To properly visit every US National Park in a lifetime you really need a plan. In honor of the centennial anniversary of the US National Park system, data scientist Randal S. Olson used a brute force algorithm to find a road trip that is the most efficient way to visit all of them. For the most part, it is really a great route. However it doesn’t really seem built for people with anything other than a year to dedicate to this mission.
Since most Americans typically take only 1 week of vacation at a time, I diced up his route into more digestible chunks. So I present to you a variation that cuts out the longest stretches (like the nearly 24 hours of driving down into the tip of Florida.) What you are left with is a route never has a drive longer than 7 hours.
Right now my routes skip Alaska because it is a separate beast that requires float planes some driving and a lot of luck.
My rules for breaking these up as follows:
- Each day never has more than 6 hours of driving. I figure that is ideal because it is the amount of time between each meal of the day. Something about eating breakfast lunch and dinner on the road makes me feel awful. Keeping things down to 6 hours mean you can enjoy a dinner in your final destination.
- The itinerary for any one group should be doable within a week. This is to allow people who have to get back to work. Some of the trips are much shorter.
- I am willing to admit that not all parks require a full day visit.
- Hawaii, Dry Tortugas, and Isle Royal require special flights or ferryboat to the park (or between the previous one.) I include driving directions to the jumping off point. I did not include the time required to fly out there.
- The time listed in parenthesis is how long a drive it is from the previous park listed.
- I also list possible places where you could chain 2 itineraries together for longer vacations.
If you were to follow this you could visit all the National Parks in 19 separate 1 week trips. This includes 4 trips to the outlying territories like Alaska, Hawaii, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands.
For an in depth guide on how to see these National Parks in one week, read my Arizona itinerary.
- Grand Canyon
- Petrified Forest
- Carlsbad Cavern
- Guadalupe Mountains (42 min)
- Big Bend (6 hrs)
Note: Technically you could link this with Arizona. Guadalupe Mountains is 6.5 hrs from Saguaro.
- Grand Teton
- Yellowstone (3hr)
- Glacier (5 hr 49 min)
Note: It is 10 hours from North Cascades and 9 hours from Zion.
- North Cascades
- Mount Rainier (4hr)
- Olympic – Hoh rain forest (4.5 hr)
Note: It is 10 hours from Olympic to Crater Lake
- Crater Lake
- Redwood National (3.5 hours)
- Lassen Volcanic (4 hours)
- Yosemite (6 hours)
- Kings Canyon (4 hours)
- Sequoia (1 hour)
- Pinnacles (4 hours)
- Channel Islands (4 hours)
- Joshua Tree (3 hours)
- Death Valley (4 hours)
- Great Basin
- Zion (3 hr)
- Bryce (2 hr)
- Capitol Reef (2.5 hr)
- Arches (2.5 hr)
- Canyonlands (1 hr)
- Mesa Verde (2 hrs from Canyonlands)
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison (3 hrs)
- Great Sand Dunes (4 hrs)
- Rocky Mountain (5 hrs)
- Mammoth Cave to
- Great Smoky (5 hrs)
- Congaree (5.5 hrs)
Note: You could chain Shenandoah here by driving 7hrs
Midwest to East
- Cuyahoga Valley – Ohio
- Shenandoah (5.5 hrs) – North Carolina
- Biscayne National Park – Dante Fascell Visitor Center
- Everglades (Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center) (20 min)
- Dry Tortugas – Key West (3 hrs) + sea plane
Michigan and Isle Royale
- Isle Royale
- Grand Portage (via ferry) to Voyageurs (4.5 hrs)
- Wind Cave (6.5 hrs from Rocky Mountain)
- Badlands (1.5 hrs)
- Theodore Roosevelt (5 hrs)
- Hot springs (7.5 to mammoth Cave)
- National Park of American Samoa (U.S. National Park Service)
- Haleakalā Visitors Center – Maui
- Hawaii Volcanoes – big island