National Park Road Trip: A Guide to Some of the Best National Parks in the Western United States
The west coast boasts some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery in the country.
Whether you’re wanting to stay in a comfortable bed, RVing or tent camping, there are plenty of options for you and your family.
We spent three months on a road trip visiting some of the top National Parks on the west coast of the US with our kids and loved every minute of it.
The National Park Service has many different passes for all types of visitors. You can visit their website here to check out what’s available.
You can follow our National Park road trip plan starting in California and arriving back in the same place, or carve your own path!
1. Joshua Tree National Park
Located in Southern California, this unique National Park is located in both the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
The Joshua Trees are mainly found on the Mojave side, where the conditions are more suited to this iconic tree, while the Colorado side of the park is home to the Creosote Bush, Cholla Cactus, and Ocotillo plants.
There is a shuttle that runs through the park during the busier months, and you can find the bus routes and times on their website. You can camp with your tent or set up your RV inside the National Park, and there are places to fill up your water and use the amenities at some of the campgrounds.
The park charges camping fees to stay within the park, and during the peak season you will need to book ahead on the NPS (National Park Service) website.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
One of the most recognisable and internationally famous National Parks in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Grand Canyon has slowly been carved out and shaped by the Colorado river for millions of years.
A site to be seen, this awe-inspiring canyon has much to offer for visitors young and old. With short walks to some of the most popular spots at the South Rim, to hikes into the basin of the canyon for experienced hikers. The basin hikes are not to be undertaken without proper planning and preparation.
There are some campgrounds in the National Park itself, but they book out up to 6 months in advance, so get in early! There are RV hook-ups and lots of accommodation in, and around Grand Canyon Village, and some accommodation in the park which can be found on the NPS website.
NOTE: While in the area don’t miss out on Antelope Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend. They are not National Parks, but they are amazing!
3. Zion National Park
Zion is a popular National Park and receives many visitors each year. Through the busy periods, April through to October, the canyon is only accessible via the shuttle bus.
Our tip is to get up early as there are long lines for those of us who like to sleep in!
The hiking is great, and there are hikes for all levels of fitness and skill. Even if you’re not much of a hiker you should definitely do at least one of the easier hikes, like the Lower Emerald Pool, which is pram accessible. We enjoyed some of the medium level hikes, but there are some really strenuous and breathtaking hikes too if you’re a serious hiker. Rock climbing and canyoning are popular at Zion.
There is one lodge within the park, and there are a couple of campgrounds around. You can also stay in the nearby towns of Springdale and Mount Carmel Junctions, which you can check out here.
4. Bryce Canyon
Just near Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park is a must see! This amazing amphitheater is formed by erosion, and the hoodoos are a unique sight to see.
A mecca for photographers, hikers, and stargazers alike, this park has good access via roads but I would aim to see the sights early as there are not a lot of parking spots available, and they fill up fast, especially when you have to compete with tour buses.
There are two campgrounds and one lodge within the park, and just near the lodge is a great place to get pizza. Other food and lodging options outside of the park can be found close by, and you can check those out here.
5. Grand Teton
Part of the Rocky Mountains, this beautiful park is great for hikers, rock climbers, and photographers with stunning mountain views and alpine lakes.
Grand Teton has many great hikes for all levels, but for all those international visitors make sure you’re prepared with a bear whistle and or spray, as this is bear country!
We were lucky enough to see a bear cub who had just been given the boot, which means his mother had just kicked him out on his own. We also got to see elk, bison and a fox.
Grand Teton is a large park so most people drive, but we did see some bike packers while we were there. You can camp inside the park for a fee on a first in first served basis, and the most popular camping ground at Jenny Lake fills up fast, so aim to be there early in the morning to get a good spot.
If you’re not a camper and you prefer a proper bed, there are some lodges within the park and close by which you can look at here.
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6. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone was the very first National Park in the world and is one of the most interesting National Parks on the west coast.
With its abundant geothermal activity, Yellowstone holds more than half of the worlds geothermal features and is home to hot springs, mudholes, geysers, and fumaroles. One of the most popular attractions of the park is Old Faithful, called such because Rangers can predict when it is going to erupt almost to the minute.
Because of all the geothermal activity the plant life is abundant, which means the animals are too. Yellowstone has both brown and black bears living in the park, big horned sheep, elk, bison, grey wolves, coyote (which we saw), prong-horned sheep, white-tailed deer, lynx, mule deer and lots of birds.
The park is very large, and if you want to see it properly, it can’t be done in a day. You will definitely need a vehicle to get around as there is no public transport. However, there are tour companies and wildlife tours which operate within the park.
There are many camping spots within Yellowstone and reservations can be made on the same day you are visiting, or you can book further in advance if you are looking at coming in the high season. The spots for large RV’s are limited, so these you will have to book in advance if possible. The park offers many lodging options as well, but you will have to book these in advance. They do have regular cancellations so make sure you check back regularly if at first you don’t get what you’re after.
7. Glacier National Park
Glacier Park is near the border of Canada in the US state of Montana, and as you can imagine from the name it has some pretty amazing scenery. With mountain vistas, lakes and valleys, this beautiful park is high on the list of many people visiting the National Parks.
The Park is home to one of the largest natural habitats for grizzly bears, and you will find black bears here too. Make sure to follow the proper procedures for cooking, washing and storing food whilst in the park.
Getting to and around the park is best done by car, or you can catch a train to the park with Amtrak. There are some tour companies who operate within the park, and there is a shuttle which will take you down the road with the best views, called ‘Going to the Sun Road.’
Glacier Park is known for its hiking with over 700 miles of trails, so make sure you get out of that car, grab your bear spray and your rain jacket (just in case), and do some hiking!
Lodging and camping are available in the park itself, or for more options you can stay outside the park, which you can find here.
8. Mount Rainier National Park
From the peak of Mount Rainier (which is an active volcano) to the sub-alpine meadows, this National Park located in Washington State has an abundance of things on offer for its visitors.
If you are traveling there in summer you can enjoy beautiful hikes and waterfalls, or if you are a snow enthusiast you can go skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing.
The park is open year-round and consists of five main areas which are accessible by car. However due to weather sometimes parts of the park are closed, so check the official website for updates.
Once having arrived at one of the five areas, hiking is the best way to see what this stunning park has to offer.
Camping and lodging are available in the park, and for options just outside and around, you can look here.
9. Olympic National Park
Olympic Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located north-west of Seattle in Washington State.
If you think of Twilight, you’ll have an idea of what this place looks like. Now, you may not like Twilight and that’s fine, but it’s set in this beautiful location for a reason, other than constant cloud cover to protect the sparkly vampires from human eyes!
Olympic National Park conjures images of Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the park, and frozen glaziers. Think rivers and lakes, wildlife and forests and a protected coast.
The park itself doesn’t have any roads through it, but a ring road around it, so it is perfect for hikers. Again this is bear country, stay safe!
There are four lodging options within the park, some of which can be pretty expensive. There are many camping options within the park which are mostly on a first come, first served basis.
Around the park are small towns that have lodging options also.
NOTE: While not a National Park, if you are heading south, check out Mount Hood National Forest!
10. Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake was formed when Mount Mazama collapsed, and eventually over time, rain and snow melt collected in the crater and formed the lake. It is now the deepest lake in the US.
The best time to visit is late June to mid-October in the summer, when the rim drive is open. There is access to the lake itself via a steep track, and once there you can enjoy a boat tour on the lake.
Other activities include fishing, scuba diving (for experienced divers only), and of course hiking.
Accommodation in the park limited and weather dependant, so plan ahead. You can have a look at some other close by options here, but again they are somewhat limited.
11. Yosemite National Park
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most popular National Parks on the west coast. People come to see the spectacular granite cliffs and boulders formed by the Sierra fault line.
There are also 1800-year-old Sequoia Trees, rivers, streams, canyons, and a variety of valleys to enjoy. Yosemite is home to many animals, thanks to almost the whole park being designated wilderness.
Most people who visit head to Yosemite Valley, which means it can get very congested in the summer months, and can sometimes be better to take the shuttle around rather than drive. Check the local website for shuttle times and locations.
This park offers activities for water lovers, photographers, rock climbers, hikers, animal and nature lovers, stargazers and skiers. There really is something for everyone.
Camping and lodging can be found in the park but they fill up well in advance in the summer months, and sometimes even months before. Lots of cheaper accommodation can be found outside the park.
12. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
These two National Parks sit next to each other and provide visitors with a single experience. The Sequoia is named for its massive trees, and often called ‘The Land of the Giants,’ and the King Canyon for its deep valley river.
Between the two National Parks, visitors can experience the snow-covered alpine high country, to the hot and dry low lands. Most of the hiking here is day hikes of varying difficulty; the Big Stump Trail is a 2-mile loop and the shortest of the bunch.
The parks offer a free shuttle to get around, or you can go by car through the high altitude winding roads. Again lodging and camping are available within the park, or outside the park which you can find here.
13. Death Valley
Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world and the largest National Park in the 48 contiguous states of the US. The best time to visit is between November and March, during winter and early spring.
Expect to find an array of different environments here, not just desert. From salt flats to mineral stained rocks, to salt crystals covering the ground, to canyons and oddly shaped rocks.
The main attractions are mostly accessible by paved roads, but the dirt roads require a car with higher clearance as there is frequent wash boarding, uneven surfaces and erosion.
There is lodging available inside the park, and you can also stay close by in one of the towns. Check those out here.
Next Up – Party Time!
Before heading on to LA, where is the best place to stop? Las Vegas of course!
After all the crazy road-tripping we needed a night off, so we headed to Vegas with the kids to see what it’s all about, and we had a blast!
Enjoy your trip!
Are you heading to Santa Cruz? We loved this chilled out beach town. Check out our post to see what to do and see there!
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