Most road trips involve driving on interstate highways. They’re often mind-numbing, but they’re the fastest way to eat up the miles. Occasionally, however, they offer easy access to national parks that add great value to your trip. After some map study, I’ve come up with a list of nine U.S. national parks that are within 20 miles of busy interstate highways. Keep these in mind next time you hit the road.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota – off I-90
Heading to or from the Black Hills or Yellowstone on I-90? A short detour will bring you to these wildly eroded badlands and a chance to see great scenery and wildlife. There’s a nice visitor center and lots of trails where you can stretch your legs. SR 240 loops through the park between Exits 110 and 131, adding just 13 miles to your journey. The entry fee is $20. And don’t miss stopping at the famous Wall Drug Store – the kitschiest souvenir shop in creation. Pictured above is the park road just before a snowstorm hit the badlands.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina – off I-77
This relatively new national park preserves pristine woodland not far from Columbia, SC. The ranger insisted it’s a “bottomland floodplain,” but I call it a swamp. An elevated boardwalk lets you get up close and personal with the forest. There’s no entry fee. To get there, take Exit 5 from I-77 and go about 10 miles east.
Joshua Tree National Park, California – off I-10
This is Southern California’s closest national park that you can drive to. It features zillions of Joshua trees, along with giant rock formations popular with climbers. The most scenic portion is near the Hidden Valley Campground. The south entrance is less than a mile from I-10, Exit 168. Entry fee is $20. Note: The park can get crowded on weekends and holidays.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky – off I-65
I have to confess: This is the only car-accessible national park in the lower 48 states I’ve never visited. That will be rectified this coming October, and I’ll provide a report in this blog. Mammoth Cave offers nice scenery and the world’s largest cave system. The entrance is just off the interstate, and the visitor center/cave entrance is just a few miles beyond that. There’s no entry fee, but most cave tours cost $13-15 per person. The park is popular in summer; you can reserve tours to avoid being delayed. For information, go to the park’s website — www.nps.gov/maca/index
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – off I-40
Interstate 40 doesn’t just go near this park – it goes right through it. Take Exit 311 (27 miles east of Holbrook), and –whammo! – you’re at the visitor center and entrance station. The park road loops past several stops overlooking the spectacular Painted Desert, then crosses the freeway and heads south to the main deposits of petrified wood. Trails range from short to strenuous. There’s no campground. You’ll find accommodations in Holbrook. The entry fee is $20.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona –off I-10
Saguaro has two separate units on either side of Tucson. Both are easily accessed from I-10, Exit 257. Both units let you see dense forests of giant saguaro cacti, along with other desert vegetation. The west unit is next to the superb Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The scenic drive is unpaved, but it’s easily negotiated in Old Betsy. For the east unit, you drive several miles east on Speedway Blvd. following signs to the park. Its scenic drive is paved Both units have visitor centers. Entry fee (good at both units) is $10.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia – off I-66
Shenandoah is a long, slender park whose north end is at Front Royal, just a few miles off I-66. The south end is just 10 miles from I-64 west of Charlottesville. From Front Royal, you follow Skyline Drive along the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a ridgetop parkway offering tremendous views. The park gets busy on weekends, thanks to its proximity to Washington, DC. In addition to a pair of visitor centers, the park offers lodging, meals and camping. You’ll need reservations for rooms and campsites in summer and on weekends. Details can be found at www.nps.gov/shen/index. The park’s entry fee is $20.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota – off I-94
Interstate 94 crosses this park, which features a portion of the colorful Little Missouri River badlands. There’s even a rest area for westbound traffic that overlooks the badlands and has a seasonal visitor center. Take Exit 27 westbound or Exit 24 eastbound for the park’s entrance and primary visitor center. On the scenic drives, you might spot bison and elk; there are also several prairie dog towns. Roosevelt came to this country in 1883 to hunt bison and later became involved in cattle ranching. This experience led to the conservation beliefs that drove him as President. Entry fee is $20. There’s a campground, and accommodations are in nearby Medora. Sorry, I don’t have any digital photos of this park; my only visit was back in the days of slide film
Zion National Park (Kolob Canyons), Utah – off I-15
A small portion of Zion National Park can be seen by taking the 5.4-mile drive from I-15, Exit 42. Almost immediately, you go from a sagebrush-covered valley into the spectacular red rock country for which Zion is famous. There’s a small visitor center at the entrance, but no other facilities except a picnic area. Visitors pay the full park entrance fee of $30, which is steep if this is the only part of the park you’ll be visiting. You decide if it’s worth it.
How about Canada?
The Trans Canada Highway runs right through three gorgeous national parks and offers easy access to two others in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia and Alberta. These parks offer some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet and should be on everyone’s road trip bucket list.