Traveling through national parks in a car is not the same thing as experiencing them on foot. But as the fall weather turns colder, going for a drive can be a fun, comfortable way to see the countryside—and these ten parks offer plenty of opportunities to get out and explore along the way.
1. Many Glacier Road and others, Glacier National Park, Montana
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular drives in the National Park System. However, this winding byway is closed by late fall and stays closed under a blanket of snow until well into the spring. Fortunately, every road in Glacier is scenic. Two Medicine Road and Many Glacier Road on the east side of the park offer fantastic fall color, with knee-high huckleberry, fireweed, and dogwood under an umbrella of golden aspen and a deep blue sky. On the west side, North Fork Road passes through a forest of blazing larch. All of these drives showcase mountain peaks dusted with early season snows, giving the feeling of winter above and autumn below.
2. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
This stunning seven-and-a-half-mile drive is named after a local lumberjack who loved the view from the bluffs so much, he helped build a road through the difficult terrain in the 1960s so others could enjoy it, too. Visitors who take a self-guided tour of this loop can enjoy overlooks of several lakes, including a gorgeous vantage point over Lake Michigan (shown here); views of the park’s famous sand dunes, including the enormous but rapidly eroding Sleeping Bear Dune, which scientists estimate to be around 2,000 years old; forests of sugar maple and beech trees; and plenty of spots along the way to enjoy a picnic, take a walk, or just linger in the sunshine.
3. Conzelman Road, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
The five-mile route from the Golden Gate Bridge north to Point Bonita offers a breathtaking look at San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean from an area known as the Marin Headlands. Fate generally deals drivers on this road one of two options: a crystal-clear day with picture-perfect views of the bridge and the city, or a cold and foggy day with equally beautiful mist-shrouded vistas. Visitors who arrive at Point Bonita between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday can also tour the working lighthouse there to learn more about the area’s history—and to see even more spectacular views. Check the Park Conservancy website for other events at this popular park.
4. Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
Unlike many Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg is so intact that visitors can still get a sense of the landscape as it was in 1863 when the turning point in the American Civil War took place there. Visitors taking a self-guided auto tour around the battlefield can experience the rolling fields and scenic mountains of southern Pennsylvania while trying to imagine the agrarian landscape torn apart by the war. Fall is an ideal time to explore the area, to feel the crisp air, see the falling leaves, and imagine Lincoln making his famous address 151 Novembers ago.
5. Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, Washington
Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island offers a network of rural roads that connect farms, cemeteries, historic structures, scenic overlooks, trailheads, beaches, and a restored lighthouse. The island features dramatic bluffs overlooking the Puget Sound, as well as woods, grassland prairies, military forts, and historic Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington State. On a clear day, one can see—from the windshield—Mount Baker (shown here) and other mountains in the Cascade Range, as well as the Olympic Mountains to the west across the ocean. Lucky visitors might even catch sight of whales or a passing submarine!
6. Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Cades Cove is one of the most popular areas within the nation’s most-visited national park, so it may not be the best place to go looking for solitude. However, this 11-mile loop is a lovely spot to view fall colors and see some of the park’s abundant wildlife, from bears to foxes to wild turkeys. Visitors can spend the better part of a day exploring the area’s historic structures and quietly strolling along trails and abandoned roads. It’s also an ideal choice for those who prefer to travel on the seat of a bicycle.
7. Cathedral Valley Loop, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Visitors looking to explore this remote, 59-mile backcountry route will need a high-clearance vehicle and emergency supplies, including plenty of fuel and water. So few people take this drive, you might not see another car the entire trip, which is part of the appeal. What you will see: incredible layered sandstone monoliths, multicolored mesas and buttes, a sinkhole made of gypsum, and sweeping, colorful desert views in all directions. Even the names of the landmarks along the loop—Brushy Basin, Bentonite Hills, Temple of the Sun—exude beauty and adventure. Check with a ranger before you go, as weather conditions vary, and these rough, unpaved roads are sometimes impassable.
8. Summit Road to Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine
The 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the Atlantic Coast and one of the first places in the country where you can see the sunrise. The short but scenic Summit Road twists for 3.5 miles up the mountain with observation points along the way; the panoramic views at the top are one of the main attractions at the park. Extend the drive and enjoy more of the rocky, rugged coast with a trip around the Park Road Loop, a 27-mile circuit with stops at Jordan Pond, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Cliff. But go soon, or plan for the spring: The road is closed December through April.
9. Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
The driving tour of Antietam National Battlefield is surprisingly beautiful and serene, given that the park commemorates the bloodiest single day on American soil. From the historic farms where townspeople were shocked by the raging Civil War battle, to the cornfield that saw some of the heaviest fighting, to the dirt road now known as Bloody Lane, to the Burnside Bridge where troops engaged in a deadly standoff, every turn in the road is rich with history. For an even more solemn experience, take the driving tour during the park’s annual luminary event in early December when staff light 23,000 candles throughout the park—one for each casualty.
10. Park Loop Road, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
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Striking mountains, lush meadows, the meandering Snake River, and plentiful wildlife: This 42-mile loop has all this and more, and this simply gorgeous drive is one of the top attractions at Grand Teton. A handful of overlooks provide some of the best vistas in the park, as well as the chance to see bison, elk, pronghorn, bald eagles, and waterfowl in their natural habitat. Take side trips to Jenny Lake and up to the top of Signal Mountain to explore more of the landscape, and spend time at Mormon Row to see historic homesteads, including the famous T. A. Moulton Barn and other picturesque structures.
About the author
Natalie Levine Program Manager, Government Affairs
Natalie Levine joined the Government Affairs team at NPCA in 2013. In her current role as Program Manager, she works on a variety of topics including visitor use, recreation, natural resources, congressional engagement, and legislative policy and strategy.