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Plan A National Park Road Trip Out West & Thank Yourself Later

by Megan Pavek

national park road trip

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s spring editorial intern Megan Pavek. Find her on Instagram at @megan.pavek. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at thezillennialzine@gmail.com.

Visiting national parks might be unfamiliar territory if you didn’t grow up near one, or didn’t spend a lot of time in the outdoors as a kid. Essentially, they are the embodiment of “The Great Outdoors” and one of the premier wilderness experiences. National parks are federally owned and protected land that provides recreation opportunities to the public. Some of the most stunning terrain and breathtaking landscapes in the country can be found in the National Park System (NPS) which is why it’s critical to rely on government resources to effectively conserve and manage these areas.

The purpose of NPS is to preserve parkland for generations to come, as we all have a right to experience the wonder and exhilaration behind the most sought-after geographical landmarks in the U.S. A national park road trip is a rite of passage, so pack your things and buckle up for the journey of a lifetime!

All Roads Lead West

national park road trip
national park roadtrip

Of the 63 national parks to choose from, the majority are located in the western U.S. Colorado is a great starting point because it has four national parks, and most notably is home to Rocky Mountain National Park. There are over 300 miles of trails leading to intoxicating mountain views, with alpine lakes hidden like jewels amongst the tall forests and rugged terrain.

This park is easily accessible and earns extra points for the city of Estes Park nestled just below. It’ll be difficult not to fall in love with this quaint mountain town that draws in millions of tourists each season. Having a city like Estes Park close by is very convenient for the sake of lodging, access to resources, and arguably the most important- cell service! Remember to book a park reservation in advance- timed entry permit reservations will be required to enter the park beginning May 26 through October 22, 2023.

If you have time extra time during your national park road trip, why not check out the other unique parks in the area? When in Rome- I mean- Colorado! Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can offer intimate views of steep cliffs, and gorgeous drives along the South and North Rims- which are particularly appealing during sunset. Mesa Verde National Park

showcases the rich cultural history of the Pueblo people with opportunities to view petroglyphs and excavated mesa villages. Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24/7 year-round, showcasing the tallest dunes in North America and earning extra points for being pet-friendly!

national park roadtrip
national park road trip

Wyoming & Montana

Aside from expansive rangeland and prominent cowboy culture, Wyoming is known for being the home of two must-see parks; Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Yellowstone is one of the most well-known national parks in America; a western icon otherwise known as “the world’s first national park” containing half of the world’s active geysers.

Just six hours south you can find Grand Teton National Park, which is dubbed the more underrated of the two. Here you’ll find one-of-a-kind mountain views and once-in-a-lifetime hikes. For a memorable experience, book a campsite through the park at Recreation.gov.

Further north in Montana lies Glacier National Park. Full of stunning views, vast wilderness, and challenging hikes, there is something for everyone to enjoy at this national park. Be sure to confirm that Going-to-the-Sun-Road is open before booking your trip. This road is incredibly scenic as it runs through the mountains and takes you from one side of the park to the other. There is ample signage and opportunity to stop for hikes and points of interest along the way which is helpful because remember, you probably won’t have cell service!

Washington

 
 
 
 
 
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The Pacific Northwest spans ocean coastlines, immense mountain ranges, rainforests, and active volcanoes. Around every corner, you’ll find distinctive views of an area in the U.S. that is like no other. 

The crown jewel of Mount Rainier National Park is of course Mount Rainier itself, standing at 14,410 feet tall. This is no mere mountain; its status as an active volcano and the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. makes this iconic summit a timeless landmark on the PNW horizon.

Washington has no shortage of mountain views. Head east to North Cascades National Park to explore some of the finest mountain country in America. In such a beautiful and rugged area, don’t be surprised if you spot a grizzly bear in the distance! It’s important to know when you’re in bear country and come fully prepared. All hikers should carry bear spray, travel in groups, make noise so that their presence is known, and always give bears as much space as possible.

Inside Olympic National Park you can find some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, presenting the opportunity to hike through rainforests, climb mountains, camp on the beach, and spy tide pools on the coast. This is a large park with a lot to offer, so be sure to map out the most efficient route and be aware of the time it takes to get to each point of interest.

Oregon

 
 
 
 
 
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There are plenty of reasons to visit the beautiful state of Oregon, but Crater Lake National Park is at the top of our list. Crater Lake is not only the deepest lake in America, but also one of the deepest lakes in the world. On a sunny day, the water turns a shade of blue that’s indescribable. Be sure to check the weather cam footage on the national park website before your trek into the park and confirm there is clear visibility. Most view the lake from up top but if you’re feeling adventurous and want to hike down, Cleetwood Cove is the only way to access the lakeshore.

Start Planning Now

Planning a national park road trip for the first time can be intimidating, but it will be well worth it in the end! Always remember the essentials- research and plan ahead, know if you’re in bear country and bring bear spray, expect to not have cell service, and pack additional supplies in case of an emergency. The weather conditions inside a national park can change quickly so check updates and weather cams frequently. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the trip of a lifetime!

Are you going to plan a national park road trip? Let us know where you would stop in the comment section below!

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