One Epic National Park Road Trip Across the USA

Have you ever dreamed about leaving everything behind and setting out on the ultimate National Park road trip across the entire United States? I know I have! While I’ve set off on a number of epic road trips, including a massive west coast National Park road trip (twice, actually), and another cross country road trip, and yet I’ve only managed to visit a total of 30 of the 61 National Parks. That means I’ve still got a lot of ground to cover, especially those parks that lay east of the Rockies.

And don’t miss my top national park road trip planning resources at the bottom of this article!

USA National Park Road Trip

In this article, we are going to be talking about how to link together the vast majority of those parks, including basically all of them within the Lower 48 (aka the Contiguous USA) as well as an option for including the two NEW national parks that were added to the system in 2019. Combining together a bunch of national parks is the very definition of a great American road trip, in my eyes.

Ready? Let’s get planning and hit the road!

Your Guide to the Ultimate National Park Road Trip

Planning an Epic National Park Road Trip

Within the continental United States (aka Lower 48) there are a total of 49 National Parks — there are 2 in Hawaii, 8 in Alaska, and 2 in the territories, making a total of 61.

But of those 49 National Parks in the Continental USA, there are another four parks that are not accessible by vehicle due to the fact that they are island based National Parks.

While driving the Pan American Highway, I started dreaming about once again returning to those incredible protected areas back in my homeland, and so I started to imagine what a massive national park road trip in the USA would look like.

So I jumped on Google Maps and connected the route in the most logical way I could, taking into account the many miles and many parks I have already visited as well.

The Ultimate National Park Road Trip

This Epic National Park Road Trip covers ground in at least 39 of the 50 states, across more than 16,950 miles (27,277 km), and visits 43 of the 49 National Parks located in the Continental USA, but does not specifically include the four island-based National Parks (although you get pretty close and could organize boat transport to reach them).

In early 2019, two more national parks were added to the system: Indiana Dunes National Park and Gateway Arch National Park. I’ve added a second option to the map which would include both of these new parks, but the addition of Gateway Arch makes it difficult to make a nice, clean route…

I’m not really sure why Gateway Arch is a National Park when it is more of a historical monument. Honestly, that’s one I would probably skip if your focus is on nature. Indiana Dunes, on the other hand, would be easy to include and is a nature area.

I’ve also deliberately tried to route the map to visit a number of scenic areas that aren’t necessarily national parks, like Monument Valley, White Sands, or Grand-Staircase Escalante, for instance.

I also made the route go through a number of interesting cities or landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Las Vegas, or even places like New Orleans and New York City, since an epic American Road Trip would seem almost incomplete without at least passing through some of these places.

Interactive National Park Road Trip Map


Click and zoom to see more details about the suggested route and the parks along the way.

National Park Road Trip Itinerary

At a minimum, you wouldn’t want to take less than three months, in my opinion, to do a trip of this magnitude, as you wouldn’t want to rush through something like this.

For this hypothetical, rushed timeline, I would consider starting this national park road trip in the Northeast (since that’s where the vast majority of people live) and visit Acadia National Park in Maine as the first stop in mid-July.

This allows you to cover the northern half of the US National Parks during summer in places like Glacier National Park, Mount Rainier, etc.

Then you will head south into the national parks of California by the end of August, and spend the beginning of fall exploring the multitude of parks in the American Southwest before heading once again across country to reach the chain of east coast national parks (hopefully) in time for the changing of the leaves and fall colors.

This is a rushed and not ideal trip, of course. I would consider more time to be crucial!

An ideal road trip of this length and geographic range would last at least six months to a year… Considering weather, it might be best to start in the American Southwest in late winter or early spring, then head counter-clockwise, through the Pacific Northwest and northern half of the country in summer, down the East Coast (fall colors!) in Autumn, and across the southern half in the winter.

Read More: National Parks to Visit in Spring

But anyone who was the chance to undertake this journey will have a different starting point, starting time of year, and length of time to complete it. You will need to customize it as you see fit.

Arches NP - The Ultimate USA National Park Road Trip

Here is the order of National Parks visited on this road trip itinerary. Those with an asterisk * are the island parks that aren’t accessible by car. Those with a ~ are the two new Midwest parks which could be included with a detour of the current route. I also included a ✓ check mark next to those national parks that I’ve visited personally.

Acadia National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
~ Indiana Dunes National Park
~ Gateway Arch National Park
* Isle Royale National Park
Voyageurs National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
✓ Badlands National Park
Wind Cave National Park
✓ Grand Teton National Park
✓ Yellowstone National Park
✓ Glacier National Park
✓ North Cascades National Park
✓ Olympic National Park
✓ Mount Rainier National Park
✓ Crater Lake National Park
✓ Redwood National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Pinnacles National Park
✓ Sequoia National Park
✓ Kings Canyon National Park
✓ Yosemite National Park
✓ Death Valley National Park
* Channel Islands National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
✓ Saguaro National Park
✓ Petrified Forest National Park
✓ Grand Canyon National Park
✓ Zion National Park
✓ Great Basin National Park
✓ Bryce Canyon National Park
✓ Capitol Reef National Park
✓ Arches National Park
✓ Canyonlands National Park
✓ Mesa Verde National Park
✓ Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
✓ Rocky Mountain National Park
✓ Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Big Bend National Park
Hot Springs National Park
Everglades National Park
* Biscayne National Park
* Dry Tortugas National Park
✓ Congaree National Park
✓ Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
✓ Shenandoah National Park

Yosemite NP - The Ultimate National Park Road Trip

Best National Parks Resources

  • America the Beautiful Pass: The annual pass is a MUST purchase if you plan to visit approximately four or more national parks in one year and it will save you a ton of money! The annual past is just $80 (even cheaper for seniors) and will grant you unlimited access to all parks, even those that normally cost like $30 each!
  • Ken Burns’ National Parks Documentary: If you haven’t seen it yet, this six-part documentary series is an incredible introduction to the history of America’s National Parks system and all the challenges and triumphs faced. MUST WATCH! It will give you a whole new appreciation.
  • Moon USA National Parks Guide: This is the most complete resource you’ll find about virtually all the parks (doesn’t include the two newest ones) with itineraries, suggested things to see and do, road trip planning and so much more. 
  • AAA Insurance: If you’re going to be doing a monster road trip like this, be sure to have AAA insurance which will protect you in the event of a roadside breakdown. I’d recommend the more complete package which includes up to a 200-mile tow (I had to use that distance once when I broke down outside of Bryce Canyon!). Hopefully, you don’t need it, but it is a lifesaver if you do.

Looking for more road trip inspiration? Don’t miss my post about the most scenic drives in the USA, the best road trip books, or all of these amazing places to visit on a West Coast road trip.

If you need more concrete stuff beyond inspiration, you may want to check out my 21 favorite apps for a road trip, or my favorite podcasts to listen to while on the road.

I hope this post has filled you up with National Park road trip ideas, I know it has for me… Just got to finish up this road trip across South America before I can start dreaming of other epic road trips.

Wish you could travel more? Click here to grab my free resources for affordable, long-term travel, including road tripping.

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Road Trip Planning

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Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West. Since then he set out traveling to Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

Comments 14

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    Very nice article. I’m looking forward to doing this some day, when I’m finished with Hawaii. By the way, I don’t know when you wrote this, but there are more than two National Parks in Hawaii.

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      Author

      As far as I know, there are only two national parks (Haleakalā and Hawai’i Volcanoes), this article isn’t addressing national memorials, historic sites, historical parks, or historic trails… Doing so would definitely balloon the number of places (from 61 national parks to 419 different units administered by the NPS).

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    My husband and I went to Alaska a few years ago if you love nature Denali is the ultimate park to visit. We also took aside trip up to Barrow and was able to get the picture of a lifetime, Mt. Denali surrounded by clouds at 36,000 feet.

    Have been to Mt. Rushmore, Assateague Island National Seashore, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is almost in my back yard so we visit it alot. Going to Everglades National Park next spring with my sister.I

    Many more places to visit in the future. Happy travels!!!

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      Author

      Oh yeah, I couldn’t agree more! Been to Denali as well, but it was a bit beyond the scope of this article about a national park road trip in the Lower 48… You’d almost need a lifetime just to explore the parks up in Alaska.

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    Damn, you weren’t kidding when you called it an “epic” road trip! I love traveling and everything but I think a trip that long would be overly exhausting for me.

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    My husband and I have been to Dry Tortugas National Park. We took a day trip over from Key West a few years ago. It was incredible. The jellyfish were in earlier in the season than normal and they were beautiful. Some were the size of dinner platters and vibrant purple. There were so many different types of fish. I was unable to get in the water due to being allergic to jellyfish stings but I still enjoyed walking the perimeter of the fort and getting some fantastic pictures of all the sea life. I hope you make it there some day.

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      Author

      That sounds amazing! I’d definitely like to experience that at some point… Not sure about getting in the water and the prospect of jellyfish stings though, haha.

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    I have one month from middle of Aug to middle of Sept. this summer Leaving northern Calif to New York
    what route do you suggest? Want to see as much as I can I will be in my Coach House Van

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    My family and I are thinking about taking a road trip from northeastern Illinois to Mount Rushmore. Is there anything we must see and do when planning this outing?

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    I have been in the process of planning just this very road trip. I am so eager to see as many of the national parks as possible. Thank you, you have saved me hours of routing.

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