Go West – Driving four US National Parks
The US National Parks are grand, wildly diverse and pretty far apart. Visiting several over a week or two takes planning. You don’t want to rush the ride! In too much of a rush to pull over and watch Buffalo sparing because you need to get to the next hotel? Miss the waterfall because you’re snacky? Forget it!
Plan well, stock the car and surrender to opportunities along the way. Here’s a quick, road trip itinerary from Yosemite, up to the coastal Redwood National Park, to Crater Lake and the wonders of Mount Rainier.
I’ve driven across the country several times as a youngster – whiling away the time by fighting with my siblings in the back seat, but I’d never done it as an adult. Over three weeks, two couples – my sweetheart, his son, and wife piled into their car and worked our way up the west coast and across to Omaha before parting ways. It not only gave us plenty of time to hang out, but we hiked, watched wildlife and cozied up to some of the most spectacular natural environments in the country. This first part of the trip took us about seven days but you could see these four US National Parks in far less time.
Yosemite National Park
Heading north from Los Angeles we ventured into Yosemite first. We have family close to the Southern entrance, so it made a natural launching spot. While we were there it was heartbreaking to see huge swaths of trees killed by a devastating bark beetle. Forest fires have followed and we need to remember they’re part of a natural cycle. My hope is that the current fires bring new growth for generations to come. Still, once the smoke has cleared nothing surpasses wandering through Yosemite Valley. I highly recommend going early in the morning to avoid the crowds. We hiked a bit, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and drove out as the line of cars coming into the park slowed to a crawl.
Redwood State and US National Parks
To escape the summer heat we headed west, skirting the San Francisco Bay Area and up the Pacific coast to wander through the National Redwood Forest. Luckily the moist fogs that often wrap that part of the coast lifted for the day we drove through. There are many day hikes and campgrounds for longer-term term visitors but we were on a mission. I wanted to stay in the area but we’d set up lodging at our next stop, near Crater Lake.
Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake is one of the most startling of the US National Parks. Nothing can prepare you for the stunning blue of the water. The road up gives few hints and there are many trails around and into the crater. In the late summer, small boats navigate around the lake. We were too early in the season to catch that. After we’d wandered for hours, we wound down the far side of the ancient volcanic crater to walk Pinnacles Trail and see the strange hoodoos, towering ash cones, that have developed from ages of erosion.
Mt. Rainier National Park
Our next choice of US National Parks was just a half-day drive away. While living in the NW during my college years, I’d admired it from a distance but never got close. The majesty of the mountain stunned me as we wound up the summit road.
The lodge is constructed of old-growth redwood and has been a destination for vacationers since it opened. There are hanging glaciers nearby and many trails from easy to advanced. The best part about staying at the lodge was a chance to hike as the sun set, watching wildlife, enjoying the flowers as most of the other visitors left the park. Mount Rainier is close to Seattle a wonderful city and with lots of flights available.
Glacier National Park
Our next destination sent us east to Glacier National Park in Montana. The route leads from Seattle and through Spokane. Both are lovely destinations in themselves. Seattle is the better known, but Spokane has the River Park and waterfall. It’s a great stop on a long drive.
The park has been plagued by recent fires but nature will rebound. I highly recommend driving or taking one of the many public transportation options up the Road to the Sun. No matter what the weather is you’ll enjoy the views.
Driving four Western US National Parks
- Start planning early – reserve lodging in and near the US National Parks at least 6 months in advance to avoid disappointment and get the best prices.
- The US National Park Service has free days and discounts for seniors. Read my earlier post about the special days here.