyons section of the national park.

If You're Not a Hiker

Zion’s shuttles are ideal to see the breathtaking scenery. Stops include the Zion Human History Museum, Zion Lodge, and Canyon Junction, where guests can enjoy 360-degree views.

Crater Lake Rim Drive, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

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Located in southern Oregon in the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. Formed by a volcanic eruption 7,700 years ago, it’s fed only by precipitation, resulting in its clear, intensely blue color. Hiking, fishing, bicycling, and camping are popular, and in winter when the area receives heavy snowfall, there’s skiing and snowshoeing.

Scenic Drive

Crater Lake Rim Drive is a total of about 50 miles, with the actual road around the lake making up 33 miles. Between July and October, visitors marvel at the striking blue water, stopping at some or all of the 30 overlooks along the way for photos, views, picnics, or hikes. During summer, ranger-guided boat tours are available on the lake. There’s also a trolley tour available during summer, taking guests around the entire 33-mile Rim Drive with narration by a park ranger.

If You’re Not a Hiker

The trolley tour is ideal because it lets someone else do the driving, and there’s ranger narration and stops at overlooks for the best views. The Sinnott Overlook, located on a rock ledge behind the Rim Visitor Center, has an indoor exhibit room and open balcony for lake views.

Signal Mountain Summit Road, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

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Grand Teton National Park is home to the tallest peaks in the 40-mile long Teton Range, the valley of Jackson Hole, lakes, meadows, wildlife, hiking trails, and alpine terrain. Bighorn sheep, elk, moose, bears, mule deer, pronghorn, and bison thrive in the park. Things to do include mountaineering, fishing, hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, and in winter, skiing, snowshoeing, and snow activities.

Scenic Drives

Grand Teton National Park isn’t large at 484 square miles, so visitors can take several scenic drives to enjoy the variety and beauty of the park. Jenny Lake Loop Road takes drivers along the shore of the pristine lake at the foot of the Tetons. The Moose-Wilson Road drive starts at the park’s entrance just past Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

If You’re Not a Hiker

From Signal Mountain Summit Road, several overlooks let you see in every direction for a panorama of the Tetons and Jackson Hole, with views of herds of elk, moose, or bison.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee

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The largest national park in the East, Great Smoky Mountains is also America’s most-visited national park. Wildlife, forests, hiking trails, streams, wildflowers, and more than 90 historic structures make this park unique and popular.  The hazy morning mist gave the mountains their name, and waterfalls throughout the park, including one that you can actually walk behind, attract hikers to its more than 800 miles of trails.

Scenic Drives

More than 270 miles of road, mostly paved, offer a variety of scenic drives. Guide booklets are available at the park’s four visitor centers. Cades Cove is one of the most visited areas of the park, and it can be accessed after a scenic 25-mile drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, nearly six miles of winding one-way road through the forest, includes views of mountains, rushing streams, wildlife, and historic buildings.

If You’re Not a Hiker

A waterfall called the “Place of a Thousand Drips” can be seen from the car at Stop 15 near the end of Roaring Fork Nature Trail. Meigs Falls can also be seen from the parking area on Little River Road near Cades Cove.

Road to Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

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One of the country’s oldest national parks, Mount Rainier is an active volcano and the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. Visitors enjoy the park year round, with snow sports in winter and hiking, fishing, boating, camping, and bicycling during July and August. More than 260 miles of maintained hiking trails through forests, river valleys, meadows and along streams offer views of wildflowers in summer and glaciers year round.

Scenic Drives

The “Road to Paradise” starts at the Nisqually Entrance, where you’ll start your drive through old growth forests. The Kautz Creek Bridge offers an overlook and the trailhead for the Kautz Creek Trail. You’ll soon arrive at the Longmire Museum, which features exhibits on the history of the park. Further along, the road provides stunning views of Mt. Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, Narada Falls, and several other glaciers. Watch for Glacier Vista Viewpoint and the exhibit on the park’s glaciers.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Christine Falls, Skookum Falls, and Narada Falls can be seen from a parking area. Wildflowers line the roads during summer, and there's no hiking needed to enjoy the colorful blooms.

Coastal Drive, Redwood National and State Parks, California

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Three state parks (Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek) became part of the national park, hence the somewhat unusual designation as both national and state parks.

Redwood includes old growth redwood groves, open prairie, miles of California coastline, and two rivers. Hundreds of miles of trails for walking, hiking, and biking weave throughout the park.

Scenic Drives

Road trips are a favorite way to experience the varied environments of Redwood National and State Parks, and the National Park Service suggests a few on the park’s website. The nine-mile Coastal Drive starts in Klamath on U.S. 101 to the Klamath Beach Road exit. The steep, narrow road curves to offer views of the Pacific Ocean and Klamath River estuary. Wildlife, including whales (in season), sea lions, and pelicans may be spotted along the way.

If You’re Not a Hiker

These two scenic drives provide breathtaking views from scenic overlooks. Enderts Beach Road is a short, one-way drive from Crescent City, California on U.S. 101 with coastal views along the way. From Requa, California, drive to the Klamath River Overlook, 650 feet above the Pacific, where the Klamath River meets the sea.

Petrified Forest Road, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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This national park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils.

Scenic Drives

The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see, from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive, where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. Starting in the north at Exit 311 off I-40, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to see an 18-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and a short walking trail.

Your next stop should be the Painted Desert Inn, now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Originally built with petrified wood, the Inn has been restored, and in summer there’s an ice cream parlor, a reminder of the Inn’s days as a popular stop on Route 66. Continue south to Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for a fascinating look at hundreds of petroglyphs left by the  Puebloan people. Continue south to the Rainbow Forest Museum near the park’s southern entrance for paleontological exhibits and access to several hiking trails, including the one to Agate House.

If You’re Not a Hiker

The 28-mile drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Geology Tour Road, Joshua Tree National Park, California

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The park is located in southeastern California, about an hour east of Palm Springs. Named for the twisted trees that reminded early Mormon settlers of arms reaching up in prayer, Joshua Tree includes parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Striking rock formations, boulders, and varied terrain make Joshua Tree popular with hikers, campers, and rock climbers. The weather ranges from very hot summers to colder winters and occasional snow.

Scenic Drives

The park can be entered from the north at either Joshua Tree or Twenty-nine Palms. From the south, the entrance is from the I-10, and the first Visitor Center is at Cottonwood. Stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden where you can walk (carefully) on a path among the prickly cacti. Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile drive through some of the park’s most fascinating landscapes. The Keys View detour takes you off Park Boulevard to an elevation of 5,185 feet for views of the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and San Jacinto Peak.

If You’re Not a Hiker

You’ll be surrounded by views of rocks, hills, Joshua Trees, and more on the drive through the park. The panoramic sights from Keys View can be seen from the parking area.