National Parks (Minus the Crowds)
Our most protected lands—and the dramatic drives that give access to them—are all too often conga lines of taillights and tourists. These four itineraries revive the majesty.
OLYMPIC AND MOUNT RAINIER
Bubbling hot springs, massive glaciers, and moody beaches you'll have all to yourself—just a sampling of the natural wonders worth soaking up in two parks within a few hours of Seattle.
DAY 1This drive actually begins on a boat: the 35-minute-long Bainbridge Island Ferry, which carries you from Seattle city center across Puget Sound. Connect with Route 101 and head west along Olympic National Park's northern edge. The park's gateway, in Port Angeles, Wash., feeds into Hurricane Ridge Road, ascending more than 5,200 feet through cedar, maple, and pine forests before dead-ending at the ridgeline. It's an hour's drive back on 101 to Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, where 32 TV-free cabins huddle around three spring-fed soaking pools that hold steady at 99, 101, and 104 degrees (visitsolduc.com, from $147).
DAY 2Another name for Route 101 is the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway Loop; past Forks, it connects with Upper Hoh Road, an 18-mile stretch of road-trip heaven that traces the silvery Hoh River. The 17-mile-long Hoh River Trail gently traverses the flat valley before leading to Mount Olympus's Blue Glacier. Watch for elk and spotted owls hiding out amid 30-story-tall firs. Just 90 minutes away, the Adirondack-style Lake Quinault Lodge, built in 1926, awaits (visitlakequinault.com, from $130).
DAY 3As Route 101 heads south, it hugs the Pacific shoreline; empty beaches peek through gaps in the coastal forest. The easiest to access is Kalaloch Beach, home to plump sunning sea lions and Kalaloch Lodge, with an ocean-view restaurant serving locally caught grilled king salmon (visitkalaloch.com, salmon $24). About four hours to the southeast is the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, where 147 miles of paved roads take in the park's almost 14,500-foot namesake peak. In July, Paradise meadow, the preferred launching pad for hikers, is blanketed in wildflowers. The 121-room Paradise Inn, which recently completed a $22.5 million renovation, has an expansive dining room with original decorative woodwork and some of the best vantage points (nps.gov/mora, from $104).
DAY 4Route 410 cuts through Rainier's eastern border and climbs above the tree line at Chinook Pass—open from May to November. Even then, many visitors don't know to go there, so the views of Rainier's reflection in Tipsoo Lake could be all yours.
Only two hours north of Seattle lies yet another national park, the rugged North Cascades, where the 12 floating cabins at Ross Lake Resort are accessible only by foot or boat (rosslakeresort.com, from $128).
UTAH CANYON COUNTRY
From Las Vegas, it's a short drive to these four parks with strikingly diverse landscapes.
DAY 1Interstate 15 quickly leaves Vegas shrinking in the rearview and drops you in Zion National Park three hours later. Tourists line up for bus rides on the six-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (cars aren't allowed on the main road in summer), but independent-minded travelers head to little-known Kolob Terrace Road: The hourlong drive cuts across the park's center to Lava Point, which, at 7,600 feet in elevation, allows a soaring view of the canyons. Spend the evening on the private porch of a cabin at Zion Lodge(zionlodge.com, from $159).
DAY 2It's a quick drive north to Bryce Canyon, off U.S. 89. Take your time and do a two-hour horseback ride into the canyon (canyonrides.com, $50); then set aside the afternoon to drive to the outdoor-sports mecca of Moab, Utah, sandwiched between Arches and Canyonlands parks. The pueblo-style Gonzo Inn has bike storage, an espresso bar, and a hot tub (gonzoinn.com, from $159).
DAY 3A day's time is enough to loop around all of the paved roads in Arches National Park and take in the most important sights, like Delicate Arch (the one on Utah license plates). But to find the park's true beauty, put boots to the ground and wander the narrow Technicolor maze ofFiery Furnace. There are no proper trails here, so hikers can only enter with a permit or on a ranger-led, three-hour walk (435/719-2299, walk $10).
DAY 4Canyonlands may be the country's least drivable national park; much of it is inaccessible to cars. The broadest perspective by road lies at Island in the Sky mesa, 32 miles from Moab, which peers 1,000 feet down into the red canyons. Reach the plateau's edge via the mile-long Grand View Point Trail.