Who doesn’t wish they had unlimited time or at least more time for vacations? Sadly, for most of us, that’s just not happening. Especially here in the U.S. where people are lucky to get two weeks of vacation from work. If you, like me, are trying to visit as many national parks as you can, then it’s important to know which are the best national parks to visit when you’re short on time.
I’ve come up with a list of a few parks that are easy to visit even when time is limited. These parks could be combined with other parks on a road trip or you could visit them if you are even just passing through. My list is based on three things:
- the park is easy to get to
- it’s easy to get around inside the park
- it’s simple to see in a short amount of time
Petrified National Park
Petrified Forest National Park with its petrified wood, buttes and petroglyphs is just about as good as it gets for national parks to visit when you’re short on time. It’s located conveniently right off Interstate 40 in Arizona, which is a popular interstate for cross country road trips and on the original Route 66. In addition to the park being on the smaller side, there are several short hikes and viewpoints right near the interstate.
If you are really short on time, at least stop by the visitor center or the Painted Desert Inn which is an adobe style building that’s now a museum. Both are located off exit 311. At the visitor center, you can watch a park film, there’s a restaurant, picnic tables and a short walking trail. Around the Painted Desert Inn are several walking trails and overlooks for the Painted Desert.
If you have a little more time, drive the rest of the scenic drive which takes you south through the park. You can then get back on the interstate in Holbrook, which is a great overnight or place to stop for a break.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park or just “the Smokies” to pretty much everyone in the south, receives over 12 million visitors a year. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, it’s the most visited park in the country. This is because it’s with driving distance of some of the biggest and most populated areas in the eastern United State. A lot of of people live only a few hours away from the park.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is easy to access and get around in due to the 6 entrances that make it has. Additionally, the park has three visitor centers, several scenic drives and plenty of viewing turnouts and picnic spots.
The north entrance at Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg is one of the busiest entrances. It’s easily accessible from interstates 40 east and west and 75 north and south. Both major thoroughfares. If you are passing that way and have some time to visit the park, enter at the Sugarlands entrance and stop at the visitor center to watch the park film. From the visitor center, hike to Cataract Falls. This trail is an easy .07 mile to the water fall the whole family will enjoy.
If you are headed south on interstate 75, and want to avoid the Gatlinburg entrance altogether, then enter at the Wear’s Valley entrance and continue on Little River Gorge Road through “the sinks”, a popular picnic and photography spot. Then exit in picturesque town Townsend.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one of the best national parks to visit when you’re short on time. It’s conveniently located right off Interstate 90 at exit 131. The good thing about Badlands is, it’s great as a stand alone park if you are passing through but if you have more time, then this area of South Dakota is one of the best for road trips because there’s so much to do.
As you enter the park at the northeast entrance station on Hwy 240, The Doors trail is one of the first places you come to. Stop and take a short hike into what feels like the middle of the badlands. After that, don’t miss the Ben Reifel visitor center to watch the park movie and visit the fossil preparation lab to observe rangers and paleontologists work with real fossils and bones. The visitor center is also a great picnic spot.
From the visitor center, as you continue on Hwy 240, stop the Fossil Exhibit trail and the Yellow Mounds Overlook. You can then exit the park via Hwy 240 or if you have more time, continue straight on Sagecreek Rim Rd for a chance to spot wildlife in the park. You can exit the Rim Rd to get back on Hwy 240 if you don’t have time to drive the entire length of the rim road. If you do have the time, it will eventually put you back on a two lane to reach Rapid City.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is so peaceful and has a way of making you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. And you pretty much are but you’re also close enough to some bigger cities so it makes it a great day trip park.
Located in Southern California, Los Angeles and San Diego are only a couple of hours away. Phoenix and Las Vegas just a little over three hours. You can easily get there from either Interstate 10 or 40. It’s not a small park but the way it’s arranged, makes it’s easier to see a lot in a short time.
From the South, off of I-10 enter at the Cottonwood Springs entrance. Walk the Bajada Nature Trail for a chance to get out of the car and see some wildflowers. From I-40 or Route 66, drive through Amboy and enter at the Twenty Nine Palms entrance. See Skull Rock, Hidden Valley Nature Trail or one of the other easy hikes to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
READ MORE: Joshua Tree National Park Guide
Joshua Tree National Park also conveniently has plenty of low season – which is summer –first come first served camping if you want to break up your trip and spend the night. With it’s beautiful sunsets, dark skies and desert vibe, you’ll be wishing you had more time.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a one of those parks that’s a little harder to get to just because it’s so far north. But once you are there, it’s easy to get around in. Plus it makes a great over night spot whether you stay in the park or in the cute town of Medora.
The park is open all year so if you pass through North Dakota on I-94 in the winter or summer, the south section of the park is easily accessible.
To make a quick stop and still see a little of the park, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center – open May to Oct – is at exit 32 on I-94. Take a break there and check out the exhibits, displays and a sweeping panorama of the badlands. There are picnic tables and even if you don’t have a lot time, it’s a nice place to eat lunch.
If you decide to enter the park, don’t miss Prairie Dog Town, where hundreds of prairie dogs live together in colonies. Kids will love this area. In fact, you may never get them to leave. There’s also a 36 miles scenic loop that takes approximately 90 minutes to drive, depending on how many stops you make. Wildlife is abundant in the park, so be on the lookout.
Gateway Arch National Park
Gateway Arch National Park, located in St Louis, Missouri, celebrates the United States’ westward expansion in the 1900’s. A relatively new national park, the Gateway Arch stands proudly along the Mississippi River. You can’t help but get excited to see it as you approach the city from the west.
The Arch, and St Louis in general, are great stops on a road trip. The park is located right downtown and easy to get to from Interstates 70, 64 and 55. In addition to the Arch and a tram to the top, visitors can visit the old courthouse that played an important role in several significant civil rights court cases through the years.
Visitors can also browse the park museum and, for a different view of the Arch, take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi or even a helicopter ride over the Arch. Even if you are in a hurry, being able to see a lot makes it one of the best national parks to visit when you’re short on time.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is THE go to national park for fall colors in the south. It’s also a convenient national park to visit when you’re short on time. Located in Virginia, adjacent to Interstate-81, with some planning, you can hop on and drive what you have time for and then jump back on the interstate.
The main road through the park is Skyline Drive. It actually sits on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Everywhere you look is gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and valleys below. Skyline Drive starts at Rockfish Gap off of I-64. (This is also the northern starting point of the Blue Ridge Parkway). You could enter the drive here and then exit at Luray, VA or continue on to the northernmost point at Front Royal. Then you can easily access the interstate again.
There are some beautiful and plentiful turnouts and overviews along Skyline Drive. A couple of my favorites are The Points, Big Meadows and Little Devil’s Stairs areas. The drive is open all year, weather permitting.
Sunset Crater National Monument
If volcanoes, cinder cones and lava are your thing, then Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument park is definitely for you. It’s easy to get to right off Interstate 40 near Flagstaff, Arizona.
As volcano eruptions go, Sunset Crater Volcano is the youngest volcano in Arizona’s San Francisco peaks. The eruption, around 1085, completely changed the landscape and the lives of the people who lived there.
Visitors can see those landscape changes first hand on several short hikes and loop trails in the park. One of my favorites is the Lava Flow Trail that takes visitors across a lava field on a paved walkway. There are plenty of other short trails suitable for a day or even a half day of exploring.
Th area around Flagstaff has quite a few park units and educational things to do. It’s a great base for exploring or a good stopping over point to spend the night. Sunset Crater National Monument could easily be paired with a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. If you are in the area, check out Wupatki National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument as other add-ons.
Olympic National Park
The next contender for national parks to visit when you’re short on time comes from my friend Mike Novak of 52 Hikes With Mike. Mike, a quester and weekend explorer, just like so many of us, is attempting to hike more in 2020. One of his favorite national parks is Olympic National Park. He was there recently and all the suggestions – and the gorgeous photos – are courtesy of him.
Olympic National Park is located in Washington, right outside Seattle. It’s easy to get to, off of Interstate 5. Taking the famous Hwy 101 around the Olympic Peninsula will offer great view into the options of the gorgeousness available. See a brown sign and make a turn. You don’t even need a backpack. However, there are no roads through the park and in some areas there are only forest service roads so it definitely helps to have a plan to take advantage of the park. Mike’s other suggestions for visiting Olympic are:
For hikes: there are PLENTY of short hikes that allow you to see great things. In the Lake Cresent/Mt. Storm King area, visit Marymere Falls. This fern lined and tree covered trail takes you into the forest far enough away from the road but not far enough to take all day. Over at the Sol Duc area, wind back on the beautiful drive along the river and find the trailhead to take you to the falls.
For the beach views: make a stop at Ruby Beach along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. This beach offers cool breezes, crashing waves, and endless piles of driftwood to climb over. The Tree of Life is another popular spot along the beaches of Olympic National Park, and can be found near the Kalaloch Campground.
Find Your Park
One other thing that will make visiting national parks so much easier – and quicker – is having an America the Beautiful park pass. The park pass is good and over 2k interagency sites, including National Forests and BLM properties. Many of the busier national parks have dedicated lanes at the entrance stations for pass holders. Getting into a park quicker saves precious time.
So the next time you head out on a road trip or vacation, know there ARE national parks you can visit when you’re short on time. Knowing which ones and good planning, are key to a successful park visit.