There's no need to lace up hiking boots for a memorable national park experience. Scenic roads offer spectacular views, and a chance to see wildlife, all from a car. "You see landscapes that have been unchanged largely forever," says Kurt Repanshek, founder and editor of National Parks Traveler magazine. He shares some favorite drives with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C./ Tenn.
This drive meanders through the quiet side of the busy park, running from Cove Creek Road just off I-40 on the North Carolina side through the Cataloochee Valley and connecting with Tennessee 32. On the way, it passes through a historic community, by a campground and a creek perfect for trout fishing. "It's some place you have to want to go. You don't stumble upon it," Repanshek says. 865-436-1200; nps.gov/grsm
Death Valley National Park, Calif.
Drivers would be wise to take a four-wheel- or all-wheel-drive vehicle on this long washboard road through one of the largest parks in the Lower 48 states. But the payoff is worth it, providing both solitude and a geologic mystery. The drive ends at a basin where boulders have inexplicably slid across the landscape, leaving a trail in the desert dust. "You have to want to go there. It's not on the way to anyplace," Repanshek says. 760-786-3200; nps.gov/deva
Kolob Terrace Road
Zion National Park, Utah
Repanshek recently drove this route after living in Utah for 20 years, and he wasn't disappointed. "This is a road that goes across the top of the park as opposed to in the canyon, so you get an entirely different perspective: colorful rock bands, outcrops, and spires dotting the pine and juniper forests." Trailheads lead down to the canyon. 435-772-3256; nps.gov/zion
Petrified Forest National Park
The main park road runs through a stunning accumulation of petrified wood, and offers panoramic views of the Painted Desert. Visitors can stop anywhere along the road and hike into the park, exploring washes where the fossils are embedded in the earth. "It is very cool. The colors of the petrified wood are just amazing, all hues of the rainbow," Repanshek says. 928-524-6228; nps.gov/pefo
Park Loop Road
Acadia National Park, Maine
Although hardly a secret, the main route through this Atlantic coast preserve is still a jewel of the park system. "It offers the mountains as well as the coastline," Repanshek says. He suggests taking a park bus to avoid parking hassles at trailheads and at popular overlooks like Thunder Hole. 207-288-3338; nps.gov/acad
South Core Banks
Cape Lookout National Seashore, N.C.
Accessible only by ferry, the sand road running the length of this Outer Banks island sees more visitors than Cape Hatteras. "It is such a beautiful seashore. It's just sand dunes and sea oats and a maritime forest. It's a wonderful experience," Repanshek says. 252-728-2250; nps.gov/calo
Yosemite National Park, Calif.
Visitors can avoid the crowded Yosemite Valley and enjoy views of granite domes, lakes and meadows on this road that runs across the top of the park. "The Olmsted Point overlook gives you a view of Half Dome off in the distance," Repanshek says. 209-372-0200; nps.gov/yose
Badlands Loop Road
Badlands National Park, S.D.
Drivers weave through a landscape of geologic formations and prairie dog towns. "It's surreal. The road looks like it's been swallowed up by the badlands. They're ribboned with different layers of colors," Repanshek says. 605-433-5361; nps.gov/BADL
Trail Ridge Road
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.
The highest continuous paved road in the nation tops out at 12,000 feet. "It is a breathtaking drive because it offers you such a panorama of the roof of the park. It's windswept tundra. It's scary crazy — there are no guard rails on it, and the drop-offs go down several thousand feet," Repanshek says. Visitors usually see elk and often bighorn sheep. 970-586-1206; nps.gov/romo
Glacier National Park, Mont.
This popular route can get jammed during the summer, so Repanshek suggests taking the park's iconic Red Jammer bus tour. "You can't help but be impressed," he says. "You get up to Logan Pass, and not only do you see the spine of the continent, but you can see mountain sheep and mountain goats." 406-888-7800; nps.gov/glac