The United States has a multitude of national parks, each offering a treasure trove of natural beauty and captivating landscapes. Among the many ways to explore these pristine wilderness areas, scenic drives provide an unparalleled opportunity to immerse yourself in nature’s breathtaking vistas and awe-inspiring wonders.
From towering mountains and dramatic canyons to enchanting coastlines and vibrant deserts, these drives go through some of the most remarkable national parks in the country.
Each route offers a distinct and unforgettable experience, showcasing the magnificence of these protected areas and the incredible wonders they hold.
So, let’s take a virtual journey through the best scenic drives in national parks across America, revealing their unrivaled natural beauty and highlighting their unique features. These drives have been carefully selected based on their spectacular landscapes, diverse ecosystems, historical and cultural significance, and amenities.
- The Criteria Used to Determine the Best Scenic Drives
- Scenic Drives in Western National Parks
- Scenic Drives in Eastern National Parks
- Scenic Drives in Southern and Southwestern National Parks
- Final Thoughts
The Criteria Used to Determine the Best Scenic Drives
1. Spectacular landscapes and natural features
2. Variety of ecosystems and geological formations
3. Wildlife viewing opportunities
4. Historical and cultural significance
Scenic Drives in Western National Parks
1. Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana, is an iconic scenic drive renowned for its breathtaking vistas and dramatic alpine landscapes. Spanning approximately 50 miles, this engineering marvel winds its way through the heart of the park, offering you unparalleled views of glacial-carved valleys, cascading waterfalls, and rugged mountains.
One of the key highlights along Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass, located at the Continental Divide. This is the highest point on the road, providing a magnificent vantage point to take in the surrounding peaks and glaciers. Additionally, Logan Pass is home to the popular Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, where you can embark on a scenic trek to a picturesque alpine lake surrounded by towering mountains.
As you continue along the road, stop at the Weeping Wall, a section where water cascades down the cliff face, creating a stunning sight. The Sunrift Gorge, with its rushing turquoise waters, is another noteworthy stop that showcases the park’s striking geological features.
Further along, the road winds past the majestic St. Mary Lake, where you can admire the crystal-clear waters and the towering peaks reflecting on its surface. The nearby Wild Goose Island viewpoint provides a picture-perfect panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding mountain scenery.
Opportunities to spot wildlife along the drive are plentiful. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and even grizzly bears are often seen in the rugged terrain. Keep a keen eye out for wildlife while driving through the Logan Pass area, as it is known for its diverse wildlife populations.
2. Rim Rock Drive (Colorado National Monument, Colorado)
Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument, Colorado, is a beautiful scenic drive that winds along the dramatic red rock cliffs and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Stretching for approximately 23 miles, this drive offers stunning views of unique geological wonders and fascinating rock formations.
One of the key highlights along Rim Rock Drive is the Monument Canyon, where towering red rock cliffs rise dramatically from the valley floor. The canyon is packed with remarkable rock formations, including the famous Independence Monument, a freestanding pillar of stone that stands as a symbol of the monument. Another notable formation is the Kissing Couple, which resembles two figures leaning toward each other.
As you continue along the road, be sure to make a stop at the Artists Point overlook. From here, you can enjoy panoramic vistas of the sprawling canyons, the meandering Colorado River, and the distant mountain ranges. The Coke Ovens overlook is another scenic spot that offers a unique perspective of the monument’s ancient rock formations.
For the best photo opportunities, consider visiting during the golden hours of sunrise or sunset when the warm light bathes the red rocks in a captivating glow. The contrast between the deep red hues of the rocks and the vibrant blue sky creates a stunning backdrop for photography.
You will find several rewarding trails along Rim Rock Drive. The most popular hike is the Devil’s Kitchen Trail. This moderate loop trail leads to a hidden alcove surrounded by towering cliffs. Another trail I recommend is the Serpent’s Trail. This ancient trail descends through switchbacks to the valley floor, providing superb panoramic views along the way.
It’s important to note that Rim Rock Drive can be narrow and winding at times, with steep drop-offs, so exercise caution while driving and be mindful of the posted speed limits. Additionally, consider checking weather conditions before your visit, as the drive can be affected by snow or adverse weather in certain seasons.
3. Red Rock Scenic Byway (Sedona, Arizona)
The Red Rock Scenic Byway in Sedona, Arizona, is a captivating drive renowned for its stunning red rock landscapes and spiritual energy. Stretching for approximately 7.5 miles, this byway takes you through a landscape adorned with vibrant sandstone formations, steep cliffs, and panoramic vistas.
One of the key highlights along the Red Rock Scenic Byway is Cathedral Rock. This iconic rock formation rises majestically from the desert floor, offering a picturesque backdrop for photographs and contemplation. Bell Rock, another notable formation, showcases a distinct bell-like shape and is a popular spot for hiking.
As you traverse the byway, make sure to stop at the Airport Mesa overlook. From this vantage point, you can marvel at the expansive views of Sedona’s red rock country, including iconic landmarks such as Courthouse Butte and the Three Sisters. The Oak Creek Vista is another scenic stop that provides a breathtaking panorama of Oak Creek Canyon and the lush vegetation that lines its banks.
Interestingly, the Red Rock Scenic Byway holds significant cultural and spiritual importance for the area. Sedona is known for its strong energy vortexes, which are believed to be swirling centers of spiritual and metaphysical power. Many visitors come to this area to experience the unique energy and engage in spiritual practices such as meditation and healing rituals.
Additionally, Sedona has long been considered a sacred place by Native American tribes, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. The red rocks and canyons hold deep cultural and spiritual significance for these indigenous communities.
4. Tioga Road – Yosemite National Park, California
Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park, California, is a scenic mountain highway that winds through the breathtaking high country of the park. Spanning approximately 47 miles, this iconic road takes visitors on a journey through alpine meadows, glacially-carved valleys, and granite peaks.
One of the key highlights along Tioga Road is Tuolumne Meadows. This vast subalpine meadow serves as a hub for outdoor activities. Here, you can enjoy scenic picnics, hike to nearby destinations, and marvel at the wildflower displays during the summer months.
As you traverse Tioga Road, be sure to make a stop at Olmsted Point. This viewpoint provides a stunning panoramic vista of the surrounding granite peaks, including the famous Half Dome in the distance. Nearby, you’ll find Tenaya Lake, a pristine alpine lake known for its crystal-clear waters and picturesque shoreline. It’s an ideal spot for swimming, picnicking, or simply taking in the serene mountain atmosphere.
Tioga Road also grants access to several notable hikes. One popular trail is the short but rewarding hike to the viewpoint of Lembert Dome, where you can enjoy commanding views of the surrounding landscapes. The trail to Cathedral Lakes is another scenic option, leading to two beautiful alpine lakes nestled amidst the granite peaks.
Additionally, Tioga Road offers access to various trailheads leading to longer and more challenging hikes, including hikes to Gaylor Lakes, Elizabeth Lake, and the iconic and strenuous ascent of Clouds Rest.
5. Trail Ridge Road (Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado)
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, is a breathtaking scenic drive that traverses the majestic peaks of the park’s high country. Spanning approximately 48 miles, this iconic road takes visitors on a journey through alpine tundra, subalpine forests, and offers panoramic views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains.
One of the key highlights along Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Visitor Center, located near the road’s highest point at over 12,000 feet. In fact, with a high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in North America (Wikipedia). Here, you can learn about the unique alpine ecosystem, enjoy interpretive exhibits, and take in sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. I must warn you, though, some visitors do experience altitude sickness here. So, drink plenty of water and slowly work your way up to that elevation making a number of stops at pull outs along the way. It’s well worth the visit. Just be prepared.
As you continue along the road, you will see incredible vistas of snow-capped peaks, vast meadows dotted with wildflowers, and the chance to spot wildlife such as elk, bighorn sheep, and marmots.
Numerous hiking opportunities also await along Trail Ridge Road. The Ute Trail is a popular hike that starts near the Alpine Visitor Center and offers spectacular panoramic views of the tundra landscape. The Tundra Communities Trail is another accessible hike that provides an opportunity to explore the unique alpine ecosystem and observe the hardy plant life that thrives in this harsh environment.
Further along the road, the Hidden Valley area offers hiking opportunities, including the trail to the spectacular Alberta Falls, a cascading waterfall nestled in a picturesque setting. If you are an adventurous hiker, you may opt to tackle the longer and more challenging trails, such as the Flattop Mountain Trail or the Sky Pond Trail, which will reward you with breathtaking alpine vistas and mountain lakes.
Scenic Drives in Eastern National Parks
6. Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina and Virginia)
The Blue Ridge Parkway is an iconic scenic drive that spans 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains, connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” it offers breathtaking mountain views, lush forests, and abundant natural beauty.
Without question, the highlight of the Blue Ridge Parkway is its stunning mountain vistas. As you drive along the parkway, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of rolling hills, expansive valleys, and mist-covered peaks. Amazing overlooks like the Raven’s Roost and Craggy Gardens provide ideal spots to stop and take in the awe-inspiring scenery.
Waterfalls are another attraction along the parkway. Some notable waterfalls include Linville Falls, Crabtree Falls, and Skinny Dip Falls. These cascading wonders offer refreshing stops along the drive and provide excellent photo opportunities.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a year-round destination, with each season offering its own unique charm. In the spring, vibrant wildflowers blanket the hillsides, while summer brings lush greenery and an abundance of wildlife. Fall is especially magical as the leaves transform into a kaleidoscope of red, orange, and gold, creating a spectacular display of fall foliage that attracts visitors from around the world. I’ve been through here many times during the fall and the scenery of the changing colors are breathtaking! Winter unveils a serene landscape with snow-dusted mountains and a peaceful atmosphere.
Throughout the year, the Blue Ridge Parkway hosts a variety of seasonal attractions and events. These include wildflower walks, guided hikes, art festivals, music performances, and cultural celebrations. Additionally, the parkway has several visitor centers and museums that provide insights into the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
7. Acadia National Park Loop Road (Maine)
Acadia National Park Loop Road, located in Maine, is a picturesque drive that encapsulates the coastal beauty and diverse landscapes of Acadia National Park. This 27-mile loop road offers captivating views of rocky shores, pristine lakes, dense forests, and majestic mountains.
One of the highlights along the Acadia National Park Loop Road is the scenic viewpoint at Cadillac Mountain. As the tallest peak on the East Coast, Cadillac Mountain offers breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding islands, ocean, and mountains. It is particularly renowned for its stunning sunrise vistas.
Jordan Pond is another notable stop along the loop road. This picturesque lake is known for its crystal-clear waters and the iconic Jordan Pond House, a historic restaurant offering panoramic views of the pond and the surrounding mountains. The loop road also provides access to Sand Beach, a gorgeous sandy cove nestled between rocky cliffs, and Thunder Hole, where crashing waves create a thunderous sound when the conditions are right.
Acadia National Park also boasts a unique flora and fauna. The park is home to a variety of plant species, including delicate alpine flowers that thrive in higher elevations, vibrant fall foliage, and a mix of northern hardwood and evergreen forests. The park’s diverse habitats support a range of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, red foxes, porcupines, and even the rare North Atlantic right whale off the coast.
Additionally, Acadia National Park is a haven for birdwatchers. Over 300 bird species have been recorded in the park, including the iconic bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and various migratory songbirds. The park’s coastal cliffs provide important nesting sites for seabirds such as Atlantic puffins and razorbills.
8. Skyline Drive (Shenandoah National Park, Virginia)
Skyline Drive is a renowned scenic drive that winds its way through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. This iconic road spans approximately 105 miles and offers breathtaking panoramic vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lush forests, and abundant wildlife.
One of the highlights of Skyline Drive is its panoramic vistas. The drive meanders along the crest of the mountains, providing stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding countryside. Notable overlooks, such as Marys Rock Tunnel, Thornton Gap, and Hogback Mountain, offer perfect spots to pull over and take in the expansive landscapes.
Skyline Drive also provides access to numerous hiking trails of varying difficulty levels. Old Rag Mountain, one of the most popular hikes in the park, offers a challenging but rewarding experience featuring panoramic views and unique rock formations. Dark Hollow Falls, located near milepost 50, is a popular trail that leads to a picturesque waterfall.
The wildlife is abundant throughout this drive. The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, and various bird species. Big Meadows, located near the Byrd Visitor Center, is a renowned wildlife viewing area where you can often spot deer and other animals grazing in the meadows.
One of the standout features of Skyline Drive is the vibrant fall foliage. During autumn, the park transforms into a breathtaking display of color as the leaves of the maples, oaks, and other deciduous trees turn vibrant shades of red, orange, and gold. The drive becomes a scenic masterpiece, attracting visitors from near and far to witness this natural spectacle. Trust me when I say the fall colors here rival that of the New England area.
Throughout the year, Skyline Drive offers a range of seasonal highlights. The mountains come alive in spring with colorful wildflowers, creating a beautiful tapestry across the landscape. Summer brings opportunities for picnicking, camping, and enjoying the cool mountain air. And in winter, when the landscape is covered in a blanket of snow, the drive takes on a serene and tranquil ambiance.
Scenic Drives in Southern and Southwestern National Parks
9. Park Road (Big Bend National Park, Texas)
Park Road in Big Bend National Park, Texas, is a stunning scenic drive that showcases the park’s unique desert landscapes and rugged beauty. Stretching approximately 30 miles, this road winds through the vast Chihuahuan Desert, offering breathtaking views of canyons, towering cliffs, and expansive vistas.
One of the key viewpoints along Park Road is the Sotol Vista. From here, you can take in panoramic views of the surrounding desert plains and the majestic Chisos Mountains. The Chimneys Trailhead is another notable stop, where you will admire the distinctive rock formations known as “The Chimneys” rising from the desert floor.
As you traverse Park Road, keep an eye out for unique geological formations, such as the Santa Elena Canyon. This remarkable canyon, carved by the Rio Grande, features towering limestone cliffs that provide a dramatic backdrop. The scenic drive also passes by the Boquillas Canyon, where you can witness the impressive cliffs and the tranquil Rio Grande flowing through the canyon.
Big Bend National Park is also known for its diverse wildlife, and Park Road offers opportunities for wildlife viewing. Look for native species such as mule deer, javelinas (collared peccaries), and coyotes that inhabit the desert. Birdwatchers will also delight in the variety of avian species present in the park, including roadrunners, raptors, and colorful songbirds. The diverse desert habitats attract numerous bird species, making Big Bend National Park a popular destination for birdwatching enthusiasts.
The desert landscapes along Park Road showcase the unique flora and fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert. You’ll encounter iconic desert plants such as ocotillos, yuccas, and various species of cacti. Wildflowers paint the desert in the spring with vibrant colors, creating a stunning contrast against the arid surroundings.
10. Cades Cove Loop Road (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina)
The historic Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina, offers a nostalgic journey through a picturesque valley known for its pastoral beauty and rich history. This 11-mile one-way loop road winds through rolling meadows, surrounded by the majestic mountains of the Smokies.
Cades Cove is renowned for its well-preserved historic buildings that date back to the 19th century. Notable stops along the loop road include the John Oliver Cabin, Cable Mill, and the Cades Cove Visitor Center. These sites provide insights into the early settlers’ lives and showcase traditional Appalachian architecture.
Wildlife viewing is another popular activity along the Cades Cove Loop Road. The open fields and forests of the valley provide habitats for a variety of animals, including white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, and coyotes. Birdwatchers can spot a diverse range of species, including woodpeckers, warblers, and raptors.
To make the most of your visit, arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon is best to avoid traffic congestion. Cades Cove can be popular, especially during peak seasons, so starting your journey early allows for a more peaceful and enjoyable experience. Consider renting bicycles from the Cades Cove Campground Store to explore the loop road at a leisurely pace and further immerse yourself in the serenity of the surroundings.
Hiking opportunities are also available in the area. The trailhead for Abrams Falls, a popular hike leading to a picturesque waterfall, is accessible from Cades Cove. The trail offers a moderately challenging trek through a lush forest, culminating in the reward of the stunning falls.
National parks across the USA offer an array of scenic drives that showcase the country’s breathtaking natural beauty. From the majestic peaks of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road to the red rock landscapes along Sedona’s Red Rock Scenic Byway, these drives will take your breath away with these diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes.
These beautiful drives offer opportunities to witness stunning backdrops and access to hiking trails, wildlife viewing, cultural landmarks, and seasonal highlights. Whether it’s the vibrant fall foliage, wildflower blooms, or serene sunrise and sunset experiences, these drives will leave you with unforgettable memories.
Whether you’re an adventure seeker, a nature enthusiast, or someone seeking solace in the beauty of the great outdoors, the best scenic drives in national parks across America provide a gateway to discovering the country’s most captivating landscapes.
Want a FREE complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
What is considered the most beautiful national park? It really depends on personal preference, but Yosemite National Park in California, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and Glacier National Park in Montana are certainly among the most beautiful.
What is the best drive in Yellowstone? The Grand Loop Road, which encircles the main attractions in Yellowstone National Park, is often considered the best drive in the park, offering access to iconic features such as the Old Faithful geyser, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.
What is the best national park vacation? The best national park vacation is really subjective and depends on your preferences. Having said that, some popular options include exploring the diverse landscapes of Yosemite National Park, witnessing the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone National Park, or immersing in the awe-inspiring beauty of the Grand Canyon National Park. Ultimately, the best national park vacation is one that aligns with your interests and allows you to connect with nature and create unforgettable memories.
Which national park should I visit first? Some popular choices for first-time visitors include Yosemite National Park for its iconic granite cliffs and waterfalls, Grand Canyon National Park for its awe-inspiring canyon vistas, and Yellowstone National Park for its geothermal wonders and abundant wildlife.
What is the least popular national park? The least visited parks include Gates of the Arctic, National Park of American Samoa, Isle Royal National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park.
What is the most visited sight of the national park? The most visited sight in the national park system is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What month is best to visit national parks? The best month to visit national parks depends on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and specific park attractions. Generally, spring (April to May) and fall (September to October) offer pleasant temperatures, vibrant foliage, and fewer crowds. However, each park has its own unique characteristics and peak seasons, so it’s essential to research the specific park you plan to visit to determine the optimal time based on your preferences and interests.