Planning a Road Trip to See Nearly All the National Parks
While 2020 might be remembered for a lot of negative things, there are also some positives that came out of a challenging year.
We did things differently, including how we travel.
Rather than primarily travelling by air to foreign destinations, Americans embraced domestic travel that allowed for social distancing during a pandemic.
National Parks once again became some of the most compelling destinations for travellers.
If you didn’t take advantage of the trend in 2020, no worries. You can still plan an epic National Park road trip with the following tips in mind.
How Many National Parks Are There?
There are a total of 50 National Parks in the continental U.S. There are eight in Alaska and two in Hawaii, as well as two in the territories.
Of the parks that are in the continental U.S., four are maritime-based and not accessible by vehicle.
That at least gives you a starting point as you plan to visit as many National Parks as possible.
Visiting nearly all of the National Parks in the U.S. isn’t going to take a few weeks. Instead, it’s likely to take a few months. It’s a trip you might plan for the entire summer, for example.
Even three months might be rushed in some ways, but it is possible.
If you make your trip in the summer, it’s going to be easier to access the parks that might get a lot of snow in the winter.
Hypothetically, you could start in the Northeast with Acadia National Park in May. Then, by the time you went to the northern half of the U.S. and the parks like Glacier National Park, it would be mid-summer.
By the end of the summer, you could go to the parks in California.
You could also theoretically head back to the eastern coast to catch a glimpse of fall foliage.
The big goals when you’re planning an itinerary might be to first see every park with minimal backtracking, and second to arrive at the peak season in each park.
When you’re planning your itinerary, you’ll have to think about how much time you want in each park.
If the park is smaller, one or two days might be sufficient. If it’s larger, you might need three or four days. If you are going to be there in peak season, you may want to allot more time to account for crowds.
Ultimate Centennial Parks Road Trip
If you want an itinerary that’s already laid out for you, in 2016, a data scientist named Randy Olson created an interactive map. The map optimizes drive times so it’s the perfect efficient National Parks road trip itinerary. It doesn’t include parks in Alaska or Hawaii but covers 47 National Parks.
There are five route options.
The first starts at the Grand Canyon and goes to the Everglades. Route two is the Everglades to the Badlands. Route three is the Badlands to Zion. Route four is Zion to Lassen. Route five is Lassen to the Grand Canyon.
If you want to make your own, you might want a tool like Google My Maps.
If you use Google My Maps, you can add the parks you’re interested in and build a visual representation of how these relate to one another in terms of location.
Once you have a clear list of your locations, you can map directions between two parks to figure out drive time.
While you may be a ways off from taking your trip when you’re just starting to plan it, do remember for the future that you want to make sure all your maps are available offline when it’s time to hit the road.
What Are the Best Parks?
The idea of what the best National Parks are versus the ones you might skip if you don’t have enough time is subjective. However, some parks are known to be more awe-inspiring than others pretty universally.
Some of the most beautiful and inspiring National Parks tend to include Grand Teton, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, and Mount Rainier National Park.
Some of the ones that people tend to find less interesting include Congaree National Park in South Carolina, Biscayne in Florida, and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Again, if you have to prioritize the parks you visit, it’s really an individual calculation. You have to think about the scenery and activities that you find most interesting and compelling. No one can make that decision for you.
Planning for Each Park
When you’re planning an epic road trip to as many National Parks as you can visit, you want to have a plan not just for the trip as a whole but for each individual park.
You’ll start out by deciding how much time you want at each. You can find various guides to the highlights of each park, so you can start prioritizing what you most want to see during your time at each location.
You need to research logistics, such as road closures and weather.
You want to be aware of the limitations of visiting certain parks during particular times of year.
The cost of a National Park road trip depends primarily on the type of trip you want. This kind of road trip is going to likely cost more than you might anticipate. You can expect to spend at least $1,500 for every three weeks you’re gone, but some people are going to spend quite a bit more.
Finally, when you have your plan pretty firmed up, you’ll need to keep in mind that this isn’t a spontaneous road trip. You’ll probably need to book your reservations and reserve permits pretty fair in advance. You may need wilderness permits in some protected areas to camp or hike.
A lot of permits have waitlists, which is just one more reason why the sooner you start planning, the better.
This is especially true as many people may still be planning only domestic travels in 2021.