Fall is undoubtedly the best road trip season, and as national parks open across the country, there are ways to safely take the whole family to see the natural wonders right here in the U.S. The beauty of a national park road trip is it reminds your whole family just how close you live to sights many travelers fly halfway ‘round the world to see. From the vibrant hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, to the tantalizing foliage the Great Smoky Mountains are known for, there are an endless amount of outdoors adventures within driving distance of your home. Here, our favorite national park road trips in the U.S.
Acadia National Park — Maine
The national park gem of New England is, of course, Acadia, known for the “highest rocky headlands along the Atlantic coastline.” Acadia National Park—one of the top 10 most popular U.S. national parks—boasts 158 miles of hiking trails. A perfect national park road trip from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, Acadia visitors often post up on Mount Desert Island in Bar Harbor (at properties like Bar Harbor Grand Hotel or Acadia Hotel). In addition to great hiking on lake, forest, coastal, or summit trails, there’s plenty of opportunity for boating and fishing within Acadia.
Yosemite National Park — California
Yosemite is a perfect national park road trip for city dwellers in San Francisco, Reno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Yosemite, whose 1,200 square miles have been protected land since 1864, has plenty of short-and-sweet trails perfect for kids. In Yosemite Valley, take the Lower Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil Falls Trails, or opt for the two-and-a-half-mile Mirror Lake Loop. Staying outside the park is most common in Yosemite; one of the best places to stay near Yosemite National Park is at luxe glamping enclave AutoCamp Yosemite, where families can stay in custom design new Airstreams. For the whole brood, book the Premium BaseCamp Suite, which is a larger site featuring both a luxury tent and airstream to accommodate four guests. Alternatively, those coming up from southern California can rent a luxury sleeper van from The Camper Cartel to park at one of Yosemite’s campsites.
Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon — Utah and Arizona
The Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon loop is the trifecta of southwest national park road trips. Visitors could spend their entire trip just focusing on one of the three national parks, but to see each in succession is a treat. Where you start will, of course, depend on where your family is coming from. Bryce Canyon National Park is the farthest north, so roadtrippers coming from Colorado, Nevada, or Utah may start here. The California folks tend to drive through Las Vegas, which means they’ll likely hit Zion first, before going up to Bryce and then down to the Grand Canyon. Finally, roadtripping families from Arizona and New Mexico can start at either the south or north rim of the Grand Canyon, and work their way up to Zion, then over to Bryce. This is a true greatest hits national park tour, so plan your hikes accordingly with the famed South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon, the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion, and the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce. All of them are short enough to do with children, but showcase the most exquisite hoodoos in Bryce, canyon views in the Grand Canyon, and majestic rocks of Zion.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park — North Carolina and Tennessee
The sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park is shared by Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s an easy road trip from cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Raleigh, and from various parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. The Great Smokies are a perfect summer or fall destination—specifically, they’re known for their fall foliage, which leaf-peeping families can take in while hiking, biking, and driving through the national park. The North Carolina-Tennessee border snakes right through the Great Smokies—as does the Appalachian Trail, so there’s plenty of learning opportunities for the kids here. Fall colors abound from early October into early November; families can take a scenic drive on Clingmans Dome Road, Blue Ridge Parkway, or Foothills Parkway to see them in full force. The only place to rent cabins within the national park is LeConte Lodge, so visitors to the Great Smokies often stay in Gatlinburg—a hotspot for AT hikers. Just outside Gatlinburg, book a glamped-out elevated tent at Under Canvas Smoky Mountains.
Crater Lake National Park — Oregon
Crater Lake is a national park road trip for families coming from Oregon, Washington, northern California, western Idaho, or western Nevada. To see this awe-inspiring caldera is a sensational experience for the whole family. Take your family on the 33-mile Scenic Rim Drive for their first views of the brilliantly clear, blue lake; The drive has 30 overlooks for those in need of some new family photos. Visitors can stay at Crater Lake Lodge—the only hotel in the park—or find a lovely rental cabin, hotel, or campground in Mazama Village. The Cabins at Mazama Village are just seven miles from Crater Lake’s Rim Village.
Shenandoah National Park — Virginia
The Virginian treasure of Shenandoah National Park is an easy road trip from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, families in the D.C. metro area, North Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey. The 200,000 acres of protected lands are known for scenic waterfalls, gorgeous wildflowers, and impressive wildlife sightings. Take the family to the central district of Shenandoah; the area includes Big Meadows and Skyland, both of which are known for having good hotels (like Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge) near the park. In the central district, you’ll find hikes through Dark Hollow Falls, Whiteoak Canyon, and up to the summit of Stony Man Mountain. Families can even bring their dogs on most hikes—Shenandoah is one of the only pet-friendly national parks.
Rocky Mountain National Park — Colorado
Colorado is home to no fewer than four national parks. And as a state, it’s perfectly positioned for roadtrippers coming from Utah, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, and even southern Montana or northern New Mexico or Oklahoma. Rocky Mountain National Park is also the closest park to Denver—just an hour and a half-drive north of the city. Rocky Mountain National Park features 415 miles of wilderness and 355 miles of hiking trails. Visitors may want to set aside a day to hike to Bluebird Lake, a six-mile hike starting at Wild Basin trailhead with a 2,478 elevation gain. However, for a more family-friendly hike, take the 2.8-mile Glacier Gorge Trail to Mills Lake. While there’s no lodging inside the park, families looking for a hotel or rental property can find good options in Estes Park or Ground Lake—or for those who like roughin’ it, there are five campgrounds inside the park.