Piling in the car for a road trip to explore America’s natural wonders—our great national parks—works when there will only be three or four of you. However, for larger groups wanting to share the breathtaking experience of Yosemite National Park’s giant, ancient sequoia trees and the granite cliffs of El Capitan or Acadia National Park’s woodlands, rocky beaches, and glacier-carved granite peaks: charting a bus can facilitate your dream road trip.
It’s not necessary to be a die-hard outdoor enthusiast to enjoy the magical wonders of the national park system, as many of them are home to scenic roads that bring the park to your vehicle’s windows. Of course, on a bus road trip you’ll be able to focus on the world around you rather than the road in front of you, and, most likely, you’ll have a bathroom onboard.
So, start planning your getaway now by checking out our top eight picks for national park road trips.
Yosemite National Park, California
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, the 747,956-acre park offers legendary mountain peaks, granite domes, lush meadows, gushing waterfalls, and, of course, groves of giant sequoia—some of the largest living things on Earth.
To avoid the crowd in Yosemite Valley, you can drive up to Glacier Point (summer to fall) to gain spectacular views of the valley below. Or, you can take the long, scenic drive on Tioga Road (May to October) to Tuolumne Meadows, where you’ll find Ross’s sedge, Lodgepole pine, and dwarf bilberry.
Because more than 5 million people visited the park last year, it’s best to plan ahead if this extraordinary destination is on your to-do list. Traffic congestion in the valley is a serious problem during peak season, which is just another reason to charter a bus and let someone else worry about the road.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
The double-desert park named after the iconic Dr. Seuss-esque Joshua trees, provides a unique, dry landscape of gnarled shrubs, granite, sandstone, and wildlife on 790,636 acres in southeastern California.
Though the park has ample backcountry packing and hiking, some of the park’s wonders are nestled up against the roads. Skull Rock, one of the best-known formations in the park, was created from raindrops slowly eroding a granite boulder, eventually creating two hollowed-out eye sockets. The site is located along the main east-west park road. The Cholla Garden, full of cacti so fluffy that at a distance they remind some people of teddy bears, is also easily accessible for those cruising through the park in a vehicle.
If you need to get off the bus and play for a bit, there are also ample opportunities for rock climbing, highlining, stargazing, mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking.
Petrified Forest National Park
The primary road for Petrified Forest National Park cuts through an extraordinary accumulation of petrified woods, in addition to breathtaking views of the Painted Desert. The sedimentary rocks containing the fossilized forest are part of the colorful Chinle Formation that gives the Painted Desert its name.
Filled by shrub-steppe and heavily eroded badlands, the park provides spectacular views from the road. Visitors are, in fact, allowed to stop anywhere along the road to explore the rainbow of colors represented in the petrified woods.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
One of the United State’s most renowned parks, Yellowstone, presents sustained volcanic power as the hidden heat creates colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers.
Yellowstone’s loop road allows you to cruise past iconic formation in the park, such as the steaming Mammoth Hot Springs and the timely Old Faithful geyser.
From Yellowstone, it’s only a 31-mile trip into Grand Teton National Park, where the Teton Park Road provides a spectacular view of the park’s namesake range.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
This 242,756-acre national park presents an entanglement of buttes, pinnacles, and spires created through the ongoing erosion of exposed ancient sedimentary strata, as well as the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States. In the sprawling prairie, you’ll have the chance to spot bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
The 40-mile Badlands Scenic Byway provides the perfect opportunity to soak up the wonders of the park from your vehicle.
Because Mount Rushmore is only 90 minutes from the park, you should plan on swinging down to see the bigger-than-life carvings of President Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
Acadia National Park, Maine
One of the first places in the United States to catch the sunrise, Acadia National Park fills up early.
Though there are many scenic drives, the Park Loop Road is the pearl of the Atlantic coast park, presenting both rugged mountains and mesmerizing sections of the coastline.
Because of the popularity of the park, the national park’s website warns of “increased travel times and congestion on scenic drive,” which is all the more reason to charter a bus and leave the headache of driving to someone else.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina / Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a 522,419-acre Unesco World Heritage site that contains sections of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
With more than 11 million visitors each year, there’s good reason to take a winding drive through the less-bustling side of the park, by taking Cove Creek Road through the Cataloochee Valley and connecting with Tennessee 32.
However, that’s only one option for those enjoying an auto-tour of the park, which has paved roads that can bring you across racing mountain streams, worn historic buildings, grand hardwood forests, and panoramic views. Other popular routes are the Cades Cove Loop Road, Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Upper Tremont Road.
The park is also famous for fall foliage drives as the deciduous trees take on the colors of autumn, as well as its wild trout fishing and hiking.
Niagara Falls, NY & Ontario, Canada
Whether or not you have a passport doesn’t matter, as Niagara Falls straddles the border between the US and Canada. So pick a side, or check out both, depending on what your group is most interested in.
There are plenty of waterfalls to go around—3 distinct waterfalls, to be exact. These entities break down as such:
● Horseshoe Falls straddles the border of the US and Canada, but the exact defining line is in dispute because of construction and natural processes like erosion.
● American Falls takes after it’s namesake, and is completely on the US side of the border.
● Bridal Veil Falls is also on the US border.
Besides gawking at this incredible natural wonder, you could also take some time during your trip to check out Cave of the Winds, go on a hike, or even check out a boat tour. Whatever your group decides on, make sure to pack tons of water-resistant clothing!
Not having to actively deal with congestion while attempting to soak up the stunning beauty of any of these national parks is in itself enough justification to looking into chartering a bus for this next road trip.
And, for those wanting to share the experience of Old Faithful, Joshua trees, the fall foliage of the Great Smoky Mountains, or a sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Maine with more than just a couple of people—it becomes essential.
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