Traveler’s Delightful Dozen: Windshield Touring Trips in the National Park System
We love our cars, we love our parks, and we love to drive our cars in the parks. Well, at least when the traffic isn’t too bad, and we really don’t mind just going along for the ride. The windshield touring season is nearly here, so it’s time to start thinking about park trips. All of the national parkways are recommended. Here are a dozen other traverses, loops, and shuttles that belong on your short list.
Going-to-the-Sun Road: The main attraction of northwestern Montana’s Glacier National Park is the east-west drive across the Continental Divide on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Many experienced windshield tourists consider this remarkable road – which opened for business 75 years ago this summer and was one of the great engineering feats of its time – the single best scenic mountain drive in the 48-state U.S.
Visitors normally undertake the 50-mile drive in their private vehicles (see caveats below!), enjoying the scenic turnouts, charismatic wildlife, wayside exhibits, and magnificent views from the road. However, the park’s little red 1930s-era “gear jammer” tour buses offer a superb way for visitors to just sit back and enjoy the trip. The park recently refurbished the gear jammers, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and equipped them to run on clean-burning propane fuel.
Stop and walk: Stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which is on the Continental Divide. From the parking lot, take the Hidden Lake Nature Trail, which is renowned for its gorgeous vistas and friendly mountain goats.
Caveats: Make sure your vehicle is mechanically sound (especially brakes and cooling system) and don’t be in a hurry. Going-to-the-Sun is narrow and twisty, often congested, and in such poor condition in spots that the rehabilitation project recently launched is basically a rebuilding job. This road was not constructed with motor coaches and big travel trailers in mind, either. On the stretch from Avalanche Creek to Sun Point there is a ban on buses and all other vehicles more than 8 feet wide (including mirrors) or over 21 feet long (including bumpers). Regardless of what you drive, don’t expect the road to be open all of the way, all of the time. Snowfall is the main determinant. The road can normally be kept open from about the first week of June to early fall, but it has opened as late as June 23 and closed as early as October 4. Intermittent closings of a day or two are a constant threat because avalanches or rock slides and fresh snowfall can happen any time of year.
Factoid: Eight inches of snow fell in the high elevations at Glacier on one memorable August day in 2005.
Denali’s shuttle road: Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve doesn’t just offer mountain, boreal forest, and tundra scenery that is gorgeous beyond description. It also competes with Yellowstone for the title of America’s premier wildlife park. No other road in the entire National Park System affords windshield tourists the opportunity to view wilderness boreal forest and tundra landscapes complete with grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. And on rare clear days they can even see Mt. McKinley (better known as Denali), North America’s highest peak. The park’s only public road, the shuttle road, extends 90 miles into the wilderness. The first 15 miles are paved, but the rest is gravel-surfaced roadway -- a concession to the great expense of building and maintaining paved roads while coping with permafrost and the freeze-thaw cycle. With the exception of inholders and their guests, motorists can operate private vehicles only as far as Mile 14. Beyond that point, tourists must walk, ride bicycles, or use the bus service. The bus service is by far the most popular choice. A fleet of more than 40 concessionaire-operated buses takes visitors into the park from mid-June to mid-September. In September, when the prime tourist season is over, locals who are lucky enough to get a permit (distributed by lottery) can drive their vehicles the full length of the shuttle road and enjoy the fall colors. After the fall color season, motorists may use a specified road segment until snow forces the closing of the road.
Caveat: Remember to yield the right of way to grizzlies, wolves, caribou, and other wildlife.
Stop and walk: Bus riders on the shuttle road can get on and off where they want. Polychrome Pass is a popular stop because it is great place to watch wildlife, take pictures, use the portable toilets, and hike a short distance on the tundra.
Factoid: The shuttle road and concessionaire-operated bus system are key elements of Denali’s wilderness preservation plan. By greatly limiting vehicle access and human-animal interaction, the National Park Service has ensured that direct human impact on the wilderness will be minimal.
Yellowstone’s Grand Loop: The Grand Loop road at Yellowstone National Park is one of the oldest and most celebrated windshield touring routes in America. The figure eight-shaped double loop connecting the park’s main tourist attractions began to take shape as a stagecoach route in the mid-1880s, was pretty much finished by 1891, and was paved by 1934. The upper (northern) loop is no scenic slouch, but most park visitors consider the lower loop far superior because it affords the chance to see Old Faithful, West Thumb, Yellowstone Lake, Shoshone Point, the Hayden Valley, and the Yellowstone River as well as the elk, bison, moose, bears, wolves, and other charismatic species inhabiting “America’s Serengeti.”
Stop and walk: You can go bonkers trying to pick and choose among the many stop-and-take-a-lingering-look attractions on the Grand Loop. Allow plenty of time for just strolling and looking. Be sure to stop at Old Faithful, the park’s icon landmark. And by all means take the spur road to Artist Point, walk to the overlook, and enjoy a never to be forgotten view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lower Falls. Few vistas in the entire Park System are as drop-dead gorgeous as this one.
Factoid: The first wheeled vehicle to reach the Old Faithful area was a stagecoach that got there in 1878, only six years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park.
Factoid Deux: Shoshone Point was the backdrop for a stagecoach holdup in 1914. According to Yellowstone Place Names by Lee H. Whittlesey, “One bandit, armed and masked, stopped the first coaches of a long line of vehicles and robbed the 82 passengers in 15 coaches of $915.35 and about $130 in jewelry.”
Caveats: Road construction and foul weather cause intermittent and seasonal closures and delays. Before leaving for the park call the 24-hour Current Road Report hotline at 307-344-2117 to check road conditions. All roads south through the park, including the road to Old Faithful Geyser, are closed to wheeled vehicles from early November through late April. Be mindful of wildlife as you drive. Vehicle collisions kill more than 100 bears, elk, bison, deer, moose, and wolves in a typical year. Vehicle-animal collisions sometimes injure or kill motorists too, and if a car hits one of the larger animals it may be totaled. An elk can be nearly as big as a horse, and a male bison, moose, or grizzly can weigh nearly as much as a compact car.
Trail Ridge Road: Glacially sculpted mountains, lowland meadows, subalpine forests, alpine tundra, and watchable wildlife draw some three million visitors a year to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Most enter and depart via Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34), which stretches 48 curvy miles between Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west. Rocky Mountain is too high and cold to have the wildlife diversity of Yellowstone, but the park is noted for wildlife viewing and offers windshield tourists good opportunities to see charismatic megafauna such as mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and the odd black bear, moose, or mountain lion. A special feature of Trail Ridge Road is the windswept 11-mile stretch that lies above the treeline. Though it’s cool and breezy up there in the summer, a fact that draws many a heat-weary tourist, it gets very windy and cold in the winter.
Stop and walk: The Tundra World Nature Trail, which begins near the parking area at Rock Cut, is an easy half- hour walk that features colorful tundra flowers and lots of wildlife. Also stop at the Alpine Visitor Center (elev. 11,796 feet), which is located about two miles north of the highest point on Trail Ridge. A short trail from the parking lot there leads to a high vantage point for panoramic photo ops.
Factoid: Topping out at 12,183 feet, Trail Ridge Road stands alone as the Park System’s high-altitude champion. None of the other 390 units in the system has a continuously paved road that reaches a higher elevation.
Caveats: Because Rocky Mountain is so easily accessible from Denver and Boulder, Trail Ridge has a good deal of traffic congestion at the summer peak and during the fall elk bugling season. Snow closes the road from late fall to early summer, so don’t go there then. When you do go, make sure your vehicle is up to the job. The grade is not dramatically steep – nowhere more than 7 degrees -- but the long climbs and lower barometric pressure work a hardship on underpowered engines and inadequate cooling systems. There is significantly less oxygen in the air at this altitude, too, and that can trigger health problems. Mild oxygen deficiency may be only an annoyance for healthy people, but it’s potentially lethal for people who are sick or frail. This trip is most emphatically not recommended for people with serious heart or respiratory problems.
Acadia’s Park Loop Road: Acadia National Park in northern coastal Maine has a road that is about as nearly ideal for windshield touring as a park road can get. Tours of the 27-mile long Park Loop Road begin at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, where many visitors rent audiotape or CD tour guides they can listen to as they negotiate the loop and enjoy its attractions. Motorists normally spend about three or four hours on the loop, but there are enough interesting things along and near the road to keep a person joyfully occupied all day. The main attractions include Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, sea caves, sea arches, headlands, Otter Cliffs (highest on the Atlantic Coast), wave-cut benches, tidal pools, surf, and birds.
Stop and walk: Take the spur road to the top of Cadillac Mountain and enjoy the panoramic view from the highest mountain (1,530 ft.) on the East Coast. Park and visit Thunder Hole, a shallow wave-pounded sea cave worthy of the name at high tide. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can find a parking place, stop for a swim in very cold (50s) ocean water at Sand Beach. Better yet, cross the road and take the rigorous trail to the top of the Beehive for an outstanding view of Frenchman Bay.
Factoid: Acadia has designated a special Car Free Day, which falls on the fourth Sunday in April each year. Only a short stretch of the Park Loop Road remains open to motor vehicles during Car Free Day. The intent is to promote alternative, cleaner means of travel such as walking, hiking, bicycling, or other non-motorized means transportation.
Factoid Deux: You can leave your car in Bar Harbor and board the Island Explorer shuttle buses to enjoy the loop road. The shuttles stop at key points along the loop so you can get out and hike or go tidal pooling.
Caveats: The Park Loop Road tends to be heavily congested at the summer peak. RV drivers need to plan in advance, since there are four low-clearance bridges on the loop. All motorists need to be aware that the Park Loop Road does not remain open year round. It closes in the late fall, either after the first storm following Veterans Day or on the Monday after Thanksgiving, whichever comes first. The road reopens between mid- and late April, depending on the weather.
Cades Cove Loop Road: We’re dealing with Great Smoky Mountains National Park here, so let’s put a traffic congestion caveat right up front. Great Smoky is America’s most heavily-visited National Park. It hosts about 9.4 million visitors a year, and nearly all are windshield tourists in cars and buses. If you drive the park roads and look for a parking place during the peak summer months or the fall color season, you may feel that all 9.4 million visitors have come at the same time. That said, Great Smoky’s famed Cades Cove Loop Road is a windshield touring gem, and it’s no wonder that the 11-mile long, one-way circuit entertains two million windshield tourists a year, or about 4,500 carloads on a typical day in the summer or during the October leaf-peeping season. So go ahead and fit the Cades Cove Loop into your travel plans if you get the chance and can time it right. Renting a tour tape/CD will increase your enjoyment of the many cultural/historical and scenic attractions along the loop. The Cades Cove landscape has been largely restored to its historic appearance when it was an isolated farming community in the 1800s and early 1900s. The fields, fences, crops, meadows, and other things you see there will put you in mind of a time when the rural landscape was finer-grained, the horse and wagon dominated transport, and people enjoyed a bucolic lifestyle that was simpler, quieter, slower, friendlier, greener, and closer to nature. Cades Cove is also a good venue for viewing wildlife, especially white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, and foxes. To lower your stress level and help reduce the park’s notoriously high air pollution level, consider renting a bike or using the concessionaire-operated, clean-fueled shuttles.
Stop and walk: Near the visitor center is an “open air museum” of historic structures depicting 19th-century Appalachian pioneer architecture, technology, and lifestyles. On display are farmsteads, log cabins, a fully operational gristmill, a frame church, and other structures of historic interest.
Factoids: In the pioneer southern Appalachian culture, a “cove” was a small valley on a mountainside or a flat area surrounded by mountains. In a region where flat land is scarce, coves were considered highly desirable for farming. Cades Cove is a geologic fenster that was created by an overthrust fault and subsequent erosion.
Caveat: If you plan to visit Great Smoky during the October leaf-peeping season, get your lodging reservations booked as early as you can. All rooms in area motels and B&Bs are booked solid long before the fall colors appear.
Crater Rim Drive: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not a destination attraction. Most of the roughly 1.6 million people who visit the park each year are tourists who arrive in rental cars they pick up at the airport upon their arrival on the Big Island. These motorists, like the motor coach and van tour groups, are typically in a hurry and either just passing through on their way to the Kona Coast resorts to the west or making day-tripping excursions from Hilo on the east coast. This makes the park’s Crater Rim Drive especially appealing. The 11-mile loop that circles the summit caldera of the park’s famed Kilauea volcano can be circuited in a hasty hour or completed at a more leisurely three–hour pace. Either way, it offers scenery that people are very excited to capture in memory and on film. On the drive, windshield tourists don’t merely circle the summit caldera and go on their way. They traverse the caldera floor, pass through desert and lush tropical rain forest ecosystems and enjoy well-marked scenic stops.
Stop and walk: Those willing to leave their cars to take short walks are rewarded with magnificent views and fascinating diversions. The main stop-and-look attractions are Sulphur Banks (Ha’akulamamanu), steam vents, the Kilauea Overlook, the Jaggar Museum, Southwest Rift, the Halema’uma’u Overlook, the September 1982 Flow, the Keanakako’I Overlooks, Devastation Trail, the Pu’u Pua’I Overlook, the Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku), and the Kilauea Iki Overlook. Be sure to walk through the cave-like Thurston Lave Tube.
Factoid: Before lava flows blocked Chain of Craters Road, motorists could use this “back door” route to access the Crater Rim Drive from Hilo.
Caveats: Park officials close the Crater Rim Drive when sulfur dioxide fumes and particulates emitted by Kilauea reach dangerous levels. This happened most recently in April 2008 when the entire park was closed for a time. Motorists on the loop must be careful not to hit nene. These endangered flightless geese often stand near or walk across park roads, and automobiles are the leading cause of death for the rare birds. Signs mark nene habitat areas and motorists are warned to heed the “Nene Crossing” signs. Road segments are occasionally closed to protect nene.
North Carolina Highway 12: Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks region has a two-lane paved road, North Carolina Highway 12, which runs north-south the entire length of the seashore. Most motorists enter at the northern end of the seashore, which is adjacent to an intensely developed seaside resort. Trips north or south on NC-12 (known as the “Beach Road” to locals) offer windshield tourists some of America’s best seaside scenery as well as convenient access to beaches, picturesque Ocracoke Village, the Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Lighthouses, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and other delights. An NC-12 traverse requires some island-hopping, so the Oregon Inlet Bridge and a fleet of car-toting ferries play a vital role. Though sometimes involving a fairly long wait to board, the 40-minute ferry ride between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands is a big part of the fun for most visitors. Traveling between Ocracoke Island and the mainland – something that most park visitors don’t do -- requires a 2.25-hour ferry ride for which you need a reservation.
Stop and walk: Though not for the faint of heart or short of breath, the spiral-stair climb to the top of the 12-story high Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a unique experience that provides a very rewarding panoramic view. The 207-feet high lighthouse, one of the world’s tallest brick structures, is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day.
Factoid: Cape Hatteras has places (such as Oregon Inlet) where ORVs can be legally driven on the beach. ORV drivers must obey rules designed to protect the dunes, wildlife, and fellow visitors.
Caveat: The narrow, windswept barrier islands of the Outer Banks region are frequently pounded by storms, some of which can be dangerous for park visitors and locals alike. The hurricane season (June to November) encompasses the prime tourist season. Motorists should avoid NC-12 when hurricanes threaten.
Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road: The only road that crosses Yosemite National Park in the east-west direction is the Tioga Pass Road (SR 120). Accessible from the Central Valley, this 39-mile long trans-Sierra route begins at Crane Flat and ascends the west flank of the Sierras, gaining more than a mile in elevation before reaching the park’s eastern entrance at Tioga Pass. This is true mountain terrain. The Tioga Pass Road is the loftiest automobile highway in all of California, and the Tioga Pass entrance that anchors its eastern end is the loftiest park entrance (elev. 9,945 feet) in the entire world. The Tioga Pass Road earned California Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as the most scenic mountain road in California. Some who have toured the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks roads may disagree with that, but the Tioga Pass Road certainly offers windshield tourists memorable views of lush evergreen forests, shimmering lakes, glacial valleys, and wildflower-covered meadows. This route’s familiar “T signs” are a trademark feature.
Stop and walk: Stop at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and try one of the hiking trails that radiate into the high country.
Factoid: The Tioga Pass Road is very old by national park standards. A wagon road was established along the current route in 1915. The road was subsequently paved (1937) and realigned (1961).
Caveat: The Tioga Pass entrance is closed from the first big snowfall in the fall until the last big snowfall in late spring or early summer. The average opening date is May 29 and the average closing date is November 1. Regardless of the time you travel, remember that this road has some pretty impressive grades and curves. Make sure that your vehicle is up to the task.
Arches scenic drive: Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, preserves a fantastic collection of natural sandstone arches produced by millions of years of erosion. Numbering more than 2,000 in all, and including the world-famous Delicate Arch, this is the densest concentration of these unusual rock formations existing anywhere on Earth. The park’s scenic drive, with its handful of spur roads, makes it easy for windshield tourists to enjoy very special photo ops and memory-moments. Plan to spend the whole day if you want to drive the length of the scenic road and make forays up the spurs to attractions and viewpoints.
Stop and walk: If you’ve got three or four hours at Arches, you can do all three of the primary stop-and-walks. The first is a stroll beneath the Window Section’s North Window or Double Arch. It’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the arches. Then drive up to the parking lot at the Delicate Arch Viewpoint and walk the short trail to the viewpoint, which is positioned about a mile from the picturesque arch. Don’t forget to bring your camera! Finally, stop and have a look at the post-Civil War era Wolfe Ranch on your way back to the main road. If you have the time, skip the Delicate Arch viewpoint and instead make the 3-mile roundtrip hike to stand in the arch’s shadow.
Factoid: Late afternoon is the best time to take a great photo of Delicate Arch – one that really says “Wow!”
Caveat: Arches National Park has some resource damage issues associated with the park’s increased popularity. Designated parking spaces are often hard to find at the most popular sites, so people have begun to park in areas where they shouldn’t. To spare roadside vegetation and soil, and to reduce the risk of dangerous accidents, park only in established lots. Parking spaces are generally easiest to find before 9:00 a.m. and after 7:00 p.m.
Skyline Drive: The only public road through Virginia’s north-south trending Shenandoah National Park is the famed Skyline Drive. Built during the 1930s and running along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, Skyline Drive was the first lengthy scenic road constructed in America. It is still one of the prettiest, too. If you wanted to drive the entire length of the road, minding the 35 mph speed limit, you could do it in less than four hours when the weather is clear and traffic is light. But what a wasted opportunity that would be. The route has no less than 75 overlooks, each offering a great view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the piedmont to the east. You’ll see plenty of trees and flowering shrubs along the way, plus a good selection of wildlife that may include white-tailed deer, wild turkey, raccoon, and black bear. The leaf-peeper season in October brings gorgeous fall colors, together with bumper to bumper traffic. Pick up a park map and use the mileposts on the west side of the road to locate points of interest. All park maps and tourist brochures use the mileposts for locational references.
Stop and walk: There are lots and lots of places for short walks to scenic attractions. The largest developed area is Big Meadows, which is near the center of the park at Milepost 51.
Factoid: Skyline Drive was the inspiration for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was designed as a scenic mountain road connecting Skyline Drive with the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Caveats: Don’t be in too much of a hurry, and do watch out for wildlife crossing the road. Expect heavy traffic in summer and the fall color season. If you are driving an RV, pulling a travel trailer, or hauling a horse trailer, make sure your vehicle is in good condition and be careful on the many steep grades and sharp curves. Be aware that the clearance is just 12’ 8” at Marys Rock Tunnel, which is near Milepost 32 just south of the Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211.
The Generals Highway and California 180: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, “partner” parks in the rugged southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, extend from the foothills to the wilderness High Sierra. Giant sequioas, rugged mountains, and deep canyons are the main draw. Linking up these and other attractions (including large caverns) are two remarkable scenic routes – the Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park, and California State Highway 180 in Kings Canyon National Park. One route blends almost seamlessly into the other, yielding a scenic byway of considerable length and diversity. A drive that few windshield tourists can ever forget begins at the Foothills Visitor Center (elev. 1,700 feet), proceeds upward on the Generals Highway, switches to Highway 180, transitions to the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, and ends where the road quite literally terminates and nothing lies beyond but mile after mile of mountain wilderness.
Stop and walk: The pride of the Generals Highway is the General Sherman sequoia tree in Giant Forest. It is the largest living tree on earth, and to see this giant and its huge neighbors you need to take a short hike from the parking lot. Further up the mountain on 180 you’ll want to visit the General Grant Grove and see the giant sequoia for which this grove is named. Even further up 180, where the awe-inspiring Kings Canyon dominates the scenery, there are a number of scenic overlooks that are great for biding a while. If you drive to the wilderness terminus of 180, there are several trails to try.
Factoids: 1) A car traveling the Generals Highway on a foggy night can flip end-over-end several times without significantly injuring the passengers or harming so much as a single hair on the bear that caused the accident. The author knows this to be true because he personally examined the mangled remains of the car while talking to its lucky (?) driver. 2) There is a place in the Kings Canyon National Park wilderness that is further from a paved road than any other place in the entire 48-state U.S.
Caveats: Get current road and weather info before you leave for the park. Fill your tank up too, since no gas is sold in the parks. Remember that the onset of winter forces seasonal closing of the roads. And if anyone in your windshield touring party has a bad time on roads with sharp curves, steep grades, and sheer cliffs next to the roadway, you might want to think twice about driving 180 down into and back out of Kings Canyon. The highway is excellent, but stretches of that route rate around 8.0 on the white knuckle scale for a lot of people.