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Which National Park Drives Are On Your 2014 Calendar?

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Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the many spectacular drives in the National Park System. Kurt Repanshek photo.

With the travel season not too far off, you should be planning your national park adventures. If you're looking for a great scenic drive, we offer the following for your consideration.

Each of these drives offers a unique journey through a national park. All offer spectacular scenery. How many have you checked off your to-do list?

* Acadia National Park, Park Loop Road

Though not a secret by any stretch of the imagination, this is a jewel nevertheless for the views of the Atlantic Ocean as well as Mount Desert Island's forests and mountains. Be sure to stop at Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, and Otter Point. And don't forget the popovers at the Jordan Pond House!

Better than driving yourself, climb aboard an Island Explorer shuttle bus and hop off along the way to explore. This approach lets everyone in your group enjoy the scenery, and you don't have to worry about parking hassles.

Picnic pullouts are found at Bear Brook near the park's Sieur de Monts Entrance, and at Fabbri near Otter Point. If you make it down to the Bass Harbor area, there's a picnic spot at Seawall.

* Arches National Park, Park Road

Sand dunes turned to stone, cliff-framed canyons, windows in rock, and arches all abound along this pleasant drive that constantly interrupts you with gorgeous panoramas and short hikes. Spend an hour or so walking down Park Avenue, climb up into the Windows Section, and explore the Fiery Furnace on a ranger-led hike before exploring beyond Devils Garden.

Picnic spots can be found at the visitor center just inside the park entrance, across from Balanced Rock, and near the Devils Garden Trailhead.

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The badlands practically gobble you upon this drive. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Badlands National Park, Badlands Loop Road

This route brings the badlands front and center. Barren and stark, they also are fascinating and can shimmer in a range of colors at sunrise and sunset. In places they seem about to swallow your rig. If you stop to hike, be on the lookout for the rattlesnakes that like this landscape.

Picnic pullouts are found near Yellow Mounds Overlook and Bigfoot Pass Overlook. 

* Cape Lookout National Seashore, South Core Banks

While there is no paved road on this barrier island, there is a sand track one can follow the entire length of the island, with spurs leading to the ocean side. What's nice about this is it opens up the possibility of primitive camping settings, great birding, solitude, and, of course, the ocean!

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Which way to the Racetrack? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Just come prepared. To drive on the sand, you'll want to reduce the pressure in your tires to about 20 psi for better traction. And, of course, once you're ready to board the ferry for the return to the mainland, you'll want to have an air pump to reinflate your tires.

* Death Valley National Park, Racetrack Road

Not for two-wheel-drive sedans, but rather 4WD or AWD, this road leads to the fabled land of moving rocks in the heart of Death Valley. You have scenery, the interesting photo op presented at Tea Kettle Junction, and the mysterious sliding rocks on the Racetrack. Just be prepared for mile-after-mile of washboard track that will jar your bones and chatter your teeth. 

Picnic spots are just about anywhere along the route you'd like!

* Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road

An engineering wonder as well as offering a feast for the eyes, this 50-mile stretch of pavement takes you from the relative lowlands of either West Glacier or St. Mary up onto the hump of the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. In between are thick forests, streams, lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails to further lead you into the landscape.

At Logan Pass itself, if you can find a parking spot, you'll find wildlife literally within reach, though don't try to pet the mountain goats, as they are indeed wild and their horns sharp.

Picnic spots can be found at the Apgar Campground, Sprague Creek Campground, and Sun Point.

* Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cataloochee

A dirt road runs from the Cove Creek Road just off U.S. 40 on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky, through the Cataloochee Valley, and connects with Tennessee 32. This is the quieter side of Great Smoky, yet it offers historic architecture much like that found in Cade's Cove. 

While lingering in Cataloochee is nice, especially in fall when the elk come down to the meadows, Little Cataloochee offers an even more intimate experience with the mountains and homesteads from the past. 

Picnic in either the Big Cataloochee or Little Cataloochee valleys or at Big Creek before you get back on Tennessee 32.

Mount Rainier National Park, Nisqually to Ohanapecosh

The park road that runs between Nisqually and Ohanapecosh offers spectacular views of Mount Rainier, waterfalls, and the old growth forests near Ohanapecosh. And there's also Reflection Lakes for great photos of the mountain.

The ride through Stevens Canyon is breathtaking, especially if you stop at Box Canyon and gaze down nearly 200 feet to the rushing waters of the Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River. At Ohanapecosh you can't help but be amazed at the towering old-growth forest of Western red cedars, western hemlocks, and Douglas firs.

Picnic pullouts are across from the Kautz Trailhead, at Longmire, Cougar Rock, Paradise, just before Box Canyon and at Ohanapecosh.

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The Painted Desert is particularly colorful shortly after sunrise and just before sundown. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Petrified Forest National Park, Park Road

The park road runs past perhaps the country's greatest collection of petrified wood, one that comes in a rainbow of colors. Gorgeous badlands views of the Painted Desert are had at the northern end of the road, while the Giant Logs, Agate House and Long Logs trails anchor the southern end. In between are great, (short), hikes to Blue Mesa, Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest, and Crystal Forest.

Picnic pullouts are found at Chinde Point on the north end, and at Giant Logs on the south end.

* Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road

This is well-known throughout most of the country. The highest paved road in the United States, it takes you nearly all the way up to 12,000 feet. Along the way you have spectacular views -- and dropoffs -- along with some great hiking trails. Elk, and occasionally bighorn sheep, are often seen.

Picnic pullouts are found at Hidden Valley, Lake Irene, near the Timber Lake Trailhead and Beaver Ponds, the Holzwarth Historic Site, Bowen/Baker Trailhead, Coyote Valley Trailhead, and Harbison Meadows. 

* Zion National Park, Kolob Terrace Road.

Though short, at roughly 9 miles, this road that runs north from Virgin, Utah, and into the park displays the gorgeous high country of Zion: colorful rock bands, outcrops, and spires rising above the pine and juniper forests. Instead of being in the bottom of Zion Canyon, you're on top of the world and gazing across the sandstone landscape.

There are no designated picnic areas along the drive, though you could stop at the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and have lunch there.

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The high country along the Tioga Road is spectacular to behold...and walk across. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Yosemite National Park, Tioga Road

The backside of Half Dome, gorgeous granite domes, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows all are brought into view along this road, which also has numerous trailheads.

Picnic pullouts are found at in between White Wolf and Porcupine Flat, two on either end of Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows.

These are just a sampling of the many great drives in the National Park System. No doubt you've found others.


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Thanks, Wulverine. Looks I'll go to Plan B.

We were in Chaco last summer. Stayed in Farmington for 3 nights and used it as base to go to Aztec Ruins, Ah-shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, Chaco Culture, and Bisti Badlands. Ah-shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness was spectacular and my favorite place.

To go to Chaco, we came south from Farmington onto US 550S and then followed the signs onto to Rd 7900 and 7950. Once you turn off 550 it gets really bad and this is the only way in.

Wulverine, which route did you take to Chaco? I want to head over there this summer, but my little single axle portable motel is very allergic to washboarded roads. I may have to park it somewhere and just visit Chaco with a tent.

Really, the drive to Gila Cliff dwellings? I rather enjoyed it, and the area is quite wild and scenic. Wouldn't want to try it in a large vehicle, though! :)

Couple of good drives in Dinosaur National Monument esp. Harper's Corner and the Echo Park/Yampa Bench roads for the more adventurous.

Skyline, Cactus Forest and Bajada Loops, Petrified Forest, Going-to-the-Sun (if I "win" the backcountry lottery at GNP).

I'd really like to do the entire Natchez Trace some time.

You go Wulverine, and be sure to share your photos when you return home!

I have a four week road trip this summer starting in North Carolina and ending in New Orleans. My Drives will be

Blue Ridge Parkway from Blowing Rock to Cherokee
Great Smokey Mountains - Gap Road and Roaring Fork
And the ENTIRE Natchez Trace from Nashville to Natchez!

Heading for Yosemite this year and our kid's first ever trip. So of course Tioga Road will be on the agenda.

However, one of the best would probably be the Haleakala Highway with its switchbacks.

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