The Optimal U.S. National Parks Centennial Road Trip


Published on July 30, 2016 by Dr. Randal S. Olson

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4 min READ


In August 2016, the National Park Service celebrates their 100th year of managing the United States' system of beautiful national parks. So what's a better way to celebrate 100 years of stewardship than to visit all of the national parks in one epic road trip?

If you've followed my blog for the past year or so, you'll know that I've made a hobby of optimizing various road trips around the U.S., so I couldn't pass up on this opportunity to optimize yet another road trip.

U.S. National Parks

If you're unfamiliar with the U.S. national park system, it consists of 59 protected areas across the U.S. that are managed by the U.S. National Park Service. Many of the national parks are known for their natural beauty, unique geological features, unusual ecosystems, and/or recreational opportunities, which makes them ideal spots to visit if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

[caption width="600"] Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. [NPS][/caption]

[caption width="600"] Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America's most visited national park. [NPS][/caption]

[caption width="600"] Visit Yellowstone and experience the world's first national park. Marvel at a volcano's hidden power rising up in colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. Explore mountains, forests, and lakes to watch wildlife and witness the drama of the natural world unfold. Discover the history that led to the conservation of our national treasures "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." [NPS][/caption]

12 of the national parks are in Alaska, Hawaii, and other U.S. territories, which can make them difficult to drive to unless you have a flying car. Thus for road trip, we're going to focus on the national parks that span the 48 contiguous states in the mainland United States. Don't worry: that limitation still leaves us 47 national parks, which should be plenty for one road trip.

The optimal road trip to the U.S. National Parks

In total, this road trip spans 14,498 miles (23,333 km) of road and will take roughly 2 months if you're traveling at a breakneck pace. I've designed this road trip to form a circle around the U.S., so you can hop on at any point and proceed whatever direction you like. Just make sure to follow the agenda from that point on if you want to follow the optimal route!

[caption width="600"]The Optimal U.S. National Parks Centennial Road Trip Click here for an interactive version[/caption]

Here's the Google Maps for the full trip: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Here's the full list of national parks in order:

  1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  2. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  3. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
  4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
  5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas
  7. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  8. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
  9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
  10. Everglades National Park, Florida
  11. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
  12. Biscayne National Park, Florida
  13. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
  14. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  15. Acadia National Park, Maine
  16. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
  17. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  18. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
  19. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  20. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  21. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
  22. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  23. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
  24. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
  25. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  26. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
  27. Arches National Park, Utah
  28. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
  29. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
  30. Zion National Park, Utah
  31. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
  32. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  33. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  34. Glacier National Park, Montana
  35. North Cascades National Park, Washington
  36. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  37. Olympic National Park, Washington
  38. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
  39. Redwood National and State Parks, California
  40. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
  41. Yosemite National Park, California
  42. Kings Canyon National Park, California
  43. Sequoia National Park, California
  44. Pinnacles National Park, California
  45. Channel Islands National Park, California
  46. Joshua Tree National Park, California
  47. Death Valley National Park, California

Want to make your own road trip?

If you like the idea of taking an optimal road trip but don't like the locations I chose, don't fret: you can make your own road trip!

This time around, I used the Gurobi TSP solver to optimize this road trip. Check out Nathan Brixius' blog post to learn how to make your own, or check out my alternative methods to optimizing road trips using Python and Google Maps.

If Python coding is beyond you, there are web sites like RouteXL.com that will do it for you. They optimize road trips with up to 20 stops for free, and 20+ stops for a nominal fee.

Happy road tripping!