National Parks Tour

With 58 National Parks to choose from, the United States is a road tripper’s dream come true. On this Escape-approved multi-week adventure, you will immerse yourself into the most majestic scenery North America has to offer. Starting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, this adventurous loop around the western United States will satisfy any explorer’s itch to get off the beaten path.

We have listed several attractions along this route, but this is just a taste of what you’re about to see – sometimes the best stops are the ones you don’t plan. Just make sure you share your insider knowledge with future Escapees upon your return.

Let’s start our National Parks Tour itinerary at the Los Angeles Escape Depot and head east.

Distance: 3,400+ miles (5,472+ km)

Time: 4+ weeks

Joshua Tree National Park

Less than 2 hours east of LA, this is a favorite stopover point for Escapees looking to put the madness and traffic of Southern California well behind them. Upon entering the 1250 sq mile park, your campervan will be dwarfed by the massive, oddly sculpted rocks that surround you. Whether it’s bouldering, grabbing a hike, watching the Milky Way spin above your head every night or just having a few cold ones in front of a roaring fire, nobody ever regrets their time in Joshua.

Best Camping

Jumbo Rocks Campground — All sites are first-come-first-serve.

Best Hike

Lost Palms Oasis — Bring plenty of water.

Best Side Trip

Lake Havasu — Take a much-needed dip in the cool waters of the Colorado River as you head east.

Escape Tip

Tip submission from Mack:

If you drive through the Mojave Desert to get to Joshua tree beware there are no gas stations in the desert. Make sure to bring lots of water with you in the summer it gets crazy hot.

  • Skull Rock – Neat rock to check out right next to the road. It looks like a skull…
  • Ryan Mountain – Strenuous hike up the mountain but is definitely worth it to see while you are there. Probably my favorite hike from my trip there.
  • Lost Palms Oasis Trail – one way 3.7-mile (7.4 miles total) hike to some palm trees in the middle of a valley in the desert. It is a cool hike, a little long though.
  • Cholla Cactus Garden – Field of cactuses right next to the road so it is easy to get some parking and take a stroll through the cacti field. DON’T TOUCH the cacti they are very sharp even after they are dead.
  • Keys View – Beautiful view overlooking some mountains and the Salton Sea. Just a short drive to get there and there is a paved wheelchair accessible walkway to check out the views. Really cool! At one point in time it was possible to see Mexico but with today’s air quality it is a rare occurrence.
  • Kelso Sand Dunes – Saw these on the way to Joshua Tree. Didn’t have time to stop but it looked cool. Looks like people take their snowboards, skis, and sleds there to ride the dunes. It is in the middle of the Mojave so there are not a lot of people which is great.

Seligman, Route 66

70 miles (110km) east of Kingman on I-40 is the throwback town of Seligman. If you want a feel of what Route 66 used to be back in the days of Kerouac, this is your place. Pull over, grab a chili dog and chocolate malt at the Snow Cap and wander around town. This place is a great rest stop between Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

Red Rock State Park

It didn’t make our map—and it’s not a National Park—but you’ve got to check this place out. Less than an hour south of Flagstaff, Arizona, is the mind-blowing landscape of Sedona. Drive among the sandstone monoliths, soak up some vortex energy (ask any local), knock out a hike to the base of Bell Rock, then meander back north by way of Oak Creek Canyon Road. You can thank us later.

Best Camping

Both Manzanita and Cave Springs Campgrounds win all kinds of awards for “Best Camping in America.” They can be reached at (928) 282-4119 and (877) 444-6777 respectively.

Best Hike

Bell Rock

Best Side Trip

Before you cruise up Oak Creek Canyon heading back to I-40, make sure you take a small side trip up Schnebly Hill Road. If you’re spending the night in Sedona, this is where you want to be for the sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon National Park

The granddaddy of ‘em all, the Grand Canyon is something everyone has to check out. 10 miles (16 km) across and a mile deep (16 km and 1.6 km, respectively), this is nature at its most magnificent. During the summer months, Desert View Road can become a parking lot. Do yourself a favor and rent a bike, pack a lunch, and thumb your nose at all the ‘tourists’ fighting for parking spots.

Best Camping

Desert View Campground – first-come-first-served 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village.

Best Hike

Bright Angel is the most well-known (well-known = crowded). Hermit and Grandview Trails are good alternatives if you’re looking to escape the crowds.

Best Side Trip

Petrified Forest National Park

Escape Tip

Tip submission from Sandy: Day trip to West Rim

If you’re thinking of a quick trip to the Grand Canyon, try the West Rim. It’s a quick 2 hrs from Las Vegas and the views are amazing. Skip the skywalk–they don’t allow cameras.

Antelope Canyon

Located minutes from Page, Arizona, Antelope Canyon is easily the most photographed slot canyon in the world. The site actually comprises of two canyons: Upper Antelope, also known as The Crack, and Lower Antelope Canyon, known locally as The Corkscrew. Upper Antelope is by far more popular than Lower due to its accessibility but Lower Antelope is awe-inspiring in its own right. You’ll need a guide for this trip so try to sign up in advance. Contact: 1-866-645-9102 or email tours@antelopecanyon.com.

Directions: All trips to Antelope Canyon are via guided tours. Park in Page, load up with water and snacks, make sure you’ve got charged batteries in your camera, and hop on the bus.

Best Camping

Lone Rock RV Park/Campground. We don’t love this place but it’s convenient and close to Page. Boondocking it in the Kaibab Natl Forest west of town is also an option.

Best Hike

Horseshoe Bend

Best Side Trip

Tuba City Dinosaur Tracks. For all the dinosaur lovers out there, we’ve got a stop for you. Here you’ll find real dinosaur tracks on the side of the road just west of Tuba City, a quick detour between the Grand Canyon to Antelope Canyon. The pull out to the tracks is exactly 5 miles (8 km) from the 160 turnoff heading towards Tuba City. Look for a hand-painted “DINOSAUR TRACKS” sign on the side of the road.

Monument Valley

You may not be in the middle of nowhere while visiting this place, but you can definitely see it from there. Located on Highway 163 between the towns of Kayenta and Mexican Hat (make sure you stop over and get a Navajo Taco), this is the land that time forgot. For a $5 fee—paid to the Navajo Nation —you can drive the 17-mile loop taking you on a meandering path around the Monuments. Under normal conditions, this 2-hour drive is possible in an Escape Campervan. That said, the route is on an unimproved dirt road and you are NOT covered with Escape Roadside Assistance if you get stuck out there, especially during the rainy season. CHECK THE WEATHER BEFORE UNDERTAKING THE LOOP. Alternatively, a private Navajo-guided backcountry tour for a half day is a great way to experience the valley. You can book one upon arrival.

Best Camping

We’ve heard okay things about Goulding’s Campground just outside the park. We’ve heard great things about Gooseneck State Park to the west. Southern Utah is also chock-full of National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land so boondocking is a great option.

Best Hike

Wildcat Trail

Best Side Trip

Lake Powell

Moab

Moab is the Mecca for all things mountain biking. With some of the best trails in the world (plus skydiving, hiking, canyoneering, rafting, and more), park it for a day or two and dive, literally, into the scene.

Best Camping

If you can’t get a spot at Canyonlands or Arches, there’s great BLM camping in the canyon along the Colorado River–just be aware of flash floods in the summer!

Best Hike

Corona Arch Trail

Best Side Trip

Dead Horse Point State Park

Best Eats/Drinks

  • Eklecticafe on Main Street serves a killer breakfast.
  • Quesadilla Mobilla — We keep hearing about this place; it’s a mobile Mexican restaurant located on the back of a truck.

Canyonlands National Park

Near the town of Moab, Utah, countless millennia of erosion have turned this area into a maze of canyons, mesas, buttes, and other dramatic geologic formations. The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. Many Escapees think they’re going to do a day trip here and end up spending several days exploring the numerous hikes and mountain bike trails within the park. Bring a saw just in case you get trapped and need to cut your arm off.

Edward Abbey, travel writer and all around eco-renegade, described Canyonlands as, “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.” We couldn’t agree more.

Best Camping

Squaw Flat Campground – nice but it fills up fast. Willow Flat is a good alternative. Both are first-come-first-served.

Best Hike

Aztec Butte is a don’t miss. Like all of Canyonlands and Arches, be on the lookout for out-of-control mountain bikers.

Best Side Trip

Nearby Arches National Park is a great option to combine with Canyonlands.

Arches National Park

If you like natural arches, this is your place. Located on the Colorado River 4 miles (6.4 km) north of the town of Moab, this area makes a nice combo trip to touring Canyonlands. Known for containing over 2,000 sandstone arches (who counts this stuff anyway?) this place is not to be missed.

Best Camping

Devil’s Garden Campground

Best Hike

Delicate Arch. Bring lots of water!

Best Side Trip

Nearby Canyonlands National Park is a great option to combine with Arches.

Grand Teton National Park

With nothing to obstruct your view from the valley, the Teton Range is one of the most stunning mountain ranges in the world, making this stop a must. From hiking to bike riding to stand-up paddling, you will finish every day tired and satisfied. Enjoy a post-hike beer and nachos at Dornan’s in Moose Junction, grab a seat in a saddle at Cowboy Bar, enjoy some local live Bluegrass at historic Wort Hotel, or grab a coffee and bagel on your way out of town at Pearl Street Bagels.

Best Camping

Jenny Lake (very popular, so book ahead). Or, to get off the beaten path a bit, check out Shadow Mountain – the local’s car camping spot with a view of the Tetons you just can’t beat.

Best Hike

Cascade Canyon Trail

Best Side Trip

Jackson Hole

Yellowstone National Park

As you can see on the map, it’s a looooong way from southern Utah to Yellowstone. There are infinite things to see and do between these points on the map, but we’ll leave it to Tripadvisor and travel books to fill in the blanks.

Once you do hit Yellowstone, our biggest tip is to rent a bike or take public transport around the park and take that much needed-break from the open road. Yellowstone comprises almost 3,500 sq miles (8,991 sq km), so plan on spending several days here to soak in everything this paradise has to offer.

Best Camping

Tower and Slough Creek are great. They fill up fast, so get there early to scope out a spot.

Best Hike

North Rim Trail, “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”

Best Side Trip

Big Sky, Montana

Lake Tahoe

It’s not a National Park, but it’s a nice way to loop back around to California. There are two main areas: North Tahoe and South Tahoe. Head to South Tahoe for casinos and pricey restaurants. Otherwise, North Tahoe is your place. It’s more laid back with better campgrounds (subjective opinion), beaches, and little communities that are more in line with the Escape crowd. Check out Truckee, Tahoe City, and Kings Beach if you’re looking for hip, welcoming mountain towns.

Best Camping

All Tahoe campgrounds in the summer months fill up fast. As usual, get there early and jump on a spot if someone looks like they’re packing up. Honestly, ALL campgrounds are idyllic in North Tahoe. Sugar Pine Point Campground is our favorite. DL Bliss State Park is another. Try to book these in advance.

Best Hike

Mount Tallac Trail

Best Side Trip

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Yosemite

Photo by Lunalee Photography

Pronounced “Yo-SE-mi-tEE”, this paradise quickly becomes the highlight of many Escapee adventures. That said, with over 4 million tourists a year, this place is most definitely not off-the-beaten track and a lack of planning might lessen the awesomeness of your experience. We’ll leave it to the travel blogs to provide the full rundown on how to make the most of a Yosemite trip and stick with several of our tried and tested ways to beat the crowds.

Best Camping

If you didn’t book a campsite in Yosemite Valley in advance (Upper, Middle or Lower Pines Campgrounds), stick with the first-come-first-serve campgrounds along Highway 120, also known as Tioga Pass Road. Escape favorites include White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Tamarack Flat. Up on Glacier Point Road is another truly epic first-come campground named Bridalveil Creek. You can’t go wrong with any of these and, by staying here, you’ll avoid the madness that is Yosemite Valley. Read our camping tips for more information.

Best Hike

Skip the tourist crowds as they head up the Nevada/Vernal Falls Trail and come DOWN it instead. Here’s the game plan: Leave your vehicle in Curry Village, take the free public transit bus to Glacier Point, jump out and hike back to your campervan via the Panorama Trail. Get an early start as this is a full day commitment. Bring lots of water, snacks and some sturdy shoes.

Best Side Trip

While there is a multitude of things to do in Yosemite Valley, driving about an hour south to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias provides a different–and equally rewarding–experience.

Escape Tip

Park the campervan and rent a bike. They’re pretty cheap and it’s the best (some say only) way to get around the crowds during high season.

Escape Tip

Tip submission from Elaine for returning from Yosemite to LA via the Central Valley in CA:

“The central valley of CA isn’t very attractive, however, if you go down the east side of the Sierra Nevada, along Highway 395, it’s stunning (you can see King’s Canyon – just not drive into it because the mountains are too steep), get to drive by Mt. Whitney (highest point in the continental US), Manzanar National Historic Site, Bodie State Park, and Death Valley National Park. And there’s less traffic and very open highways.”

Big Sur

Like a lot of destinations in this itinerary, Big Sur isn’t a National Park. Some might even tell you Big Sur isn’t a place; it’s more of a state of mind. Just a couple hours south of San Francisco along the famous Highway 1, you get to witness where the continent of North America crashes abruptly into the Pacific Ocean. Once you get south of Santa Cruz, (or north of Morro Bay) tap the brakes regularly as you meander because there’s plenty to check out and a lot of people miss it.

Highlights

  • Ano Nuevo State Park and their resident Elephant Seals (best in Dec – March)
  • Point Lobo State Park: an Escape favorite, you can’t go wrong paying the $10 fee to check out the otters, seals, Condor, and whatever else happens to be cruising by.
  • Nepenthe Restaurant: just south of Big Sur, Nepenthe is hands down the best place for a sunset over a glass of wine or a cold one.
  • Pfeiffer Beach: the ‘other’ best place to catch a sunset while in Big Sur. Keep an eye toward the ocean as this is also a big tourist destination for both humpback and gray whales.

Best Camping

Escape favorites include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Campground, Fernwood, Riverside and Kirk Creek. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. Learn more here.

Best Hike

Ewoldsen Trail

Best Side Trip

Hearst Castle — It took 28 years to complete William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, which includes 165 rooms on 125 acres. There are a variety of tours available.

Location: Can’t miss the entrance on the right up Highway 1 outside the town of San Simeon.

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