8 U.S. National Park Road Trips to Fit in Before Summer Ends

Grand Circle Tour through Utah's Big 5

If you’ve saved up all your PTO in anticipation of your next great adventure, consider spending it in the great American Southwest on a Grand Circle Tour. The 11-day-ish (depending on how often you stop) road trip traverses 1,500 miles, six national parks—that’s Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Grand Canyon—plus Monument Valley (as seen in our fave HBO thriller, Westworld), and a slew of tiny desert towns. Along the way, you’ll be treated to sheer sandstone cliffs, canyon floor hoodoos, soaring arches, and unrivaled sunsets.

Grinnell Glacier Glacier National Park, Montana mountain sky outdoor Nature wilderness wildflower vegetation nature reserve mount scenery mountainous landforms meadow national park mountain range bank landscape Lake reflection yellow grass national trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty spring alps valley watercourse grassland flower computer wallpaper tarn tree tundra plant surrounded highland

Yellowstone National Park Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming tree sky outdoor Nature geographical feature wilderness body of water landform atmospheric phenomenon water reflection River Forest cloud smoke mountain spring morning landscape stream water feature autumn Lake woodland Waterfall park national park

Grand Teton Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming tree Nature outdoor sky pond water mountainous landforms wilderness reflection ecosystem Lake mountain mountain range season tarn woody plant landscape meadow autumn biome temperate coniferous forest larch park national park alps valley surrounded Forest pasture

2

Grand Teton to Yellowstone to Glacier National Park

The 3,000-mile Rocky Mountain range—spanning from British Columbia through ID, MT, WY, CO, and even NM—harbors some of America's most adored national parks. Get to know the Northern Rockies by knitting together a road trip through three of them: Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. The 450-mile route (one way) weaves together vast backcountry, erupting geysers, and alpine meadows for an epic western escape. Pro tip: take a detour along Glacier’s stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile scenic stretch that crosses the Continental Divide as it winds its way through Logan Pass alongside Saint Mary Lake.

Olympic National Park Olympic National Park, Washington Natural wonders Scenic views outdoor tree sky water Nature plant atmospheric phenomenon Sunset body of water shore sunrise Coast Sea Ocean horizon dawn morning Beach cloud reflection dusk evening sunlight landscape bay Lake Sun setting

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco, California sky outdoor water Sea cloud reflection tower horizon body of water Ocean Coast dusk morning dawn evening bay vehicle Sunset clouds lighthouse sunrise wave shore day distance

Olympic National Park Olympic National Park, Washington Natural wonders Scenic views water sky outdoor Nature shore Coast Sea Ocean body of water Beach reflection rock horizon wave cloud wind wave bay sand cape terrain material cliff Island promontory islet

3

Pacific Coast Highway from Golden Gate Bridge to Redwood to Olympic National Park

We’ll take any excuse to cruise down the PCH, but throwing some national parks into the mix takes it to the next level. Starting in San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge off your bucket list before continuing your 15-hour drive up the winding coast en-route to Redwood National and State Parks, and then on to Washington’s Olympic National Park. With 850-ish miles (and three states) to explore, there’s much to see beyond the tallest trees on earth and the perpetually misty million-acre wilderness; don’t miss out on pit stops in smaller state parks like CA’s Humboldt Redwoods (home of Avenue of the Giants) and WA’s Capitol State Forest.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California tree outdoor plant Nature green rock wood trunk woodland Forest woody plant leaf sculpture ancient history autumn

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California mountain sky outdoor tree mountainous landforms Nature geographical feature landform wilderness atmospheric phenomenon mountain range cloud natural environment Forest hill ridge background morning landscape green valley meadow alps plateau hillside canyon autumn national park lush surrounded highland

Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park, California outdoor mountain Nature landform geographical feature wilderness geological phenomenon valley cliff canyon Adventure rock outdoor recreation terrain ridge wadi extreme sport geology mountain range recreation walking

Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park, California tree outdoor Nature habitat track reflection landform geographical feature wilderness River pond body of water natural environment water ecosystem stream autumn season leaf Forest woody plant woodland landscape valley wooded flower waterway traveling moving lush day

4

California's Majestic Mountain Loop

All it takes is five hours of (speed-limit-abiding) driving to knock three of California’s most iconic parks—Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—off your list. Known as the Majestic Mountain Loop, this long-weekend-friendly road trip can be done in as little as three days, but the more you can add on, the merrier. Key points of interest include Sequoia’s beloved General Sherman Tree (the world’s largest tree by volume), Kings Canyon’s trout-filled Hume Lake, and Yosemite’s Half Dome day hike.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado outdoor sky habitat Nature natural environment landform geographical feature sand Sea erg aeolian landform horizon dune shore Coast Ocean Beach landscape Desert wave clouds material

Rocky Mountains Colorado, United States Forest Mountains Nature Scenic views Wildlife mountain outdoor sky mountainous landforms animal herd mammal wilderness pasture mountain range grazing cattle like mammal landscape plateau group cattle Adventure yak sheep

Mesa Verde National Park Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado outdoor Nature cliff rock archaeological site Ruins ancient history wadi nativity scene cliff dwelling monastery formation temple history stone

Rocky Mountains Colorado, United States outdoor sky mountain grass highland mountainous landforms Nature wilderness landform ridge mountain range ecosystem hill fell field mountain pass trail walking valley plateau loch Adventure meadow hiking landscape backpacking alps hillside Lake pasture base lush

5

Denver to Rocky Mountain to Mesa Verde to Great Sand Dunes National Park

If you’re feeling ambitious and find yourself in Colorado, this multi-park tour can't be missed. Unlike other states (see: Utah and Wyoming), Colorado’s national parks don’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder, but that’s what makes this trip so great. A 1,000-mile loop from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve to Mesa Verde National Park and then back to Denver will require about 19 hours of driving, but you’ll cross more than half the state in the process. Between the three parks, you’ll find drastically different attractions like 12,000-foot alpine peaks, North America’s tallest dunes, and ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings. Just make sure you have your playlists ready to go.

Ruby Beach Olympic National Park, Washington outdoor sky water Coast Sea shore Nature body of water landform geographical feature Ocean cliff rock cloud mountain Beach wave terrain landscape tower bay cape cove material day

Mount Rainier Mount Rainier National Park, Washington tree outdoor ground habitat vegetation plant natural environment woodland ecosystem Forest trail botany path conifer temperate broadleaf and mixed forest woody plant leaf rainforest Garden temperate coniferous forest Jungle autumn biome shrub wooded area dirt bushes surrounded

Mount Rainier Mount Rainier National Park, Washington grass outdoor sky highland mountainous landforms Nature mountain field wilderness atmospheric phenomenon tree cloud hill mountain range morning loch mist Lake landscape sunlight rural area reflection plateau ridge sunrise dawn valley terrain autumn pasture lush day

6

Seattle to Mount Rainier to Olympic National Park

A Washington two-for-one is what this short Pacific Northwest trip is all about. Start in Seattle and head southwest through Enumclaw, a tiny Mount Rainier National Park gateway town that offers stellar pre-park vistas. How long you stay in Mount Rainier is up to you, but don’t miss out on a hike up the eponymously-named glacier-capped summit; a romp through Paradise, the park’s most popular wildflower meadow; or a leisurely drive down the Chinook Scenic Byway. From there, set off about 115 miles northeast to Port Angeles, the entry point of Olympic National Park. This nearly one-million-acre swath of wilderness follows the Pacific coast for 70 miles in a show of old-growth rain forests, glacier-capped mountains, and foggy, wave-eroded sea stacks.

Acadia National Park Acadia National Park, New England tree outdoor sky way road scene highway mountain vacation infrastructure rural area landscape trail mountain pass traveling

Acadia National Park Acadia National Park, New England tree outdoor Nature vegetation path Forest woodland nature reserve ecosystem wilderness old growth forest rainforest Jungle leaf plant valdivian temperate rain forest spruce fir forest temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome state park wooded temperate coniferous forest tropical and subtropical coniferous forests sunlight landscape creek riparian forest wood trail grove grass deciduous watercourse area lush

Acadia National Park Acadia National Park, New England brick wall bridge Forest moss Natural wonders Nature ripple River Rocks stream Waterfall woods outdoor rock water building stone arch water feature autumn

7

Park Loop Road through Acadia National Park

When it comes to exploring Maine's Mount Desert Island—and taking in Acadia's best coastal views—by car, this scenic 27-mile route is the only way to go. Beginning at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center (just off Route 3 on the northern side of the island), the road loops past Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, and the 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain—the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. Even if you don't stop at all the main sites, you'll still find unparalleled panoramas of the stunning Maine landscape including snow-capped mountain peaks, rocky stone shores, and pink granite summits along the way.

 

Mammoth Cave National Park Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky tree outdoor habitat wilderness body of water River natural environment ecosystem Forest Nature woody plant woodland stream Lake old growth forest rainforest Jungle plant

Mammoth Cave National Park Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky Nature geographical feature outdoor cave landform caving pit cave formation stalagmite

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee sky grass outdoor tree habitat Nature vegetation mountainous landforms field flower mountain wilderness grassland natural environment ecosystem plant meadow flora prairie agriculture land plant wildflower hill rural area leaf Forest landscape sunlight plateau flowering plant valley Lake rapeseed produce lush

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee outdoor sky tree mountain Nature mountainous landforms habitat wilderness geographical feature atmospheric phenomenon hill natural environment ecosystem Forest mountain range hillside morning background green valley sunrise leaf landscape dawn Sunset autumn plateau ridge meadow lush distance bushes highland

8

Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains to Mammoth Cave National Park

If you’ve got a week to spare, this East Coast route is one for the books. Along Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive (just 75 miles from D.C.), you’ll find more than 70 overlooks where you can stop for a view of the protected park’s 200,000 acres—home to cascading waterfalls, wooded hills, and meandering backcountry. From there, it’s about 350 miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (470 miles if you take the scenic route—a.k.a. the Blue Ridge Parkway). After a few days in the foggy, heavily forested park, it’s time for your final stop: Mammoth Cave National Park. The Kentucky cave system contains more than 400 explored miles—the longest in the world—and ranger-led excursions are offered season to season.

LIVE LIKE A LOCAL IN FRANCE

Earlier this year, I went to Paris, saw it though the lens of the 1920s, and wrote about how traveling with a theme can spice up and add focus to your trip. Narrowing your focus helps you go deeper.

Last month I went back to France and again wanted to travel with a theme. But, instead of focusing on only Jazz Age attractions, eating French food, visiting modern art museums, drinking at bars that start with the letter Q, or whatever, my theme would be a style of travel, something a little broader. I’d be traveling using only (at least when possible) the sharing economy, the term given to the plethora of websites designed to connect travelers with locals, offer more unique experiences, and make travel more affordable.

While I’ve used the sharing the economy frequently before (I am a big fan), they have never the primary focus of my entire trip. I usually add a few activities in while I’m being a normal tourist seeing the main attractions.

But this trip was going to be different. My plan was to rely on Airbnb for accommodation, Couchsurfing for meetups, BlaBlaCar for transportation, VizEat for meals, and Vayableand greeter programs (programs run by tourism boards that set you up with a local guide) for activities.

I wanted to get off the tourist trail, meet more locals, and (hopefully) learn more about a country I love so much.

But I also wondered: Would this be the best way to meet people? How much cheaper is it, really, to use only the sharing economy? Would it be more work? Would I even like using the sharing economy all the time?

So, with those questions in mind, I found myself waiting on a street corner in a random section of Paris for Justine, my BlaBlaCar driver, for the one hour ride to Orléans. I was little nervous. Not because of where I was, but because all her responses to my messages had been in French, and I was worried we wouldn’t end up talking much. I was right. After making some initial small talk with her and the other rider, we exhausted their English and my French and they just spoke French to each other while I buried my nose in a book. I can’t blame them though. It’s a lot easier to speak in your native tongue than grasp for words in a language you don’t know well.

a bright field in France on a sunny day

So my two-week trip with the sharing economy began not with an exciting social bang, but a simple, polite whimper.

The rest of the two weeks? The results were mixed (and depended a lot on the service I was using).

In Orléans, my Airbnb hosts were young graphic designers, super accommodating, helpful, and had an excellent tea selection. However, they spoke little English, weren’t so keen to hang out, and mostly left me alone. But their home was beautiful. They lived in an old medieval house and I loved the ancient hardwood floors, exposed beams, and tiny staircase that gave the place a real sense of history.

In Tours, I quickly left my first place (they smoked) and found myself with Anne Marie and Patrick, an older couple who proved that the third time is often the charm. They cooked me breakfast (including adding a candle to my croissant on my birthday), and were incredibly friendly and polite. We swapped stories (they recently returned from a trip to the States and were in love with the $2 bill, Whole Foods, and the national parks) and laughed over a shared bottle of wine. To me, they embodied what Airbnb is really about and ended up extending my stay with them. (If you find yourself in Tours, I highly recommend staying with them.)

In each destination (and I went to many), I fired up the Couchsurfing app — but often found no one around to hang out with. In Orléans, Bloise, and Amboise, there was no one on the app. Sometimes Couchsurfing requires a shotgun approach, so I basically fired off emails to about a dozen hosts in Tours to see who wanted to hang out and ended meeting two people for drinks.

In Lyon, I had much better luck (it is the second largest city in France, after all). The app always showed activities and people interested in meet-ups. I had dinner with a few people, drinks with another small group, and spent a day in the park with even more. I met a local psychologist, a recent college grad touring his own country, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo (which I found to be an enlightening – and very depressing – experience), a fun Dane, and a Japanese tourist who wanted to be a farmer. They filled my time with laughter, fun, and insights.

Travelers meeting in France

The meal-sharing apps were hit and miss. EatWith, Bon Appetour, VizEat, and AirDine always came back empty in smaller cities. There were just no hosts. I eventually found two last-minute hosts on VizEat in Lyon: one, a jazz musician, cooked me an awesome burger, and the other, a Thai guy and his boyfriend, made some delicious Thai food.

In terms of looking for fun things to do, Vayable yielded no results. I even branched out into other sites, like Withlocals and Airbnb Experiences, but those were all duds too. I was left to play the traditional tourist, though I did spend my last morning in Lyon walking around with a retired teacher from the Global Greeters program.

As for transportation, I used BlaBlaCar three times. After a few pleasantries to the driver in terrible French and English, or trying to speak in Spanish (a bridge language with a few drivers, as I spoke no French and they spoke no English), the conversation typically went silent as the driver and their passenger talked to each other in French and I found myself staring out the window or at a book.

As I left Lyon to fly back to States, I started to have mixed feelings about the sharing economy.

First, it’s not convenient. You’re dealing with people, not companies, and people have things pop up. Life gets in the way, so you can have encounter cancellations, delays, rejections, and odd meeting times. It’s not as simple as checking into a hostel or hotel or just buying a ticket for the train. You have to work around people’s schedules, which can often waste a lot of your day.

Second, it’s not always cheaper. While BlaBlaCar and Airbnb were much cheaper than traditional accommodation and transportation, listed meals tended to cost 30% or more than those found at a restaurant. And the listed tours were quite pricy too, often rivaling traditional tour companies. While there was the odd meal or activity that was cheap (though never available), the money saved using Airbnb or BlaBlaCar was eaten up (pun intended) by VizEat.

Third, it’s hit or miss. Every time we passed through a smaller town (or even a medium sized one), I would fire up the apps to see what was going on and — crickets. I probably would have had more luck if I had lined more hosts (at least on Couchsurfing) in advance but who can say?! That’s just a guess.

Using the sharing economy in France

Finally, it’s very time consuming to research dozens of rideshares, meal hosts, tours, Couchsurfing hosts and events, and Airbnb listings. I probably spent a good eight hours altogether researching everything. It’s one thing to book one or two things using the sharing economy; it’s another to need to look through hundreds of potential Couchsurfing hosts, meals, activities, and hangouts every day.

Sidenote: One thing I didn’t like about BlaBlaCar in particular was the highways. I had envisioned this as a great way to talk (nope) and see the countryside (nope). Since most people are going from point A to point B and are in a rush, they stick to the highways. That isn’t to say this happens all the time, but I enjoyed the trains more, because I could see more of the countryside.

After using the sharing economy for two weeks, I don’t think I would devote so much of another trip to doing so. You can count me in for BlaBlaCar when I’m in expensive countries and major cities (though I would also try to find drivers who spoke English), the Couchsurfing app is going to continue to live on my phone (the hangout feature is golden), and I’ll use VizEat and EatWith in larger cities, as they led to some amazing experiences (one VizEat host took me to a French hip-hop jazz concert, and the other was just friendly as hell — and Thai, so we bonded over that!). Airbnb, despite its hiccups, is still also my preferred way to travel. I’m also not ready to fully declare the meal sharing and activity services as more expensive. They could be cheaper in other destinations. More research is required.

But, in the end, the sharing economy is not the panacea I thought it was and still has some growing pains (there should be a penalty for hosts who cancel last minute, not vice versa!). I won’t spend as much time researching and trying to find hosts or events. The time I spent sitting at my computer would have been better used outside doing something.

Yet still, for all its faults, the sharing economy is an interesting way to travel and meet locals. I may not devote an entire trip to it again but there’s no way I’ll abandon it completely.

Travel Italy

You Can Still Visit the Area

The Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Riviera. There are many other wonderfully picturesque places along this stretch of coastline to stay and explore. Try Levanto, Portovenere, or Lerici. Santa Margherita Ligure and San Remo are a bit further, and have a more resort feel. And Portofino is worth a splurge. Further north is the sleepy town of Camogli.

You’ll still be able to take a boat or ferry that will pass by the five towns. And viewing it from the water is pretty special.

 

Dramatic Coastline in the South

For stunning coastline you can also head further south to the popular Amalfi Coast. Towns like Positano, Sorrento, Ravello and Amalfi will welcome you. Active travelers can still find plenty of exercise, like walking the Path of the Gods. It’s not as quiet or laid back, but the gorgeous views and limoncello will go a long way to assuaging your disappointment.

Laid Back and Still on the Coast

Although tourism is on the rise, Puglia is a great alternative and doesn’t attract the same amount of visitors. You’ll still have charm, rustic beauty and lovely coastline, but the jumble of sherbet-colored houses will be shades of putty and white.

You may not be able to hike between most villages, but active travelers can bike, which is a very popular activity in the area. Check out places like Polignano al Mare, Monopoli, Otranto, Gallipolli and the Salento. Real nature buffs, looking for isolation, should consider the Gargano, further north.

Natural Beauty but Not on the Coast

The Cinque Terre has always been very popular with backpackers and hikers. Fortunately, you can find walks in the mountains in the Italian Lakes region. Como and Garda are well known, but you can have the place to yourself in Orta or Iseo. Though not on the coast, the scenery, villas and gardens are still breathtaking and the calmer lake waters allow for plenty of opportunity to spend time on the water.