The Ultimate National Park Explorer Road Trip

Visit 17 sites in the National Park System while driving this loop through western states.

There are 49 national parks in the continental United States and five of these can be found in Utah. In this nearly 3,500 mile loop, starting in Las Vegas, Nevada, you can visit 11 national parks, four national monuments, one national historical park and one national memorial. And along the way, we’ll point out some Destination Detours, interesting distractions on or near your route.

Some of these roads are seasonal and others are susceptible to weather, so check before starting your drive. Your best bet would be to get one of AAA’s famous TripTik Travel Planners, which provides comprehensive driving directions. Our journey begins in Las Vegas, and airline tickets to “The Entertainment Capital of the World” are relatively inexpensive.

You also should consider purchasing a National Parks Service Annual Pass, which you can buy at certain NPS locations or online at nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm.

Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah

Horseback riding, rock climbing and hiking are among the many things offered at Zion. Its vast array of nature will captivate you.

Destination Detour: A Washington, Utah, resident has an 81-foot pole in his yard covered with license plates from all 50 states.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon, Utah

Hoodoos (pillars of rock) are found on every continent, but the most significant concentration on earth is at Bryce Canyon.

Capitol Reef National Park, Torrey, Utah

Besides hiking, this treasure filled with cliffs, canyons and domes, also can be explored by vehicle, with much of the park being seen from the road.

Golden Spike National Historical Park, Brigham City, Utah

Visit the location of where the first transcontinental railroad across the United States was completed in 1869 and the Last Spike was placed.

Destination Detours: On your way here, check out the seasonal petting zoo behind the Flying J Travel Center in
Scipio, Utah. Or the Stonehenge replica outside of a skilled nursing facility of the same name in American Fork, Utah.

Fossil Butte National Monument, Kemmerer, Wyoming

Some of the world’s best-preserved fossils are found in the flat-topped ridges of southwestern Wyoming’s sagebrush desert.

Grand Teton National Park, Moose, Wyoming

The park operates year-round with plenty of activities, including bird watching and other wildlife viewings, fishing and horseback riding.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The first national park in the U.S. Whether it’s waiting for the next eruption of Old Faithful or grabbing a gander at the wildlife wandering the park, make sure you plan to make the most of your trip.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana

This memorial pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The battle pitted the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes against U.S. Army Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry.

Destination Detour: In Cody, Wyoming, (named after Colonel William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody), stop by the Cody Dug Up Gun Museum, which is precisely what it sounds like. It is a collection of dug up guns, which, in this area of the country, is not hard to find.

Devils Tower National Monument, Devils Tower, Wyoming

Fans of the film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” will recognize this immediately while skilled rock climbers love the challenges it presents.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone, South Dakota

The heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved in granite and a little larger than actual size.

Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer, South Dakota

With more than 208 miles of passages, this is the third-longest cave in the world. You will wonder at its amazing formations and the colors that are presented.

Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park, Montrose, Colorado

It’s big, but it’s also small. Over time, the Gunnison River has carved out some cliffs and created some fantastic spires in this forgotten canyon.

Destination Detour: In Cheyenne, Wyoming, look for “The Greeting and The Gift” along Interstate 25 near exit 4. It is a 14-foot-tall bronze Mountain Man on one side of the highway facing a 13-foot-tall bronze Indian on the other side of the road. The two seem to be exchanging friendly gestures.

Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

With more than 2,000 natural stone arches in the park, what else could they have named this park? Your goal is to take a photo of a sunrise or a sunset through one of the arches.

Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah

The Colorado River and its tributaries divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez and Mancos, Colorado

The park has nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Have you ever seen wood turn to stone? How about a painted desert? And don’t forget to check out the petroglyphs.

Destination Detour: Four Corners Monument is the only place in the U.S. where four states converge in one place. You stand in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah at the same time.

Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, Arizona

The second-most visited park in the U.S. features a large (some call it grand) canyon that is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. The South Rim is open all year. North Rim is open seasonally.

John T. Garcia is the managing editor of AAA Magazine.