One of the real joys of our National Parks is that many of them can be seen up close and personal by car. This convenience cannot be overstated, since some people have mobility challenges and others like to keep very close tabs on small children when in the wilds. The fact that you can see the best of the United States from the comfort of your own vehicle is enhanced in some of our National Parks by the design of the roadways through them, which create a loop pattern, allowing you to begin and end your visit from the same spot. Here are five of the National Parks Scenic Loops that we think are extra special.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park Loop State Scenic Byway (SD 240) takes only sixty minutes to complete, if you do not stop at any overlooks; but please do plan to take longer and linger. The loop road will show you outstanding geological features. Many visitors compare it to the surface of the moon, or a distant planet, or the bottom of the ocean. The vivid shades of pink, oranges, and beiges tinge the other worldly jagged bluffs. Along the drive you will probably see many animals. The visitor center is located along the loop; a worthwhile stop. Take as many scenic stops as you can, to feast on the changes in terrain and only-in-the-Badlands views.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park Loop Drive is a 42-mile scenic drive amid the impressive mountain peaks around Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake; it’s one of the most stunning drives anywhere. Plan to take 4-8 hours. This leisurely drive provides views that become etched in one’s memory. The wildlife appears unexpectedly, in one of America’s most dramatic Rocky Mountain settings: mule deer, bear, elk, bison, moose, prong horn and antelope. The Grand Tetons are visible from every angle. The west route is alongside the mountains; the east route affords a panoramic view with the foreground of verdant meadows. The visitor centers have great lookouts for photos. Consider taking the side trip off the loop to Mormon Row, a historical Mormon village inside the park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Loop Drive is a compelling feature of the South Unit. This paved 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive offers pullouts, vistas, and hiking trails. The traffic is often light, so you move at your own pace and can linger as you wish. With luck, you will see wild horses, mule deer, prairie dogs, and bison amid the green, pink, beige and blue rounded bluffs. Allow two to three hours, or more. Your patience can be rewarded when the buffalo draw near the road, and meander across it. It’s a real thrill to watch and wait as you see them up close.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park Loop Drive is a 27 mile-long scenic drive that began as a carriage road designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the landscape architect of Central Park. The loop starts at Hulls Cove Visitor Center (near Route 3 on the northern side of the island) and links the mountains, woods, lakes, and rock bound coast. And you can view scenery without hiking. Highlights of the drive are: Cadillac Mountain with its winding route to up the summit and lovely views; Sand Beach with its bracing water; and Thunder Hole with the dramatic Maine coast.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park offers not one, but two loops, or what we could call a figure eight. Even as it stands among the most famous of the parks so too it has the super doper loop drive… which is only fitting for the first national park anywhere in the world. Traveling counterclockwise you can see or draw near to wonders untold, including: Lamar Valley, the best place in the park to see wolves and bears. Mammoth Hot Springs has the park headquarters, a great film at the Visitors’ Center, and history and wildlife exhibits. See Mammoth Hot Springs by way of Terrace Drive. You may see elk. See Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest geyser basin in Yellowstone. Lower Geyser Basin with Fountain Paint Pots and Fountains Geyser. This is the only drive-up geyser in the park. Old Faithful Geyser the symbol of Yellowstone, and Old Faithful Inn. West Thumb Geyser Basin with two easy-looping walkways that take you past the geysers, pools, geysers, and mud spouts. Yellowstone Lake is dramatic with trees and mountains as the backdrop. Visit Yellowstone Lake Hotel and take the tour. Hayden Valley in the heart of the park to see bison, bear, pronghorn, badgers, antelope, and wolves. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with incredible views, and the dramatic Upper Falls, Lower Falls and the Brink of the Falls. Tower Fall plunges from a height of 132 feet; It’s a short walk from the parking area.
Isn’t it great that our National Parks are so visitor friendly that we can literally drive around them to see their wonders?