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10 epic scenic drives in U.S. national parks

Badlands National Park’s rugged landscape is on full display along Badlands Loop Road. | Photo by Tomasz Zajda/stock.adobe.com Badlands National Park’s rugged landscape is on full display along Badlands Loop Road. | Photo by Tomasz Zajda/stock.adobe.com

The art of scenic driving has been in our national parks’ DNA since their beginning. Park roads have always been designed to be more than just expeditious ways to reach a destination. They represent a clear landscape ethic, a deliberate intent to reveal the beauty of the parks as unobtrusively as possible.

America is blessed to have dozens, if not hundreds, of examples—scenic drives that show off some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. Our list here is a cross-section, not a top 10 list. But all represent the visionary credo that makes driving in our national parks such an irresistible pleasure.

1. Blue Ridge Parkway

Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, North Carolina and Virginia

Distance: 469 miles

The Blue Ridge Parkway offers forest and mountain views in North Carolina and Virginia. | Photo by jonbilous/stock.adobe.com

The Blue Ridge Parkway offers forest and mountain views in North Carolina and Virginia. | Photo by jonbilous/stock.adobe.com

Here you’ll find hundreds of miles of mountain and forest views as the route winds smoothly and slowly (max speed is 45 mph) between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. Because the road was built for scenic touring, its dozens of overlooks and picnic areas are placed for maximum inspiration.

Examples: Waterrock Knob for long-range Appalachian views, and Mabry Mill for a taste of early-20th-century working life. Also along the way are Mount Mitchell, highest peak in the East (6,684 feet); Linville Gorge, deepest east of the Grand Canyon; and Whitewater Falls (411 feet), highest in the East.

2. Park Loop Road

Acadia National Park, Maine

Distance: 27 miles

Park Loop Road curves under a picturesque bridge in Acadia National Park. | Photo by Nick Vendetta/stock.adobe.com

Park Loop Road curves under a picturesque bridge in Acadia National Park. | Photo by Nick Vendetta/stock.adobe.com

Few drives pack such scenic punch in so few miles as this loop through the eastern side of Mount Desert Island, linking everything that makes Acadia special. The road represents the vision of park benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the brilliance of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Each bend offers new views of creeks, forests, mountains, sea cliffs, islands, and even a rare (for Acadia) sandy beach.

Don’t miss the view from Cadillac Mountain—at 1,530 feet, it’s the park's highest point (vehicle reservation required for Cadillac Summit Road from May to October). And be sure to pause for popovers and tea at the venerable Jordan Pond House.

Note: Most of the Park Loop Road is closed to vehicles from December 1 to April 15.

3. Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Distance: about 18 miles

Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park courses through four forest ecosystems. | Photo by Larry Knupp/stock.adobe.com

Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park courses through four forest ecosystems. | Photo by Larry Knupp/stock.adobe.com

Great Smoky is the most biodiverse park in the system—scientists have identified 20,000 species here—so it’s no surprise that variety is the hallmark of this drive that cuts through 4 different forest ecosystems as it winds through the park. How winding is it? At one point known as The Loop, the road passes over itself in a 360-degree curve.

Driving from east to west, you’ll trace the West Prong Little Pigeon River as you climb and slice through the Appalachians to reach a high point of 5,046 feet at Newfound Gap. Views of seemingly infinite ridgelines unfold, best enjoyed from turnouts like Campbell Overlook, where you can see lowlands and high peaks in the same vista. Pause at the Chimney Tops Overlook to see a distinctive sandstone double summit.

And time permitting, take the 7-mile side trip to Clingmans Dome, highest peak in the park. Great view? What do you think?

4. Badlands Loop Road

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Distance: 22 miles

Badlands Loop Road winds through Badlands National Park in South Dakota. | Photo by Tomasz Zajda/stock.adobe.com

Badlands Loop Road winds through Badlands National Park in South Dakota. | Photo by Tomasz Zajda/stock.adobe.com

In Badlands, you don’t have to choose among scenic roads to drive—Highway 240, known as the Badlands Loop Road, is the park experience. The route links virtually every one of the park’s hiking trails and overlooks, and every viewpoint is worth a stop. Each reveals a different aspect of the rugged, exposed sedimentary landscape carved by rainfall and runoff into fantastical pinnacles, canyons, and buttes. Some sites interpret the region’s human history, such as Ancient Hunters Overlook, where the Lakota stampeded bison off a cliff.

5. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Distance: 30 miles

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park winds past Cerro Castellan, or Castellan Peak. | Photo by paulleong/stock.adobe.com

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park winds past Cerro Castellan, or Castellan Peak. | Photo by paulleong/stock.adobe.com

This drive in the western heart of Big Bend distills the essence of the park: a feeling of remoteness in time and space, and a palpable sense of what long-ago travelers and pioneers must have experienced. The drive culminates in one of the park’s signature views: Santa Elena Canyon, where 1,500-foot cliffs tower above the Rio Grande.

Along the way, savor the scenery—the wild Chisos Mountains are a constant presence. And soak up some history, too: At Sam Nail Ranch, take a short walk through a desert oasis with a working windmill. After admiring the view from Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, return the same way for what seems an entirely new experience.

Read more: Enjoy a drive on one of these 8 national scenic byways

6. Trail Ridge Road

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Distance: 48 miles

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the nation's highest continuous paved road. | Photo by Danita Delimont/stock.adobe.com

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the nation's highest continuous paved road. | Photo by Danita Delimont/stock.adobe.com

You don’t have to appreciate engineering to savor the cross-Rockies drive on Trail Ridge Road, but if you do, you’ll love it all the more.

It’s the country’s highest continuous paved road—topping out at 12,183 feet—yet it’s a pleasure to drive, with broad, sweeping curves, gradients never exceeding 7%, stunning mountain scenery around every bend, and plenty of photo-op overlooks.

Driving east to west, you ascend from ponderosa pine to subalpine spruce-fir forest to treeless alpine tundra as you proceed from Estes Park to the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley. Long views of the Rockies continuously unfold, but also look for wildlife such as elk and moose, plus rare alpine wildflowers and the stunted, wind-worn trees that mark the edge of the tree line.

7. Scenic Byway 12

Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Utah

Distance: 123 miles

Utah's Scenic Byway 12 links Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks. | Photo by Paul Brady/stock.adobe.com

Utah's Scenic Byway 12 links Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks. | Photo by Paul Brady/stock.adobe.com

Scenic Byway 12 links 2 of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, and slices through the heart of the state’s red-rock country in between. Absolutely, spend a few hours driving Bryce’s 19-mile paved route (Highway 63) along the dramatic precipice of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and ogle the hoodoos and erosion-carved amphitheaters.

Don’t miss Sunset Point and the view of Thor’s Hammer. And spend a couple of hours on Capitol Reef’s 8-mile Scenic Drive. Also, check out Kodachrome Basin, with its cylindrical stone “sedimentary pipes,” and marvel at the vast wonders of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Bonus: Cool towns like Escalante, Boulder, and Torrey cater to adventurous travelers.

Read more: A delicate balance at Arches National Park

8. Going-to-the-Sun Road

Glacier National Park, Montana

Distance: 50 miles

Visitors need a reservation to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park during summer months. | Photo by tristanbnz/stock.adobe.com

Visitors need a reservation to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park during summer months. | Photo by tristanbnz/stock.adobe.com

Completed in 1933, Going-to-the-Sun Road was carefully designed to reveal dramatic scenery from Lake McDonald up and over the Rockies at Logan Pass (6,646 feet, where you’re pretty certain to spot sure-footed mountain goats and possibly a grizzly) and down to Saint Mary Falls.

The road has one particularly dramatic switchback: the Loop, which makes a sharp 180-degree turn below a sheer cliff called the Garden Wall. Along the way, you’ll see rivers, waterfalls, and forests; plus tunnels, rock walls, and stone-arch bridges—nature and man in wonderfully engineered harmony.

From May 27 to September 11, you’ll need a reservation for the road.

9. Park Boulevard

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Distance: 29 miles

Park Boulevard rolls past Joshua Tree National Park's namesake trees. | Photo by Markus/stock.adobe.com

Park Boulevard rolls past Joshua Tree National Park's namesake trees. | Photo by Markus/stock.adobe.com

Nearly all the wonders of Joshua Tree are on vivid display as Park Boulevard makes an open loop across the northern third of the park from the West Entrance to park headquarters in Twentynine Palms. Massive boulders punctuate every horizon. Spiny Joshua trees, yucca, and seasonal wildflowers are in abundance.

As you proceed south, you’ll see the aptly named Wonderland of Rocks on your left and soon arrive at Hidden Valley, where you can hop out and explore a maze of soaring monzogranite and watch climbers challenge the sheer faces. A short side trip and 1.1-mile hike lead to Barker Dam and the rare sight of water in the desert. After the road veers east, you’ll see old ranch ruins and come to signature formations such as Skull Rock and Split Rock before heading north back to State Route 62.

Read more: 7 awesome hikes in Joshua Tree National Park

10. Lower Grand Loop Road

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Distance: 96 miles

Yellowstone National Park's Steamboat Geyser is the tallest active geyser on Earth. | Photo by Andriy Blokhin/stock.adobe.com

Yellowstone National Park's Steamboat Geyser is the tallest active geyser on Earth. | Photo by Andriy Blokhin/stock.adobe.com

A loop through the heart of Yellowstone is a nonstop succession of geological wonders and the ever-present possibility of charismatic wildlife.

If you start from the West Yellowstone entrance and loop clockwise from Madison, you’ll trace the Gibbon River (watch for elk and bison) hit the multihued Artist Paintpots and then Norris Geyser Basin, home to Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world. And that’s only a small segment of the loop!

In Hayden Valley, broad grassy views may serve up pronghorn, grizzly bears, and even a wolf pack, while geese and pelicans loll in the Yellowstone River. The loop traces Yellowstone Lake for 21 miles before the final leg takes you to Old Faithful. Miss the eruption? Stick around!

Robert Earle Howells has contributed to 5 National Geographic books on national parks.

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