If you want to visit the best locations in the west, you’ll probably end up on the Park to Park Highway.
This historic route connects some of the US’s best destinations. And it has a fascinating history behind it.
We can’t wait to tell you about all the National Parks you’ll be able to stop by during your next road trip.
Let’s get rolling!
History of the National Park to Park Highway
The National Parks Service (NPS) appointed its first director, Stephen Mather, in 1917. He set a goal to increase attendance in recreational areas.
Their remote location and lack of maps made them tough to get to, so Mather decided to create a Park to Park Highway connecting the west’s best national landmarks. He enlisted the help of AAA motorist Anton Westgard, who had extensive driving experience. Westgard had previously worked creating maps and giving travel advice to fellow drivers.
He began mapping out a route connecting 12 parks in 11 states. The 5,000-mile course became the longest-ever motor route in the country. In 1920, Westgard, sponsored by AAA, led a group of drivers on the trip. They began in Denver, Colorado, and it took them 76 days to complete the unpaved path he had charted.
Today, you can still drive this route. It probably won’t take you over three months to take the Park to Park Highway as it used to, but you’ll want to plan enough time to explore the scenic locations. Luckily you’ll have access to gas stations, lodging, and paved roads along the way.
What Is the Route of the Park to Park Highway?
For over 100 years, explorers have driven the Park to Park Highway to see the best of the west. You’ll see mountains, oceans, and canyons. Instead of picking just one of our national treasures to visit, why not stop by 12 of them? We’ll walk you through the stops, starting and ending in Denver, as Westgard did all those years ago.
Rocky Mountains Region
You’ll kick off the trip in the mountains of Colorado, home to Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors enjoy birdwatching to spot nearly 300 species of birds living here. More adventurous tourists can hike one of the location’s 60 peaks at heights of 12,000 feet or more.
Your next stop will be America’s first National Park, Yellowstone. Don’t miss seeing the famous geyser named Old Faithful during your visit. Then hike to one of the area’s hot springs or waterfalls. During your hike, you might even get to see a bison.
Glacier National Park will be the last stop in the Rocky Mountains region. This recreation area has more than 700 miles of trails suited to hikers of all levels. Fly fishers also enjoy the scenic backdrop while they drop a line.
Pro Tip: Use these 5 Yellowstone Camping Hacks on your national park adventure.
Once you’ve wrapped up your visit to Glacier, you’ll be headed to the Pacific Northwest. The first spot will be Mount Rainier. If you swing by in late July, you’ll be delighted by the wildflowers in the area. Locals suggest hiking the Skyline Trail for a challenging adventure or Box Canyon for an easier option.
Next, the Park to Park Highway will send you to Crater Lake. The iconic blue water surrounded by towering cliffs will take your breath away. This area has a fantastic view of the Milky Way, don’t miss a chance to do some stargazing.
The Lassen Volcanic National Park had intermittent eruptions from 1914 to 1921, making it one of the most recently active volcanos in the lower 48. During your visit, you can check out lava tubes, a sulfur pit, and hot springs.
The trip’s next leg takes you into the heart of California to Yosemite. The massive destination ranges over 700,000 acres. It’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Plan ahead if you want to camp or hike popular routes because permits tend to sell out quickly.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia can be found just 50 miles apart. General Grant’s Highway, part of the Park to Park system, connects the two. Many people consider the drive one of the country’s most scenic. Kings Canyon has similar landscapes to Yosemite but tends to be less crowded. You can explore deep ravines, waterfalls, and cliffsides during your visit.
The tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, can be seen towering over Sequoia National Park. The summit may be too much for us to climb, but you can still enjoy the scenic area on more accessible hikes.
You’ve seen the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Now you’ll be venturing into the desert for the most popular spot along the route, Zion. The dramatic landscapes draw over five million visitors yearly, making it even more popular than Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.
While at Zion, you can hike popular spots like Angel’s Landing or the Narrows. You’ll probably also want to swing by the visitor center to learn about the Paiute people.
Next, the Park to Park Highway will take you to the largest canyon in the United States. You’ve probably heard of it: the Grand Canyon. Walk along the south rim to visit the historical attractions or hike the ravine for stunning views. If you want to visit Phantom Ranch at the bottom, be advised that reservations sell out over one year in advance.
Mesa Verde in Southern Colorado will be the final stop before returning to Denver. History buffs will love this historic spot because of the main attraction, cliff dwellings. We highly suggest taking a tour of Cliff Palace during your stay.
Pro Tip: Are you brave enough to take on these 3 Most Dangerous Hikes in Zion National Park?
The Legacy of the National Park to Park Highway
Without the initiative of NPS director Stephen Mather, who knows when roads would have been developed? He played a vital role in mapping the wild wild west. His goal to get people to enjoy public lands proved successful.
After the inaugural pilgrimage of Westgard’s route, it gained popularity. But motorists wanted more. They wanted places to stay, eat, and refuel their cars. The Park to Park Highway became instrumental in developing infrastructure throughout the west. Today, over 100 years later, we still aspire to follow the historic route.
Enjoy the Sights of this Historic Route
The Park to Park Highway connects 12 of the most exciting recreation areas in 11 states. Th you travel the route, you’ll have the chance to see desert landscapes, fish in mountain lakes, and gaze at the Milky Way.
This road trip will be one you will remember forever. Whatever outdoor activities you enjoy, you won’t be disappointed in the destinations along the way.
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