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, want to see as many national parks as you can, then it’s important to know which ones are the best national parks to visit when you’re short on time.
National Parks to Visit When You’re Short on Time
To make visiting national parks easier, I’ve come up with a list of a few parks that are easy to visit even when time is extremely limited or if you are 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, colorful 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. In addition to the park being on the smaller side, there are several short hikes and viewpoints right near the interstate
Southerner Says: Interstate 40 is a popular cross country route for road trips. It also includes sections of the Historic Route 66.
Even travelers with not much time to spare can stop by the Painted Desert visitor center or the historic Painted Desert Inn (temporarily closed) Both features are conveniently located on exit 311 of I-40.
At the visitor center, guests can watch a park film, visit the restaurant, or even have a picnic lunch after strolling the short loop walk with interpretive signs. You can even gas up your vehicle.
The Painted Desert Inn features murals and a museum of Route 66 relics. There are walking trails and overlooks that have some of the best views of the Painted Desert.
For those that have more time, drive the rest of the park’s scenic drive. This route takes you south through a unique variety of different park features. You can then get back on interstate 40 in Holbrook, which in itself is a great place to overnight or stop for a meal.
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.
One reason for that is because it’s within driving distance of some of the biggest and most populated areas in the eastern United State.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is easy to access and get around in due to the six entrances that it has. Additionally, the park has three visitor centers, plenty of scenic drives with hundreds of turnouts, viewpoints and picnic spots.
Because it’s easily accessible from interstates 40 east and west and 75 north and south, the north entrance to the park at Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg is the busiest entrances.
If you are traveling one those routes and are looking to drive through the park, you can exit the interstate and enter at the Sugarlands entrance. Browse the Sugarlands visitor center and watch the park film. Get a preview of the park by hiking right from the visitor center. Cataract Falls is a an easy .07mile hike the whole family can enjoy.
If you are traveling 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 the picturesque town Townsend to eventually return to the interstate.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park located 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. Badlands is a great stop even if you are on you’re way to somewhere else and don’t have a lot of time.
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 nowhere. The views here are amazing!
After a short hike, stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to watch the park movie and visit the fossil preparation lab to observe rangers and paleontologists working with things that have been discovered in the park.
The visitor center is also an ideal spot to take a break and have a picnic at one of the many picnic tables in the area.
From the visitor center, as you continue on Hwy 240, stop at 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 Road for a chance to spot wildlife in the park.
If you don’t have time to drive the entire length of the rim road, you can exit it early to get back on Hwy 240. Continuing on the rim road will eventually back bring you to the two lane highway 44 to Rapid City.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most peaceful parks in the park system. Which is kind of surprising given it’s the proximity to some of the largest cities in the southwest.
Being close to major interstates makes Joshua Tree a great day trip park or a park to visit when you don’t have a lot of time. It’s a rather large park but the way it’s laid out, you can see plenty in a day or even a half day.
Located in Southern California, Los Angeles and San Diego are only a couple of hours away. Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada are just a little over three hours. Travelers driving either Interstate 10 or 40 can easily get into the park.
For those traveling I-10 in the south, enter at the Cottonwood Springs entrance. For a quick stroll and a chance to see wildflowers in season, walk the Bajada Nature Trail.
From I-40 or Route 66, drive through Amboy and enter at the Twenty Nine Palms entrance. Skull Rock, Hidden Valley Nature Trail or one of the other many easy hikes to do in Joshua Tree National Park are waiting to be explored.
READ MORE: Joshua Tree National Park Guide
Joshua Tree National Park also conveniently has plenty first come first served camping if you want to break up your trip and spend the night in the park. With it’s beautiful sunsets and dark skies, you’ll be wishing you had more time.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Because it’s a little off the beaten path, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a one of those parks that’s a little harder to get to. But if you happen to be passing through this area of North Dakota on I-94, the park is easy to get to and get around in once you are there. The nearby charming town of Medora also make a good overnight stop.
To see a little of the park, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center – open May to October – is located right off exit 32 on I-94. Take a break here and check out the exhibits, pick up a souvenir or have a picnic lunch with one of the most beautiful views in the country.
Inside 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 and it’s westward expansion in the 1900’s. A relatively new national park, the Gateway Arch is located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s exciting to see it from miles away as you approach the city from the east.
The Arch – and St Louis in general – are terrific road trip stops. The park is located right downtown and easy to get to from interstates 70, 64 and 55. In addition to the Arch and a elevator 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 really in a hurry, just being able to walk around the Arch 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 scenic route through the park is Skyline Drive. The road actually sits on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains so everywhere you look are 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, Virginia if you’re really short on time. Or to drive the entire parkway continue on to Front Royal, Virginia. From there you can easily access the interstate again.
There are plentiful turnouts and overlooks all along Skyline Drive. A couple of my favorites are The Points, Big Meadows and Little Devils Stairs areas. The drive is open all year, weather and construction 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.
This 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, Wupatki National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument as other road trip 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, weekend explorer and like so many of us – attempting to visit all the national parks.
One of his favorite parks to visit is Olympic National Park. He recently moved to Washington 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.
Final Tips For Visiting National Parks When You’re Short on Time
One of the most helpful things you can do for visiting national parks when you’re short on time is to own an America the Beautiful park pass.
This park pass is a pass you purchase annually for $80. It covers your entrance fee, and whoever is in the vehicle with you, at over 2k interagency sites. This includes national parks, national forests, BLM properties and others.
Many of the more popular national parks even have dedicated lanes at the entrance stations for pass holders. So it’s even quicker to get in the park.
Another useful tip is to always check the park page on nps.gov before you visit. The park websites have important info like park alerts or closures. Knowing ahead of time can help you avoid potential issues that could slow you down.
So, the next time you head out on a road trip or vacation, know that with proper planning and preparation, there are national parks you can visit when you’re short on time. Happy trails!