Pack your hiking shoes, your camera and some camping gear, because some of the most epic drives in the United States are hidden inside National Parks or are scenic routes managed by the NPS. From alpine routes that rise to over 12,000 feet above seal level to dramatic canyon drives—and even one road that requires all-terrain tires, four wheel drive and high clearance—these are 10 roads that become adventures in themselves. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this August, grab a friend, load up your rig and celebrate with that all-American pastime: the road trip.
Trail Ridge Road
Nestled in Rocky Mountain National Park, this highway to the sky has curves in all the right places—because enjoying the drive is the point, here—and a steady, steep incline. Climb to over 12,000 feet starting in evergreen forests that bleed away into more alpine greenery before cresting into tundra. With 11 miles of the 48-mile route above the tree line, the views are jaw dropping—as you might expect.
Going to the Sun Road
Winding through Montana’s Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road is 50 miles of Rocky Mountain views. Recognized as one of the first roads to be built over mountaintops, rather than around or under, this stretch of asphalt has gorgeous alpine views nearly year round. Building the road over the mountains comes with it's own challenges, chiefly snow. Massive snow-plow operations have to be undertaken every year to get the road open (you can usually count on it being open from mid-June through mid-October). If you'd rather relax and enjoy the view, book a ride on one of the "Red Jammers," historic 1930s era buses that have been fully modernized and that offer tours departing from both sides of Glacier National Park.
The Racetrack in Death Valley
In the heart of scorching Death Valley National Park, the Racetrack, a dry lakebed, has mysterious rocks that seem to move on their own. They only evidence is the long tracks in the dirt behind them. The approximately 26-mile road to Racetrack is known to be treacherous, so bring your high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle and a spare tire, and prepare to solve any problems on your own since help and cellphone reception are miles away.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Spanning through North Carolina and Virginia for miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway is famous for its winding, curvy track. The parkway meanders past the Pisgah National Forest and Cherokee National Forest for miles of scenic viewing most popular in fall—for the changing leaves—and spring—for the new growth. Tie it in with a stop in Asheville, North Carolina, for the city's famed craft breweries, and with stops at Mount Mitchell (highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River) and in charming Charlottesville, Virginia, near the northern terminus of the Parkway.
Teton Scenic Loop Drive
Tracing through Grand Teton National Park, the Scenic Loop Drive (comprised of Teton Park Road and U.S. 191, plus Jenny Lake Road) takes visitors approximately 42 miles through the park, and a smart offshoot from Hwy. 191 onto Antelope Flats Road will lead you right up to the T.A. Moulton Barn. The barn was sold to the NPS as the last standing building of a homestead built between 1910 and 1950, and today the structure is one of the most heavily photographed barns in the country because of the Teton mountain range looming in the background. Famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams set up his camera here and inspired a generation of hikers with his long-exposure photos of the countryside.
Natchez Trace Parkway
At more than 400 miles long, the Natchez Trace Parkway—extending through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi—serves as a link to early settlers and Indians who used the trails hundreds of years ago. The "sunken trace," the original pathway worn deep into the soil, is just a short walk from the road and lends itself to nature photography, as does the summit of Little Mountain at the Jeff Busby Park. Consider it a perfect way to route yourself on a Deep South tour from historic Natchez, Mississippi, to buzzing Nashville, Tennessee. Elvis fans, take a quick break while passing through Tupelo, Mississippi, to see the King of Rock and Roll's humble birthplace.
Tioga Pass Road
Highway 120, or Tioga Pass Road, runs through thick forests in Yosemite National Park, crossing over to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas. Open from May to October, Tioga lends views of alpine flower meadows, reflective lakes and high peaks. Stop at Olmstead Point and train binoculars on Half Dome to see hikers, small as ants, ascend the iconic mountain peak. Other prime stops include Lembert Dome, where a half-day hike leads up the backside of the dome for a huge pay-off view, and Tenaya Lake for some super-scenic canoeing and fishing.
Kolob Terrace Road
As an off-the-beaten-path destination in Zion National Park, Kolob Terrace Road takes a big slice of the cake for the best back road scenery. The road connects to popular hiking spots like the Subway and Hoodoo City but also connects to more isolated locations like Das Boot and South Guardian Angel. Head up the Terrace to Lava Points for a majority of the wondrous scenic driving that the route offers.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
Looking for a scenic drive? Take the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway through California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Follow the route for 50 miles of picture-perfect mountains by starting in the Sierra Nevada foothills and ending in California's Kings Canyon National Park. Highlights along the way include the rugged whitewater canyon of the Kaweah River and the pictographs on Hospital Rock, which are well worth the short hike. In fact, the hiking along this route is as epic as the drive; reasonably short jaunts take you to alpine lakes, rocky prominences and waterfalls.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Although this parkway was created for recreational driving in Virginia and D.C., today this scenic drive hidden within urban D.C. primarily serves the serious purpose of providing access to historical sites like the Arlington Memorial Bridge and Avenue, Fort Hunt Park, Netherlands Carillon and more. Begin or end your drive with a visit to President Washington's former estate, Mount Vernon.