June 7, 2016

The National Park to Park Highway - The Ultimate National Park Road Trip

An epic roadtrip to visit the nation's playgrounds

by Susan Strayer, MountainMomandTots.com

Summer is the time for baseball, ice cream and family road trips. At MountainMomandTots.com, We've got a seven week road warrior adventure plan complete with siblings annoying each other in the back seat. Why would we put ourselves through the torture? To celebrate a 100 year birthday!

With 2016 being the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service we thought it'd be good to highlight the ultimate National Park Roadtrip – The National Park-to-Park Highway.

The National Park-to-Park Highway


One hundred years ago visitors traveled to the twelve National Parks in existence via railroad even though the automobile was fast becoming commonplace. Roads to the Nation's Playgrounds, as the National Parks were called, were limited. Those that did exist were often designed for horse drawn wagon.

Something had to change. With widespread access to automobiles the American public sought to “See America First” from the open road. No federal aid for road maintenance existed in the early 1900s so cross country motorists often dealt with rough and muddy wagon roads.

Private business and auto clubs filled in the gap by sponsoring auto trails. The group would provide signage on the chosen road and publish a map of their route for travelers. Famous Trails like the Yellowstone Trail, Arrowhead Trail and Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway trail can still be driven in part today.

The National Park to Park Highway Association

The National Park to Park Highway Association

In 1915 the National Park to Park Highway Association was formed. Working with Steven Mather, the first National Park Service Director, the group planned and raised funds for “A Grand Scenic Tour of the National Parks.” The route would be the longest auto trail of its time, traveling 5,600 miles over mostly dirt roads through seven western states.

The purpose of the association is best described in their own words found in a 1922 National Park-to-Park Highway Association brochure. “To encourage the construction of at least one good road connecting each of the 12 National Parks in the Rocky Mountains and The Pacific Coast regions through its influence with Fedral and State Highway Departments. To assist the National Park Service in popularizing the National Parks and in its effort to secure additional funds for road construction within the parks.”

A group of 22 motorists left Denver on August 26, 1920 for the inaugural trip. Together they drove for 76 days in a publicity tour to all the Nation's Playgrounds, as National Parks were then called. On the list were Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rainier, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, Kings Canyon (then General Grant), Sequoia, Zion, Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks.

Each of these National Parks are worthy of dedicated trip on its own but together the trip can only be described as epic.

On the Road

On the Road

The group's first National Park stop was the most popular park of it's day. In 1920, Rocky Mountain National Park exceeded 240,000 visitors more than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon combined. The close access to Denver, good roads and lodging options in Estes Park no doubt contributed to Rocky Mountain's popularity.

From there the tour went on to Yellowstone, whose Grand Loop Road is a great scenic byway on its own. In 1916 automobiles and horses shared the “Park Circle” road and all travel was one way in a counter clockwise direction.

Glacier, Mount Rainier and Crater Lake National Parks were next. The motorists encountered rough roads in this section of the tour, with parts of the parks inaccessible to auto traffic.

The National Park-to-Park Highway tour couldn't visit the stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. In 1920 only rough wagon roads and cattle trails entered the park. This lack of access to the automobile was the purpose of their tour.

The most iconic images from the tour were taken in the next few parks. Yosemite, Kings Canyon (then General Grant) and Sequoia National Parks allowed the travelers to drive their autos on and through the massive trees in the area.

The group then headed to Grand Canyon, bypassing the Zion National Park side trail due to rough roads. The final stop was Mesa Verde National Park, the most isolated destination on the trip. In 1917 Horace Albright, future superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and future National Park Service Director, described the road to Mesa Verde as “...one of the most disreputable, dangerous, fearsome bits of slippery, rutted miseries I ever had the misfortune to travel.”

Obviously the National Park-to-Park Highway Association had good reason to advocate for better roads.

Modern Day Travel on The National Park to Park Highway

A lot has happened to the roads of the west since 1920. Today The National Park to Park Highway can be easily diven on paved highways with gas stations and hotel beds at ready supply. Many more National Parks and Monuments have joined the ranks of the Nation's Playgrounds and an auto tour to all the US National Parks would take months if not years to complete.

Modern Day Travel on The National Park to Park Highway

In honor of the National Park Service Centennial I'll be traveling the National Park-to-Park Highway with my crew. The trip wouldn't be possible without the amazing book The Playground Trail: The National Park-to-Park Highway by Lee and Jane Whiteley. Photographs shown here are from the tour photographer AG Lucier and copies can be found in the Whiteley's books.

So if a road trip is on your list for this summer consider visiting a National Park and make sure to take Urgent.ly along for the drive.

Susan Strayer is the author of MountainMomandTots.com, an outdoor family blog. Based in the mountains of Sundance, Utah, she spends her time skiing, biking, hiking and camping with her husband and three kids. Summer of 2016 she and Mountain Dad are taking their three tots on their biggest adventure yet - a seven week road trip of the National Park to Park Highway.