Some people believe that summer is the only time to road trip to America’s national parks, but road trips and national park visits can be enjoyed year-round. Whether you're searching for sweeping views of the ocean coast or an unforgettable escapade through scenic hiking trails, there is a perfect U.S. national park adventure for every season.
WINTER: ‘DITCH THE COLD TO EXPLORE THE DESERT' TRIP
Death Valley National Park, Alabama Hills, Joshua Tree National Park
Let’s start with the off-season when most national parks are less frequently visited. This offers more freedom to tour without major crowds. Winter road trips in the U.S. also mean unique views featuring stunning white winter snow caps against the natural rock formations. And don’t fret, a winter road trip is just as safe as a summer trip, as long as you’re prepared and your car is properly equipped.
A trip to the desert in the winter is ideal to avoid the infamously extreme heat of Death Valley, where temperatures have reached a record high of 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Spend a couple of days at the notorious rainbow-colored rocks at Artists Palette. Stop by Zabriskie Point to explore the multicolored rock formations and see why some believe it looks like Neapolitan ice cream. And end each night of your trip with stargazing! Stretching down the southeastern border of California and extending into Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills, Death Valley National Park has one of the darkest night skies in the United States.
Just over an hour away are the Alabama Hills, a popular hiking and camping destination located in central California near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. The rock formations, combined with the background view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, make this place a captivating stop. If you’re a film nerd, the Alabama Hills Movie Road should be on your list. This road is a popular location for movie sets, primarily for American Westerns like The Round-Up (1920), The Lone Ranger (1938), and The Man from Utah (1934). More recent films include Django Unchained, Iron Man, and Gladiator.
And if you’re not ready to go home quite yet, stop at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. This park offers a variety of iconic natural phenomena, from the cholla cacti to the Joshua Trees to the spectacular boulders.
SPRING: ‘LEAP INTO THE EVERGLADES' TRIP
Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve
Spring is the most colorful and lively season for a road trip on the East coast, as flowers bloom, snow melts, and animals come out from hibernation. Just make sure you carry that bear deterrent spray and continuously make noise while hiking on the trails!
South Florida’s Everglades National Park will not disappoint, especially if you’re interested in animal watching. This national park has the largest subtropical wilderness in the entire country, so the biodiversity is out of this world. Nicknamed “River of Grass,” the majority of this subtropical wetland ecosystem is only accessible by boat—so plan accordingly.
Adjacent to Everglades National Park, you’ll find Big Cypress National Preserve. This free, highly-accessible wildlife preserve is located 90 minutes northwest by car. While there are few hiking trails in Big Cypress, due to the nature of Florida’s wetlands, “swamp walks” are a popular activity to consider during early Spring. If you’re up for an adventure and don’t mind getting a little muddy, experience the exotic birds and wildlife of Big Cypress by taking a swamp walk along Gator Hook Trail. If you’re looking for something relaxing, consider paddling along the Turner River via paddle boat with a tour guide.
SUMMER: ‘DIVE INTO THE WATERFALL’ TRIP
Big Sur, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks
Now for the most popular season for road tripping. Roads are open, school is out, and the sun is shining. For many, summer trips consist of finding the ideal adventure involving water.
A popular summer destination is California’s Big Sur, a 90-mile strip described as one of the most iconic stretches of scenery down the California coastline. Take a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), where you’ll find fields of flowers, endless ocean views, and multiple state parks. Take a hike on the coast, watch cloud inversions, camp by the beach, and—best of all—cool down in the Pacific Ocean.
Directly east of Big Sur are California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Visit the world’s largest trees, hike along rivers, witness spectacular waterfalls, and backpack through Mineral King. You can even visit the Tunnel Log of Sequoia National Park, a fallen tree made into a drivable tunnel.
To extend your adventure, drive up to Yosemite National Park in eastern central California. Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, but it also has deep valleys, meadows, and wildlife. If you’re a climber, this is a quintessential climbing area. Or take the scenic route and go bird watching or fishing.
FALL: ‘CHASING THE SHADES OF FALL’ Trip
Shenandoah National Park, Acadia National Park
Autumn—when the weather starts to cool down and the leaves begin to transform into those beautiful colors we all know and love.
Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is at its peak in autumn and is one of the best places in the U.S. to see fall colors. This park offers sweeping panoramic views and the perfect autumnal weather. It’s best to visit towards mid-September since this is prime time for the transition of the leaves. Another tip is that the higher you go in elevation, the more change in color you’ll see. The leaves at lower elevations will eventually transition as the season progresses. A great introduction to this park is to drive the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive, which is a must-do at least once in your lifetime. You’ll see all the reds, oranges, yellows, and greens. Take your time and soak it all in!
Another excellent choice for “leaf-peeping” is Maine’s Acadia National Park. Fall is prime time for this park, and surprisingly, the crowds are typically light. It’s one of the most visited national parks in the country, with its Atlantic coastline, forest trails, and towering granite peaks. Acadia is also popular for its beautiful hiking trails. Recommendations include the Cadillac South Ridge Trail, Precipice Loop, and Jordan Cliffs. And don’t forget to stop by the town of Bar Harbor for some delicious Maine lobster!
Malinda Ouch is a content creator, illustrator, and graphic designer based in Los Angeles. She is always seeking out her next adventure with her dog, Foster. When she's not on top of a snowy mountain or out in the desert slot canyons, Malinda can be found designing stationery and other products for her Etsy shop, Sun Bison.