national parks road trip

Mount Rainier National Park in all its glory. (Photo: Getty Images)

Road Trips

Ready to Ride? 11 Gorgeous National Parks Within a 3-Hour Drive of Major U.S. Cities

The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park are easily two of the most beautiful places in the United States. Getting to them, however, is a little less pretty—we’re talking four-plus hour drives from any central hub…each way. No matter.

These 11 national parks within three hours of major U.S. cities are close enough to make an easy day trip and just as worthy of your bucket list.

Mount Rainier from Seattle: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Flying in and out of Seattle is one of the prettier routes you can take in the U.S.; from your window seat, you’ll be granted incredible bird’s-eye views of Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the Pacific Cascades covered by glacial icecaps.

The mountain is open all year except the winter for those looking to hike (or summit), though a romp through the park’s wildflower meadows (Paradise being the most popular) are equally photo-worthy.

Olympic from Seattle: 2.5 Hours

Mount Rainier isn’t the only park reachable from Seattle. Lesser-visited Olympic National Park is less than an hour farther and covers almost one million acres of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic terrain. We’re talking old-growth rain forests, white-tipped mountains, and iconic sea stacks just offshore from its 70 miles of foggy, windswept coastline.

Are you a wildlife lover? During your visit, keep an eye out for elk, bald eagles, and mountain goats, or take a trip to Port Angeles to go whale watching for a chance to spot orcas and humpbacks.

Joshua Tree from L.A.: 2.5 Hours

national parks road trip
Arch rock at Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

Every cool girl’s Insta feed has a shot of her frolicking her way through Joshua Tree. The appeal is obvious: just two and a half hours from L.A., this 800,000-acre desert wonderland, with its lunar-like rocky landscape backed by the San Bernardino Mountains, namesake trees, and vibrant wildflowers that bloom in early spring, is photo-op ready.

Be sure to check out the Cholla Cactus Garden and hike (or drive) up to Keys View for a panoramic view of Coachella Valley (including the Salton Sea and the San Andreas Fault) and—if you time it right—the sunset.

Pinnacles from San Francisco: 2 Hours 15 Minutes

America’s newest national park, just over two hours from San Francisco (or an hour and a half south of San Jose), is home to many unique species of birds (woodpeckers, roadrunners) but its most prized resident is the California condor, which possesses the largest wingspan of any North American bird.

Once on the brink of extinction, their numbers have slowly recovered thanks to the park’s conservation efforts. See them, and the park’s namesake red rocks formed millions of years ago, on the 5.5-mile-long High Peaks Trail.

Channel Islands from L.A.: 2 Hours

The isolated Channel Islands, roughly 30 miles from the mainland, are their own little microcosm and one of southern California’s more underrated escapes. Five of the archipelago’s eight islands are protected by national park status and are home to over 100 endemic animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world—from the night lizard to the island fox.

Collectively, they could be considered America’s little Galapagos. Hiking its wildflower-strewn meadows, kayaking to spot dolphins, and spotting elephant seals on Point Bennett are among the better highlights.

Saguaro from Phoenix: 2 Hours

national parks road trip
Saguaro National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you ever find yourself in Phoenix, it’s worth setting aside a day to check out Saguaro National Park, just a two-hour drive away, close to Tucson.

The giant saguaro cactus, found only in the Sonoran Desert, has become a symbol of the American Midwest, and you’ll find plenty of them here—some 90,000 acres worth—along with fuzzy cholla, prehistoric petroglyphs (rock carvings), Mexican spotted owls, and, if your eyes are quick enough, cartoon-famous road-runners. The Valley View Trail Overlook is one of the best places to take it all in.

Zion from Las Vegas: 2.5 Hours

For early risers, it is doable to tackle the distance between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in a single day, but that roughly five-hour journey each wayreally cuts into your sightseeing time. Head just a slightly bit more north long Route 15 and you’ll reach southern Utah’s Zion National Park in two-and-a-half hours—half the driving time and, frankly, just as worthy of a bucket-list checkmark.

Its soaring plateaus and sheer cliffs that dip into sandstone canyons have been around for 250 million years. Photo ops at Zion Canyon, Angel’s Landing, The Narrows, Horseshoe Bend, and the Emerald Pools Trail are musts.

Rocky Mountain from Denver: 1.5 Hours

Established in 1914, Rocky Mountain National Park, with its dazzlingly high peaks, alpine tundra, thick forests roamed by moose and elk, and raging rivers, is one of the oldest in America’s national park system as well as one of Colorado’s most prized natural treasures.

Hiking is, of course, one of the best ways experience these great outdoors, but if you’d rather take a quicker scenic route (or just don’t want to brave the cold), set your GPS for Trail Ridge Road—one of the highest paved roads in the U.S. that winds its way through the park. The country’s best slopes, including Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge, are also just a two-hour drive away.

Cuyahoga Valley from Detroit: 2 Hours 45 Minutes

national parks road trip
Cuyahoga Valley National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

Checking out the renaissance happening in Detroit? If you have time to spare, consider setting aside a day for a drive to Cuyahoga Valley National Park—a beautiful, lush, 33,000-acre landscape of rolling hills, forests, farmland, and trails that crisscross ravines and waterfalls.

There’s a little bit here for everyone: birdwatching, canoeing, fishing, hiking, biking, camping, and even tracks servicing the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad; sightseers can choose to hop on and off or stay for the three-hour-long loop. The most surprising part? This eden is only a half-hour outside of Cleveland.

Shenandoah from D.C.: 2 Hours

When autumn hits, America’s eastern seaboard explodes into a riot of colors. New England is (IOHO) the best place to leaf-peep, and it doesn’t get much better than Shenandoah National Park, just 75 miles and two hours aside of Washington D.C.

Along Virginia’s famous Skyline Drive, you’ll pass 70 overlooks, where you can pull over and witness pockets of the park’s rambling 200,000 acres blanketed in maple, hickory, and oak trees.

Everglades from Miami: 1 Hour

The shortest drive on this list, it takes an easy hour to cover the distance between the beaches of Miami and the outskirts of the Everglades, the largest tropical wilderness in America famously home to a handful of endangered species including manatees, American crocodiles, and the Florida panther.

The trails can be congested with tourists during high season; the best way to experience its mangroves and marshes is by canoe.

This article was published through a partnership with Jetsetter magazine. Read the original story: 11 Gorgeous National Parks Within 3 Hours of Major U.S. Cities by Lindsey Olander, a regular contributor to Jetsetter.

More from Jetsetter: