The Optimal U.S. National Parks Centennial Road Trip

In August 2016, the National Park Service celebrates their 100th year of managing the United States’ system of beautiful national parks. So what’s a better way to celebrate 100 years of stewardship than to visit all of the national parks in one epic road trip?

If you’ve followed my blog for the past year or so, you’ll know that I’ve made a hobby of optimizing various road trips around the U.S., so I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity to optimize yet another road trip.

U.S. National Parks

If you’re unfamiliar with the U.S. national park system, it consists of 59 protected areas across the U.S. that are managed by the U.S. National Park Service. Many of the national parks are known for their natural beauty, unique geological features, unusual ecosystems, and/or recreational opportunities, which makes them ideal spots to visit if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. [NPS]

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park. [NPS]

Visit Yellowstone and experience the world’s first national park. Marvel at a volcano’s hidden power rising up in colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. Explore mountains, forests, and lakes to watch wildlife and witness the drama of the natural world unfold. Discover the history that led to the conservation of our national treasures “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” [NPS]

12 of the national parks are in Alaska, Hawaii, and other U.S. territories, which can make them difficult to drive to unless you have a flying car. Thus for road trip, we’re going to focus on the national parks that span the 48 contiguous states in the mainland United States. Don’t worry: that limitation still leaves us 47 national parks, which should be plenty for one road trip.

The optimal road trip to the U.S. National Parks

In total, this road trip spans 14,498 miles (23,333 km) of road and will take roughly 2 months if you’re traveling at a breakneck pace. I’ve designed this road trip to form a circle around the U.S., so you can hop on at any point and proceed whatever direction you like. Just make sure to follow the agenda from that point on if you want to follow the optimal route!

The Optimal U.S. National Parks Centennial Road Trip

Click here for an interactive version

Here’s the Google Maps for the full trip: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Here’s the full list of national parks in order:

  1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  2. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  3. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
  4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
  5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas
  7. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  8. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
  9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
  10. Everglades National Park, Florida
  11. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
  12. Biscayne National Park, Florida
  13. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
  14. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  15. Acadia National Park, Maine
  16. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
  17. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  18. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
  19. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  20. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  21. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
  22. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  23. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
  24. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
  25. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  26. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
  27. Arches National Park, Utah
  28. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
  29. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
  30. Zion National Park, Utah
  31. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
  32. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  33. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  34. Glacier National Park, Montana
  35. North Cascades National Park, Washington
  36. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  37. Olympic National Park, Washington
  38. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
  39. Redwood National and State Parks, California
  40. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
  41. Yosemite National Park, California
  42. Kings Canyon National Park, California
  43. Sequoia National Park, California
  44. Pinnacles National Park, California
  45. Channel Islands National Park, California
  46. Joshua Tree National Park, California
  47. Death Valley National Park, California

Want to make your own road trip?

If you like the idea of taking an optimal road trip but don’t like the locations I chose, don’t fret: you can make your own road trip!

This time around, I used the Gurobi TSP solver to optimize this road trip. Check out Nathan Brixius’ blog post to learn how to make your own, or check out my alternative methods to optimizing road trips using Python and Google Maps.

If Python coding is beyond you, there are web sites like RouteXL.com that will do it for you. They optimize road trips with up to 20 stops for free, and 20+ stops for a nominal fee.

Happy road tripping!

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

Posted in data visualization, machine learning Tagged with: , , , ,
  • Mario Lurig

    Ditch Acadia and all 3 FL parks and it would be less of a slog!

    • Let me know if you have any questions about GAs — they’re wonderfully powerful algorithms!

    • In total, this road trip spans 14,498 miles (23,333 km) of road and will take roughly 2 months if you’re traveling at a breakneck pace. I’ve designed this road trip to form a circle around the U.S., so you can hop on at any point and proceed whatever direction you like. Just make sure to follow the agenda from that point on if you want to follow the optimal route! Really?

    • If you’ve followed my blog for the past year or so, you’ll know that I’ve made a hobby of optimizing various road trips around the U.S., so I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity to optimize yet another road trip.

  • TRH

    Another great road trip !
    It won’t need to go far, but you’ll actually need the aforementioned flying car to get to the Dry Tortugas

    • Good point. 🙂 They offer a ferry to the Dry Tortugas, don’t they? So not completely out of the question to drive most of the way there.

      • TRH

        You are correct on the ferry to the Dry Tortugas. I did a similar mapping using your GA algorithm and decided that the Dry Tortugas, Channel Islands and the Apostle Islands weren’t reachable via car so I excluded them. But they are all relatively easily reached via ferry, so it’s a fairly arbitrary decision !

        • Willie Gruber

          The Channel Island NP Visitor’s Centre is in Ventura. You park your car there and ride a boat or be content with the interpretive displays. Similarly, in every other national park, you have to get out of your car and walk (even if only a short distance) to see anything.

  • I love the idea – and implementation – of mapping a large scale road trip.

    Many years ago, during one of the academic chapters of my professional career, I took the summer off, bought a van, and took my dog on a 3-month, 15,000-mile journey around the US, prioritizing national parks, monuments, forests and other natural wonders over cities, and following a very similar route as depicted here. I have an old AAA map of the USA on which I used a marker to trace the route, but after reading this (and earlier posts on this theme), I’m prompted to go back and see if I can manually generate a Google Map charting the journey.

    I think it’s important to note that it’s important to decide what you want to optimize, in planning road trips or any endeavor. My interpretation of this map – and the earlier blog post about how it was generated – is that the planning algorithm is designed to optimize shortest distance. Having read Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck) and Blue Highways (William Least Heat Moon) in the months prior to my trip, I often opted for secondary roads, prioritizing scenery over speed (and, in some cases, over shortest paths). I don’t know whether Google Maps includes anything like the AAA designations of “scenic drives”, but that might be an interesting possibility to explore, for those who want to choose a slightly different optimization strategy.

    • Hi Joe, that would be fascinating to see the route that you took! Please post it here if you do so.

      wrt taking more scenic routes: I recall hearing about Yahoo offering something like this, but I’m not sure if it ever came to fruition. Another idea I’ve heard has been to explicitly add some of the more scenic highways as waypoints and optimize around that. Not a bad idea!

      In any case, I think you interpreted this road trip correctly: the idea here is to minimize the time spent driving and maximize the time spent enjoying the national parks.

      • Here’s a link to the Google Map for my 1986 Road Trip. Unfortunately, there are limitations on how many waypoints per segment and per map, so I was not able to enter all the places I visited, only all the places I stayed.

        At some point, I will add another layer with places I visited but did not stay … and I hope to someday scan and add a few of the 900+ photos I took during the trip.

        • Steve Brudney

          That a link to Pioneer Square (Portland?).

          • Heh .. it was. Thanks for the notification. Updated with the correct link.

            • Steve Brudney

              Thanks, that’s great!

    • Steve Brudney

      Joe, have you found a resource that shows basically the scenic routes you took? Would you share?

      • I have not found any online resource for the scenic routes I took. They were highlighted on a 1986 AAA Road Atlas I had with me at the time, but I no longer have that atlas. The scenic routes were not highlighted on the smaller scale AAA map of the US on which I traced the routes shortly after the journey ended. FWIW, I embedded a link to that map below in a response to Randy’s comment.

  • thprop

    It is not a National Park but it is on the route – Definitely visit Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin between Isle Royale and Voyageurs. Maybe the most overlooked natural beauty in the US.
    https://www.nps.gov/apis/index.htm

  • Kay

    Psst! Hot Springs NP is in Arkansas 🙂

    • My bad! I’ll fix this as soon as my web site recovers.

      • Sean Farrar

        I would suggest an edit to the pin dropped for Olympic national park as well. The current pin is not the main visitor center but rather a small seasonal one called staircase. The address on the pin is for the main visitor center which has a great interp center and is at the base of the road to hurricane ridge, which is a few hours north of staircase.
        Just a suggestion, staircase is only open a few months a year and the Hurricane ridge center and the ridge is open year round.

  • This is excellent – thanks!

    Now to calculate how much it would cost to do the trip – not counting room and board.

    An annual pass to national parks across the USA can be purchased for $80 (https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm). Many, but not all, of the 47 parks you’ve included are covered by the pass (check here: https://store.usgs.gov/pass/PassIssuanceList.pdf).

    As for gas – if you drove at an average of 40 miles/gallon with the average cost of gas in the USA at $2.45, you’d be looking at just under $900 in gas. So figure $1000-$1200 in gas with some dilly dallying in there.

    Add in couchsurfing and camping and airbnbing and that’s a super affordable trip, especially for all you get to see!

    • CamNewton

      Are you joking? You would be paying a lot more than $1,000-1,200 to drive 15,000 miles.

      • Do the math the way I described it.

        (14,498 miles / 40 mi per gal) x $2.45 = $888

        • CamNewton

          LOL — First off, what van or RV gets 40 miles per gallon? Try 22-24mpg. And many times they take diesel, which is more expensive.

        • CamNewton

          LOL — First off, what van or RV gets 40 miles per gallon? Try 22-24mpg. And many times they take diesel, which is more expensive.

          • Well yea, when you’re talking about a van or RV, you’re right. I’m talking about a car, like the one I would take, that gets 40 mpg. Economical. Better on the environment. What I like. It’ll be different for whatever you prefer 🙂

            • The bonus of an RV is that you don’t have to pay for hotels, and you can buy food at groceries and cook it. When I was planning my own trips, traveling in an RV definitely came out as the cheaper option. Gas costs are a relatively smaller portion of the travel budget.

              • I car-camped with a small hatchback all across New Zealand for over 2 months with the same effect. Cooked all my food on a gas stove. There are publi showers all over the place, even in the USA. And when I tired of it, I tapped the couchsurfing community or stayed a night at a cheap hostel. Was super worth it for the freedom and the low cost of gas.

              • You’re right about the RV’s obvious bonus.

                The drawback to an RV is that, once inside a number of our parks (especially the larger ones out west where there are multiple types of terrain within the park boundaries), it becomes cumbersome–though not impossible–to operate it without become a bother to other drivers.

                A small car (or, of course, a 4-wheel drive vehicle) works better for this particular purpose.

              • Jimmy1337

                Plus with an RV it’s easier to get more people abord which cheapens the cost.

              • Frank B

                Certainly while gas is under $3/gallon!

              • James P McGuire

                We have traveled the east coast of the US from the Dry Tortugas NP FL to Acadia NP ME and the Great Lakes by boat. Our boat gets 1 MPG at 8 knts. Just bought a small class B Mercedes Benz Sprinter Winnebago 18MPG. Its like traveling for free!!!!!!! Were doing your loop next year.

            • DataMatters

              If you’re going to do this trip, use a decent car that is good for long road trips, not some Prius so you can skimp on fuel costs. It’s just stupid how some people pinch pennies.

              • Patrick Stirling

                Can’t let this go! We did a 2 week, 4400 mile camping trip inour Prius and it was great! V comfortable, 50mpg and fit all our camping gear. Sure, less comfortable than the RoadTrek camper we usd to have, but as good as any car I’ve driven long distance. Plus gas savings more than cover hotel costs – except we camped everywhere.

          • SomeSonomaGuy

            Almost anything you can rent will be gasoline. Most Class C RVs (the types you rent) take unleaded. You can’t drive a bus-style RV in most states without a special license. Those are most likely to be diesel pushers. But yes, you’re right. A class C motorhome is lucky to break 10mpg on unleaded. Fill-ups are hundreds of dollars.

            • az_r2d1

              Bulllll… You can drive these rv’s without a special license. They are exempted from any semi truck permits because it’s recreational use. Get your facts straight. Also, even if your car gets 40 mpg, it won’t come anywhere near it on these trips. Most parks are mountainous/hilly and w lots of stop and starts you’ll be lucky to get 25 mpg.

            • Choo-Choo

              I bought a Toyota 2013 Highlander in May & a 2008 RV in July. MPG w/out RV has been 28 to 30; with 3500 lb RV about 13 to 15. After I did RAGBRAI July 2016 I stumbled upon a gas station selling unleaded gas w/out ethanol. My MPG increased by 1.5 mpg with camper. I drive at 55 mph … let the go-fasters ruin their cars at higher speeds 😂

        • Raul Roa

          Who gets 40mpg??? How is that possible? Your mileage will vary by speed and even idling diminishes it. Look at more like 20-25mpg even for amazingly stingy-on-gas cars!

          • Steve Brudney

            Our 1997 and 2000 Honda Civics get about 36 mpg.

          • Dandy

            My VW Golf Diesel gets up to 50 mpg…my point here is…the diesel gets more mpg’s usually.

      • DrShinolaGonzo

        CamNewton: Good quarterback. Not so good mathematician.

      • Freestylex

        That’s what I was thinking, he’s attempting to calculate for the average person and using 40 MPG lmao.

      • I agree if one is doing the trip by oneself. If one is more sociable and figure two to three people in an SUV or pick up, though, the per person gas consumption drops by half or two thirds. We just finished a three week camping tour of several parks including Yosemite, Death Valley, Bryce, and Zion, in a rented SUV ($1031) for a total of slightly less than $50/person per day.

      • Barbara Chisholm

        If you drive a MT civic you will get more than 40 on the highway. An Elantra will get you 42, and a corolla will get you REAL close to 40 in New Mexico at high altitude. An RV will cost you an arm and a leg…cheaper to drive a car, and stay in cheap motels. I have done all sorts of these trips. Last year admission to the National Parks was free for like a 4 day period, and we even got free admission to Wind Cave, and took the tour. Carlsbad Caverns though is a REALLY big cave.

      • Adam

        Don’t forget about oil changes as well.

    • Ryan S.

      I can tell you how much this costs, because I’ve done a very similar trip! Camping fees vary park by park, but we spent on average $15 per night for camping. Unlike other commenters, I find your gas estimates more or less correct. Also, don’t forget activity fees – for example, you can get into Wind Cave NP (in South Dakota) with the annual pass, BUT you cannot get into the cave without paying an additional fee (stupid, I know). A lot more info on planning a trip like this here: http://ryanandcristina.weebly.com/blog/the-ultimate-western-road-trip

    • Wildflower

      What in the world kind of vehicle do you drive that gets 40 miles per gallon?! Can more than one person ride in it?

      • I recently rented a brand new Nissan Sentra while traveling the Florida Keys. Unless the dash was malfunctioning, I was getting 42 highway.

        • Wildflower

          Wow, pretty amazing. I looked it up and Nissan says up to 30 in the city and 40 on the highway. Sounds like you got the best imaginable. Unfortunately, that’s not what most of us drive! We’ll have to adjust accordingly.

          • FWIW, I have generally found I can achieve better gas mileage than EPA estimates for my vehicles, and that the mileage shown on the vehicle dashes overestimate the mileage I’m getting.

            For example, tracking my gas consumption and milage on Fuelly, I find am getting an average of 30.6 mpg in my 2013 Highlander Hybrid, for which the EPA estimated city & highway mileage is 28/28 … but my mileage gauge in the Highlander routinely tells me I’m getting 32-33 mpg.

            • Rex

              Here’s an even easier way:
              1) fill up your gas tank
              2) reset the trip meter to 0
              3) drive until the tank is at least 1/2 empty
              4) fill up the tank, keep the receipt with the number of gallons purchased
              5) divide the number of miles on the trip meter by the number of gallons added.

              BOOM! ACTUAL mileage.

              No software, no gps and if you can do long division (you can, right?), you don’t even need a calculator. You can do separate “trials” for both city/commuting driving and highway driving just by driving on the highway a long distance between fuel stop with no side-trips.

              Car “mileage gauges” show one of two things (some can show both): your estimated mileage AT THE MOMENT if there are no variations in speed, wind or the slope of the road surface; LIFETIME average miles per gallon based on the total of all miles driven and all the gas that has fun through the EFI system to the engine. With the first, that provides no indication of your general mileage. On a rented Nissan Versa Note (actually a very nice car with a TON of cargo room and seats 5 (at least 4 of them comfortably), when I accelerated, “mileage” ranged from less than 10 to about 17 mpg. Under steady throttle, between about 20 and 40, and off throttle? between 50 and 99 mpg. But that has nothing to do with average mpg.

      • Lynn Jackson

        I have a 2001 VW Jetta Diesel with 255K on it that still gets 45 MPG LOL

    • Brett Stevens

      Ideally, this would be done best with an RV or something. You could save significantly on hotel costs if you do it with one, ultimately paying for the extra in gas you’ll end up spending.

      • Aside from the cost of the RV, of course. Sans RV, you might often find the campgrounds at the park are sold out. Then you’d need to find a private campground or a motel (hotel?!?!) You’d need to evaluate the motel vis-a-vis safety, bugs, etc. If you’ve got a car full of stuff you’d need to make sure it isn’t smashed’n’grabbed.

        Regarding the Great Circle, it doesn’t take into account the weather in case you want to avoid driving on icy roads or hiking in thunderstorms. For some, snow in the parks might be a feature but for others it might be a bug. It’s not clear if the Great Circle starts at the G.C. N. Rim, but if it does
        some people might be upset if their image of the G.C. is more S. Rim.

        I drove from L.A. to the top of ME (and into CA) and then back over four, mostly Fall months. I also drove from L.A. to UT/AZ, taking brief hikes in 3 N.P.s, and drove back in less than 48 hours.

        • Rojacaliente

          You can camp for free on a lot of BLM land or at undesignated campsites in many parks and there is this a website that tells you of free campsite in each State: https://freecampsites.net/ Plus, Walmart and many casinos allow people in their RVS or cars to sleep in their parking lots without problem.

        • Rex

          If you paid attention to the article, the author states that you can start at any point and follow clockwise or counter-clockwise. Obviously, one has the option of starting the trip at whatever time of the year they wish and doing as much or as little of it as desired, as well visiting at each park for whatever length of time they wish, or, gasp!, skipping parks. Sheesh.

          • Thank you for policing article-reading. However, no matter which direction you start the wheel in, it might make more sense to visit some parks in a more natural order. You might want to avoid or not avoid snow, you might want to see turned leaves, etc., etc. Thank you for weighing in however, it means so much.

            • Rex

              Douchebag, much?

      • Dewjinx

        some of n/p you can not drive with a rv,such as kings canyon.

  • Dave
  • Dave
  • fireattack

    The on-map label for Capitol Reef National Park is wrong.

    • Lyle Laylin

      Same for several others – Isle Royale – Channel Islands, right off

      • That’s about as close as I could get the marker with Google Maps doing the routing. Presumably you would take a ferry from near where the marker is. 🙂

    • That label is the visitor center.

  • Dustin

    You left out https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=anza%20borrego anza borrego in southern California. . It looks like its marked on the map but not in the list. Highly recommend that area over Death Valley (if you do go to Death Valley stop in Beatty for some ice cream/ one horse town feel worth the 20 min out of the way plus you’ll drive by the moving rocks after leaving and heading into the death valley camp sites), though both are great desert camping. Anza Borrego is north east of San Diego and west of the Salton sea. Huge desert, especially gorgeous for geologist / rock formations from water cutting the rocks very remote and stunningly beautiful area.

    I like to see Utah getting the credit it deserves for its parks. Goblin valley UT is close to if not included in those parks but not on the list, very beautiful rock formations, not as cool as Bryce or Arches but still an awesome place to see for desert wildlife and some unique rocks that naturally stacked themselves kinda like rock snowman (hence the name Goblin Valley) especially if you’re already touring the southern half of Utah. if your going from SLC or Utah lake area to Arches you are going to drive right past it after you cross over the colorado/green river merging. Might as well stop in there and see the beauty.
    Great list by the way.

    • I particularly like Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park as an interesting interlude neatly tucked in between the magnificent Canyonlands National Park and the always inspiring Arches National Park.

    • Merrie Mitzi Dickerson

      Anza Borrego is a California State Park, I think that’s why it’s not included. But it is breathtaking. I’m putting it (and ice cream in Beatty) on my state park planning map!

    • Steve Brudney

      Anza Borrego is not a national park so wouldn’t be on the list. It is CA’s largest state park.

  • Patrick Szalapski

    The boat ride to Isle Royale is much shorter from Grand Portage, MN than it is from Michigan–would this affect the route?

    • Lyle Laylin

      From Grand Portage to Rock Harbor is 7:30 hours, from Copper Harbor it’s only 3:00 hours, from Houghton 6:00 hours

      • Patrick Szalapski

        Grand Portage to Windigo is under 2 hours.

  • Dan_USMC

    Very cool!!!

  • Matt Gordon

    Wow, thank you so much for putting this together. This trip is definitely going on my bucket list!

    I do have some follow up questions. I apologize if I overlooked the answers.

    What is the point of origin or departure for your route (aka first destination)? Is it Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona?

    Does the origin matter? I live in Iowa, so I was thinking that if I were to run this, I’d drive up to Wisconsin for my start, and end in Minnesota. Thoughts?

    Finally, is there any way (read: easy) to check this route against the optimal time of year to visit a park? For example, if I were going to allow 1 week per park and travel (give or take a day or two) it would take roughly a year to travel these parks. Looking to avoid Yosemite in the debt of winter, for example.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment/questions. I love that you made this. Thank you so much for sharing it with the community! Cheers!

    • Happy to hear that you like the trip! To answer your questions:

      What is the point of origin or departure for your route (aka first destination)? Is it Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona?

      Does the origin matter? I live in Iowa, so I was thinking that if I were to run this, I’d drive up to Wisconsin for my start, and end in Minnesota.

      You can start at any point in the trip, as it’s designed to be a round trip. Once you start down the route one way, make sure you stick to it in that direction.

      Finally, is there any way (read: easy) to check this route against the optimal time of year to visit a park? For example, if I were going to allow 1 week per park and travel (give or take a day or two) it would take roughly a year to travel these parks. Looking to avoid Yosemite in the debt of winter, for example.

      You’ll have to do that manually at the moment. The current optimization algorithm I’m using doesn’t take time constraints into account, but more advanced algorithms can take such time constraints into account. But that’s not easy, unless you want to buy said services from companies that do that. 🙂

      • Matt Gordon

        Excellent. That all sounds reasonable enough. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!

  • Joe Minicilli

    Why is Sleeping Bear Dunes NP not on here?! Much better than Isle Royale and was voted most beautiful place in the country a few years ago.

    • Lyle Laylin

      Sleeping Bear isn’t a “National Park” it’s a “National Lake Shore”

  • Lyle Laylin

    What about the other ten NPs? Ok, maybe the Hawaiian ones would be a tough drive, but you included Isle Royale, Dry Tortugas and Channel Islands

    • The Alaskan parks are a tough row to hoe for us here in the lower 48.

      You have to drive across the vast bulk of two Canadian provinces (one of which has some of Canada’s best national parks) before you can get to even the first of Alaska’s parks.

      To extend a trip to them would add about 4,000-6,000 miles of round-trip journey to your burden, assuming you left from, say, North Cascades National Park in Washington state and chose Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as your first AK destination.

      With that said, there are at least six of Alaska’s National Parks that I would put on the list: Denali, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Sitka, and the aforementioned Wrangell.

      And Hawaii’s top two (Haleakala and Volcanoes NP) are must visit destinations for anyone flying out there on vacation.

  • Tom Throckmorton

    Amaze! I just did part of this route a few weeks ago, hitting 5 of the 59, and the path I chose was not far off from what you plotted, but sadly, minus a few of the parks along the way (Black Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef) and added a few state parks in between, to keep the daily driving reasonable. Thanks for validating my route choices!

  • Ryan S.

    Having done a road trip to the 33 western parks last summer, I can say two things: 1) 14,500 miles ONLY takes you to the park entrances and then on to the next park. It does not get you to the grocery store to buy groceries along the way and it does not get you AROUND the parks themselves, some of which are massive. We drove 18,000 miles to get to the 33 western parks, after making the exact same mistake and planning our expected total trip distance to be 9000 miles. 2) Doing this all in 2 months would be an incredible disservice to yourself and these parks. There is far too much to see to do it in 2 months. My wife and I took 6 months to see the 33 western parks, and I don’t think all 58 parks could really be done in less than 4 months unless you’re willing to skip half the highlights.

    • Keksz

      That is true.
      We planned a round Utah/Arizona/Nevada about 2.000 km (with google maps).
      At the end of the tour about 17 days I had 3.000 km in the rental car.

      Sometimes the scenic route within the NP was about 30-40 km.
      Not counted on google maps…

  • Roberta Spangler

    You go right through Washington D.C., but don’t stop to see the presidential and war memorials downtown. They may not be big, sprawling parks, but they are under the protection of the National Park Service and, like all the rest, they are free to visit. While you’re there, go ahead and visit the Smithsonian museums – also free.

    • That sounds like a great extension to this trip!

  • Troy Plumer

    Dear Dr. Olson:

    Fantastic work! Thanks for sharing this. I’d love to make the time at some point to turn this into a three to four consecutive week long-distance motorcycle challenge.

    Take care,

    Troy Plumer

  • Cynthia

    Great map, but not complete by any means. I’m not seeing Vicksburg or the Natchez Trace. Or Gulf Shores or a myriad number of others in the southern states. Just saying it makes it sound like it’s all of them, when it’s only most of them.

    • There was a comment on the Reddit thread last week that cleared this up. I think there’s some confusion as to what constitutes a National Park. Here’s the comment:

      Hey y’all, there’s a lot of confusion in this thread over what is considered a National Park. I wanted to break it down because I believe it’s important to understand that various public lands are administered differently and therefore receive different levels of protection.

      First off, OP’s list is the correct list of true National Parks. Official national parks in the U.S. must be created by acts of congress, and are administered by the National Park Service pursuant to the NPS Organic Act of 1916. These parks generally receive the highest level of protection, meaning, for instance, that it’s nearly impossible to mine or graze livestock in National Parks. The only land that’s more protected, as a general rule, are National Wilderness Areas, which must be designated by the Interior Department or USDA under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Somewhat confusingly, National Wilderness areas can be within National Parks, or also on other federal land like National Forest or National Monuments (discussed below).

      There are many other “units” of the National Park Service which are not National Parks. These include National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Rivers, National Military Parks, and so on. These units are administered by the National Park Service, but they are not National Parks. For instance, National Rivers do not require an Act of Congress to be created, but can be designated by the Interior Department under the The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Similarly, National Monuments can only be created by the President (this is, in fact, the only direct method the President has to protect federal land). As a general rule, these lands do not receive the same level of protection as National Parks, although National Monuments are close.

      There are also lands called “National” which are not administered by the National Park Service at all. Certain National Rivers, for instance, are administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, or even various states. Certain National Monuments are also administered by the BLM as well.

      Finally, there are public lands like National Forests and BLM lands. These lands are open to the public generally, but are also open to “multiple uses”, i.e. mining, grazing, and logging. So although you have something called a “National Forest”, there is very little in common with National Parks in terms of how they’re managed.

      And then, of course, you have state parks, state forests, and the like. Each state operates these in their own fashion, so it’s hard to generalize on how these lands are treated, but they are essentially completely separate from National parks and the like.

  • Honoria

    You need to recount. There are 58 national parks. You missed a few of them in Wisconsin alone. Reassess your map and get them all because yours is not the “full list” of parks. 1. Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, 2. Effigy Mounds National Monument, 3. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This doesn’t include the national forests in Wisconsin, either. Nice job, though. I don’t think I’ll be doing the trip anytime soon, though. 🙂

  • jlcon99

    You’ve never heard of the boats that operate on Puget Sound here in Washington? Take a ferry between Port Townsend and Coupville to shorten the route between North Cascade NP and Olympic NP by several hundred miles.

  • Kolin Karchon

    Thanks for the kudos! ~ Sept. 2015

    https://islebox.com/2015/national-parks-road-trip/

  • Bill Garlinghouse

    Your route takes one right thru Munising, MI in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – Home of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Really outa drop a pin there … But I guess it isn’t a park …

    https://www.nps.gov/piro/index.htm

    • Visited Pictured Rocks a few years ago. Beautiful!

  • Mottfolly

    The so calles “Data Scientist” missed one, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
    “Data Fool”

  • Cindy

    I believe you missed Hiawatha National Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the UP, Hiawatha National Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Keweenaw National Historic Park, and the Raisin River National Battlefield Park in Michigan.
    They’re on the way, why not include them????

  • Evvie

    Thanks, Dr. Olson! This is my next bucket list trip, beginning next spring. Everyone here has great comments and I’ll add them all to my file. A couple of questions for everyone.I’m an older (61) woman and I’ll be traveling by myself, either with a travel trailer or a small RV. I went to Everest Base Camp a few years ago, so I can handle myself and I’m fairly self-sufficient. First, small travel trailer vs. RV? Camping is out, unfortunately. Second, what should be my safety concerns as a solo traveler?

  • Karen Reason

    What about Scotts Bluff National Monument in Gering, Nebraska?

  • ImpStout

    I think a stop in the White Mt National forest would have been a great addition to this list.

  • Steve McFarland

    Very cool! I’d love to see a bike tour version of this optimized for minimal elevation gain. I’ve also always wanted to do a similar tour of some of the land art projects out west– https://www.hcn.org/issues/44.11/exploring-the-wests-land-sculptures-made-by-artists-and-industry/land-art-of-the-west-an-interactive-map

    My colleague Antoinette Jackson, a cultural anthropologist at USF, has a recent piece in The Conversation that explores the use of ethnography and qualitative GIS to make visible the diverse family and community histories that are intertwined with these nationally designated sites– sites that we too often can think of as all-natural picture postcard views. http://theconversation.com/more-than-scenery-national-parks-preserve-our-history-and-culture-57708

    Steve McFarland
    Assistant Professor of Geography
    University of Tampa

    • Mark Fox

      Hi Steve ..if you were doing this trip on a bike,what would be the 2 best months to do it taking weather etc into account ?

      • Steve McFarland

        Hmm, good question Mark. I’m an East Coaster so I couldn’t say for sure. But maybe spring if you picked a route heading roughly north and fall if you went the other way…

  • Charles Laurence

    Great work, thank you. As a Biritsh journalist who has spent much of the last 30 years on the road in America, I have been privileged to visit more of these wonderful places than most, although I see some epic tours recorded in your ‘comments’! Back in 1987 I made my first trip to Yellowstone, to write a magazine article following the great fires there. I discovered a crucial detail: contrary to the general understanding, Yellowstone had not been an uninhabited “American Eden” when first “discovered”. It had been home to a Crow tribe, who were expelled, in much the same spirit as the wolves there were exterminated. Alston Chase’s book Playing God in Yellowstone is a marvelous assessment of the ever-present relationship between the human consciousness and any landscape you care to name. The Alpine valleys were made, over the years, by Crow fire agriculture. Settler Americans chose to impose their own view of nature and ‘god’ on this environment. There is always a human story, and the story of habitation is a part of all the National Park treasures. This is exactly the point made by anthropologist Antoinette Jackson in her recent article for The Conversation:

    http://theconversation.com/more-than-scenery-national-parks-preserve-our-history-and-culture-57708.

    I can’t wait to get back onto that road…

    • Laura

      Charles, you must have a dream job! Thank you for the reference. I, too, recall learning how the native American Indians burned and cleared Yosemite Valley on a regular basis. Having lived in Midpines and Merced (my hometown) growing up in the 50’s and 60’s with parents who viewed Yosemite as our personal backyard, we learned much about this magnificent preserve. I recall the real “fire fall” of embers pushed off the rim of the granite raining down hundreds of feet. My Dad was the Merced Deputy Fire Chief and assisted with this – amazing given the fire dangers of the drought nowadays. Wonderful memories.

  • Candy G

    On the way to (or from) Isle Royale, you can explore the Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Park is home to the history of copper mining in the US — Calumet was the epicenter of the biggest copper strike in the country. Then, heading east, go through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore at Munising (east of Marquette) and see some of the most glorious rock formations ever created!

  • Melissa

    Why did you leave out Wayne National in Ohio? It’s the most beautiful AND ecologically/geologically significant part of Ohio. The entire Hocking Hills region of Ohio is amazing!!

  • HALO Rainbow

    Beautiful work! Very interesting. I will keep your website bookmarked and look forward to more interesting info!

  • handsomish

    While an avid visitor to the National Park System, I never took the time to recognize how many of the actual National Parks I had visited. Thanks to you, I now realize I only have six remaining in the contiguous 48. All of which have been on my list. I’ve been through Olympic many times, but wouldn’t count it as a visit, as I didn’t get out and explore due to time restraints. And with three attempts each, but waylayed for many different reasons, Big Bend and Acadia are still not checked off. That leaves a trip across the UP of MI, to TRNP in ND. All still requiring a large commitment as they are not close together by any means of the imagination. Thanks

  • Xiaolong Li

    Great Article! I have been contemplating trips such as this for a while now… One thing I would like to point out is that based on season or weather condition, certain routes might not be good idea especially with RVs. Also, certain park might not be a good place to visit either due to crowd or weather. You probably want to avoid Yosemite or Yellow Stone or Grand Canyon on July 4th or Death Valley in the middle of Summer and Glacier in the middle of Winter… Maybe a routing by duration and time that automatically adjust for those factors would have been an awesome trip planner.

  • Richard Walker

    Thanks, Dr Olson!

  • Dan Parker

    Great work Dr. Olson! I’m curious where you gathered your lat/lon data from.
    Have you heard of the Recreation Information Database (RIDB)? We have
    quite a bit of accessory data that might be of interest to you on future
    projects. https://ridb.recreation.gov/

  • Lisa Kara

    Thanks for sharing this awesome and inspirational idea!! I am seriously considering a modified version of this trip!

  • JJ

    Great! Nice tips on places to go.
    Of course prices will vary; no article can fine-tune your experience OR expenses. You just have to do your homework and figure it out yourself. But this article is a terrific help to get started.
    I’ve done cross-country a couple of times, and found that van camping is the very best (cargo or no-back-seats passenger vans). Primary reason is that you can strip it down to just insulated walls & carpeted floors, and build it back up, to include your essentials. RVs have SO much furniture you don’t need, which means thousands of extra pounds that cost you dearly at the pump. Vans also look like any other vehicle on the road, so you can sleep in parking lots, get through NPs easily, and allow for one person to “go to the back” w/ out stopping for a snooze while the other drives. The list goes on…
    Happy travels, all!

  • Ilyas R Ahmed

    We’d love it if you made this awesome road trip map for Canada too 🙂

  • RickRussellTX

    Err… wait. Why are the Alaskan parks not accessible to a road trip?

    • They’re not, but they’re really out of the way for a road trip.

  • Steve Brudney

    Don’t forget about BLM campgrounds. They are usually cheaper or free but don’t have as many amenities as state park and national park ones.

  • I love visiting the National Parks and celebrating 100 years of US parks, nice article on the 59 national parks to visit. I’m sharing some of my favorites that I have visited in the USA http://travelphotodiscovery.com/celebrating-the-us-national-parks-centennial/

  • Sally Cummings

    https://www.nps.gov/caco/index.htm is pretty nice and not on your list, but thank you this is very helpful

  • Darin Warner

    Great map Randy, and some fantastic comments! I would like to point out a different take on optimization, though. All the people I know personally who want to visit every national park (and/or some of the other fantastic places mentioned below) have only a week or two at most for vacation. As a data scientist myself, I would recommend optimizing park trips in one-week segments, beginning and ending at regional airports. This would hit the demographic of working folks who want to get their kids outside, but do so in a more realistic time frame. Any ideas you have on that would be great appreciated – it could be as easy as maintaining the overall route but simply optimizing entry/exit points.

    • Thanks Darin! I like this idea, and it sounds like a great extension of the project. However, I’m trying to move on beyond road trip optimization projects now, lest I become a one-tricky pony… 🙂 Perhaps I’ll revisit this project someday, in which case I’ll come back to this idea. Cheers!

  • jelyon

    Inspired by the 50 state road trip, I created a similar map of parks one could drive to. Or nearly to. I believe I used RouteXL, and it came out very similar:
    https://goo.gl/maps/qZqp9VgnHNA2

    If we were to take this trip, we’d take an RV and tow a car. Probably talking 7 miles per gallon.

  • travellingcari

    I love this! But where is Bandelier?

  • Mark Fox

    Hi…what would be the best time of year to do that trip if you were doing it on a motorcycle ?

  • Mary Elliott OReilly

    What, no Arch in St. Louis – !?!

  • Jonathan Givens

    I just did a similar trip, covering 22,000 miles in 90 days, and went to 56 locations in all 50 states. The project is called Dance Across the USA, and I created it as a fundraiser for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as America’s Park system. Check it out here at http://www.danceatusa.com

  • Sam Addison

    I want to take this trip. I am thinking around 4-5 months just as a cushion. I am departing from Columbus Ohio. What time of the year would you recommend taking this trip considering I am departing from Columbus, and should I start the route going east or west? Please let me know.

  • Andrew R

    I hate to nitpick on such a wonderful resource, but the interactive google map reports a street address for several parks, e.g., Capitol Reef, instead of the park’s name. If that could be fixed it would be great. Thank you for putting this together!

  • Joanna

    There are many ways to do the for low cost..this is how I do it..all parks are near BLM land or National Forest..free dispersed camping…one good balanced meal a day..eat your veggies..you need them to walk and see these wonderful parks…then last meal is ham,turkey or bologna with tomatoes and lettuce..sometimes precooked bacon to have BLT..at roadside park…sometimes they are first meal of day…you need to consumed as little soda as possible but as much water as possible. After meals I walk around.. You will be doing lots of sitting and then walking to you need to be healthy. All truck stops have showers..sometimes laundry facilities. I have never been in a dirty one..some very fancy..baby wipes are your best friend. I love to look for the least expensive way to travel..it is a game I play with myself. I use backroads as much as possible. I make a point to speak to strangers..everyone has a battle going on..everyone has something wonderful about them..when I see a couple taking pictures of each other..I step up and offer to take a picture of them together..everytime they accept..for families it is nice to help them all be together in photos..everyday try and commit random acts of kindness…it feels good.
    I bet some of those honeymooners still think of me when they look at pictures..one weekend I did over a hundred photos for folks in Niagara Falls and I loved doing it..I made folks happy.

  • Excellent map Randy. I wish I had seen your map before I created one for our family trip for this year’s National Park Centennial Trip.

    Here is the summary of our recently completed 20 days National Park Centennial trip. We Saraf’s celebrated the centennial by visiting 6 National Parks (Zion, Bryce, Capital Ref, Canyon Lands, Arches & Grand Canyon North and South Rims), hiked 40 miles on trails, drove 2,200 miles and stopped at small and large cities/attractions on the way.

    Just like you, I have created an integrative road map of our trip https://goo.gl/444lgd

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/04faa0f320ef1f86ec19c93aecec98effc15ffc53e3b5cb72dc9ef295603108e.jpg

  • Renee

    $695 WEEK ~ Scenic Ranch SE Arizona 360 Mt Views, 3 Ghost Towns and 2 National Parks. Tons of local history including rich Apache history of Geronimo & Cochise. Tombstone & Bisbee are a short drive from Ranch. http://vacationhomerentals.com/68121

  • Kelley

    You can’t get to Isle Royale in a car and the ferry trip is exorbitant. Not much to see up there now that there are only two wolves left. You’d be better off visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the s https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8ca0d01c0a88124dcdcb0c954a9ef79a880e8eac2750a0e5cbb53a73f119e995.png hore of Lake Superior.

  • Adam

    Your list National Parks has missed several sites in Michigan. You have listed Isle Royale as the only stop. Keweenaw, Pictured Rocks, and Sleeping Bear Dunes are very well known National Parks, and it would be a shame not to add them to your list. They are surely gems.

  • Rick

    You forgot to add Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – accessed via Bayfield WI to the route to make 48.

  • Linda

    You appear to have missed Glacier National park.

  • Barbara Poor

    I’m just curious how long did you stay at each park to do this in 2 months?

  • Evangeline1031

    Just discovered the site. Kudos to you for your hard work on this! I would love to see these sites. Thanks and God bless!

  • Guy H.

    1st, GREAT work! As a GIS professional, you have truly optimized it use. But second, your overall map does not fully show the entire trip. It would be an easy fix to show the overall round trip for overview and then zoom in for greater detail closer. ArcGIS does this quite easily and is exportable to formats such as GOOGLE Maps. Just a thought.

    Anyway, very good work!

  • Mary Elizabeth Todd

    My father was one of the civil engineers who designed and built many of these roads when he worked with the Bureau of Public Roads now Federal Highway Administration….. SOme of the roads you did not mention like the Blue Ridge Parkway which is considered a national park and there is also Cumberland Parkway also considered a national Parkway as is the Foothills Parkway on NC and then on the Tenn side… but I did find an answer to a question… my father was stationed in NC but for some reason Mich and Minn were connected to the Gatlinburg Office… https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/abb3b6718a35d7b150475465a68d8ec31e9c4c192d4a93aa2554d99efff0e163.jpg he would later be division engineer and you can see by the attached map what that office incurred…. I grew up playing on those parkways as a child because we didn’t have vacations unless it involved Da’s work…. but when I was a toddler in the early 50s he worked in the summer months in Mich and Minn and I know part of his work was on the Gunflint Trail… he would come back to WEstern NC and spend a few months but in January he would head to work on the Everglades which that route was his design… as is the route on the NC side of the Great Smokey Park…. I hope to one day ride on the roads my father built… he loved building roads so very much and whenever I ride on a road that he built… I see him at every turn…

    • Mary Elizabeth Todd

      by the way his name was Joseph Archer Todd, Sr. He dropped out of hs and then was in the CCC in the 30 and learned to be a surveyor and then taught himself Civil Engineering…. he started as an axman and worked himself up to being Division Engineer… he developed Steppe sloping in which he developed the equation on basically using erosion to control erosion… he was also consider an expert on wild flowers and gave talks in his retirement at different colleges… He worked on the parkways of this country from 1940 until 1973 and he died in 1987 of a terrible genetic disease Polycystic Kidney Disease…

  • Frank B

    There seems to be something wrong with the “interactive version” of the map. I only see the western part of the route.

  • Giancarlo Chicco

    my gulfstream G650 does not get anywhere near 40mpg

  • Michael L. Atkinson

    This is amazing and I can’t wait to break in my new Airstream in 2018! Thanks

  • Rob Sander

    Sounds fun,but did enough driving last year,solo round trip from Seattle via Big Hole Battlefield,MT.,Cody,WY.,Black Hills/Badlands,Wall Drugs,S.D., Little Bighorn Battlefield,Lodgepole Indian camp site,Glacier,MT.,and places in between.

  • rhadkins2002

    Why aren’t Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and MANY others not showing up on your map? Every state except Delaware has a at least one National Park in it. Thank you very much for an excellent tool for trip planning. Just add the few missing ones. lol

  • Æyrton Ælfredo

    You forgot Perry’s International Peace Memorial and National Park on Put-in-Bay South Bass Island, OH 43456