Five Best U.S. Cities for National Park Lovers
After a whirlwind road trip through five Utah national parks in three days, my husband declared that he would never again let me plan a vacation based solely on visiting national parks. Though he likes a national park, he feels at home in a city. I tolerate cities, but I feel at home in a park. Not willing to give up the traveling experience that makes me happiest, I took a new approach.
By finding a national park near a major city and spending some time in both locations, I could satisfy both of our travel interests. As I pored over the National Park Service map of NPS units across the country, I identified cities that were prime candidates for the beginning of a road trip to two, three, or even four national parks within driving distance. We’ve both enjoyed our vacations, though for different reasons, ever since.
If you also need to balance your family’s urban interests with your more adventurous side, head for one of my top picks for U.S. cities with multiple national parks within driving distance.
Las Vegas, Nevada
After you’ve seen the fountains at the Bellagio, ridden in a gondola at the Venetian, and taken the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, head outdoors to one of the four national parks within driving distance of Las Vegas.
A variety of tour operators offer affordable day trips by bus or van to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, both of which are located in Utah and offer ample opportunities for hiking and photography. You can also easily find a guided excursion to Death Valley National Park (about two hours west of Las Vegas), which houses the lowest, driest, and hottest spot in the U.S. national parks.
If you want to set your own itinerary and schedule, rent a car in Las Vegas and drive to the parks. You can reach Zion National Park, home of the popular Narrows and Angel’s Landing trails, by car in approximately three hours. Another hour-and-a-half drive brings you to the towering rock formations known as “hoodoos” of Bryce Canyon National Park. For a typical walk down into and back out of the canyon, combine the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden trails.
Of course, one of the most beloved members of the national park system couldn’t be easier to reach from Las Vegas. Numerous tour operators offer trips to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona — you can travel by bus, van, Jeep, Hummer, airplane, or helicopter. Driving to the park from Las Vegas takes approximately five hours each way, so leave early and prepare yourself for a long day. If steep drop-offs don’t bother you, hike or take a mule ride into the canyon. You’ll see more of the park than most people, who hardly ever venture below the rim.
If you’re short on time or don’t want to do a lot of driving, Miami is your best bet — you can reach both Biscayne and Everglades national parks within about an hour’s drive. Be prepared to spend a lot of time in or near the water.
You’ll need a boat to properly explore Biscayne National Park, since most of the park is water. The park is most popular among visitors who fish, snorkel, or scuba dive near its coral reefs. The park’s concessioner offers diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours, or you can rent a private use boat (complete with a captain) for the day.
Numerous tour companies offer guided excursions by canoe, kayak, and airboat through the waterways of Everglades National Park. You can also drive the short distance from Miami to the park and take a guided tram or boat tour once you arrive. Consider renting a bicycle or kayak at the popular Flamingo and Gulf Coast areas of the park, but choose the best time of year for your visit. The dry season, typically from December through April, has milder weather with more abundant wildlife, but also more visitors.
Located about 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park will require extra effort to reach. Typically, private or group excursions from Miami include a four-hour drive from Miami to Key West along scenic Highway 1 and a boat or seaplane ride to the last of the Florida Keys. Public ferry transportation will take you to the visitor center at Fort Jefferson, a Civil War fort. You will need a boat to visit other areas of the park, and a limited number of commercial tour operators offer fishing, diving, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing trips.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Utah boasts five national parks within its borders — more than any other U.S. state except Alaska and California. Though all five could be combined into one road trip, you can easily reach three of the parks in one to two-day trips from Salt Lake City.
Arches National Park lies approximately 4.5 hours away by car, but you can also take advantage of a multi-day excursion from tour operators that combine this park with others nearby. At Arches, you’ll see some of the 2,000 natural sandstone arches protected within this park. If you only have time for one hike, take the 3-mile-roundtrip Delicate Arch Trail to its namesake arch, which the National Park Service calls “the best-known arch in the world.”
Canyonlands National Park has three distinct districts separated by the Green and Colorado Rivers. No roads link them, so traveling between districts could take up to 6 hours by car. Concentrate on the Island in the Sky District, located less than an hour from Arches and about 5 hours from Salt Lake City. In this district, you can stop at more than a dozen pullouts along the park road and look out over the sandstone cliffs. A short half-mile roundtrip hike brings you to the park’s often-photographed Mesa Arch.
You can reach Capital Reef National Park in a 5-hour car ride from Salt Lake City. However, I recommend combining it with some of the other Utah parks so that you can enjoy the spectacular scenery in between — in particular, Highway 24 (east toward Arches National Park) and Highway 12 (west toward Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks). If you do nothing else in this park, stop at the pullouts along Highway 24 to see petroglyphs, a historic school, and orchards, and don’t miss the short Scenic Drive along some impressive rock formations.
San Francisco, California
After you visit Alcatraz Island, ride a cable car, and take in the other San Francisco staples, head east in your rental car or with a tour operator. Yosemite National Park, approximately four hours away, makes an enjoyable day trip from San Francisco.
Most people visit the Yosemite Valley section of Yosemite National Park, where you can see (and climb, if you’re so inclined) the granite monoliths El Capitan and Half Dome. Parking in the valley is limited, so take advantage of a park shuttle bus or open-air tram in warm weather. For a taste of what you’ll see at other parks near San Francisco, tour the Mariposa or Tuolumne groves of giant sequoia trees.
The National Park Service administers Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks together; they are considered contiguous parks. Don’t miss Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman tree, the largest tree in the world — it stands 275 feet tall, has a diameter at its base of more than 35 feet, and is more than 2,000 years old. To reach Kings Canyon, you’ll drive down a national scenic byway (Highway 180) through more giant sequoias.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks require about five hours of driving (each way) from San Francisco. Consider taking your rental car on a multi-day excursion to all three parks near San Francisco to maximize your time in each park.
From the top of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle in good weather, you can see Mount Rainier in the distance. Book a day trip with a tour company or drive your rental car the two hours to see the mountain in person at Mount Rainier National Park, but go on a clear day. Weather systems can easily stall near the park and obscure your view of Mount Rainier. If you’re lucky enough to see the mountain in the late summer, beds of wildflowers usually surround the trails in the popular and aptly named Paradise section of the park.
With your second day trip from Seattle, a short 2.5 hour drive brings you to North Cascades National Park, home of the most glaciers of any U.S. park outside the state of Alaska. This park is most popular with hikers, backpackers, and mountain climbers, as much of the park is considered wilderness. Most auto travelers traverse the park on State Route 20.
Finally, if you’re looking for a park that showcases the diversity of the natural world, you can’t do much better than Olympic National Park. To reach Olympic from the Seattle area, take the ferry from Edmunds to Kingston and drive to the park’s entrance in Port Angeles – altogether, it shouldn’t take more than three hours. In one long and fast-paced day, you can view the Olympic Mountains from the top of Hurricane Ridge, walk through the Hoh Rainforest, and see the smooth stones, driftwood, and sea stacks of the Pacific coastal beaches.
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