We left Florida bright eyed and ready for our latest adventure — visiting every US National Park on a seven-month, cross-country road trip. The route we planned would take us west first along the southern border through Texas to California, avoiding the cold, January weather.
It might not have been the best move, but we decided to stick with our plans despite the fact that the US was facing what would become the longest government shutdown in history. It mostly worked out, although we did have to skip Carlsbad Caverns, which we literally passed over, because it was closed (don’t worry; we came back to it later).
This is the first of a six-part series of articles chronologically describing our trip to every National Park in the United States. You can read the other parts of this series by clicking the links below:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
You can also use these links to jump to a particular park within this article:
Hot Springs | Big Bend | Guadalupe Mountains | Saguaro | Joshua Tree
Death Valley | Channel Islands | Hawai’i Volcanoes | Haleakalā | American Samoa
1. Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Quick Overview: Hot Springs was the first park we visited in 2019, and despite the fact that we kicked off our National Parks adventure during the shutdown, the park remained relatively available to visitors. The most interesting aspect of this park is its historical relevance as it was the first formally recognized recreation area to be set aside for preservation by the US government.
When We Visited: Our trip to Hot Springs was early January, when the temperature was perfect for a warm soak. However, the bathhouses that provide access to the springs weren’t open at the right times for us to pay for a dip. It was a little too cold outside for us to enjoy exploring the old-growth forests coating the mountains.
Our Top Tip: Find a trail to hike in the North and Hot Springs Mountains or Sugarloaf Mountain, then plan a visit to one of the bathhouses to unwind.
What was Unforgettable: The park is quite accessible since it’s intertwined with the city.
What Sucked: I mean, if we’re being honest…kinda the whole thing, lol. Maybe that’s a little harsh. It was nice, just not necessarily National Park-worthy. It was actually pretty fortunate that this was the first park we visited because it reset our expectations. The rest of parks could only be better from here!
2. Big Bend National Park near Alpine, Texas
Quick Overview: You’ll leave civilization behind as you take the dusty, country road to the north entrance of Big Bend located in the southernmost part of Texas along the Rio Grande bordering Mexico. It’s the only thing for miles, but the lodging within the park is extremely hospitable and welcoming. This park offers mountain vistas, vast open sky perfect for stargazing, and a view of the river Duran, Duran made famous.
When We Visited: Due to its southern location, we were pretty comfortable temperature-wise when we visited Big Bend in January. A light jacket was fine throughout most of the park, although we may have busted out the heavier coats atop the mountain when we did some night photography.
Our Top Tip: It’s worth repeating that there’s literally nothing for a long time, so download a map of the area and plan on not having cell service throughout the park. The lodge had free wifi that was open to the public, but the speed of the connection really brought us back to the dial-up days.
What was Unforgettable: If you’re a dinosaur lover, don’t miss out on the roadside Fossil Discovery Exhibit! The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is another must-do in the park.
What Sucked: This has more to do with us than with you, but we got our van stuck going down an unpaved road in this park. If you don’t have four-wheel drive, know that it is unlikely that AAA will rescue you here (if you can even get a signal to call them on). Trust us. We know.
3. Guadalupe Mountains National Park near Dell City, Texas
Quick Overview: There are no roads through this park, so the experience you have is based solely on how much you hike. There are a few different areas you can access for hiking trails, including Dog Canyon, McKittrick Canyon, and the park’s headquarters at the visitor center. While you’re visiting these mountains, don’t forget to stop into nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a cave tour to view what the area looks like underground.
When We Visited: It was mid-January when we visited Guadalupe Mountains, which meant it was cold at night and cool during the day (especially with any wind). We would have preferred to visit when the weather was a bit warmer for hiking — and when the visitor center was open to recommend us a good hike (the government shutdown left us largely on our own).
Our Top Tip: Don’t skip this park because you don’t want to hike. We did the trip to Smith Spring (which also included walking the distance you can usually drive because the gate was locked…thanks, government shutdown!), and it was well worth it.
What was Unforgettable: Any time you climb in elevation, which includes most of the hikes here, you go through environmental changes from the flora to the aroma. We really enjoyed the change from dusty, arid desert to damper, more vibrant mountain terrain. We also loved the fact that this park really forces you to get a little exercise.
What Sucked: On the other hand, Guadalupe Mountains is not very accessible. There aren’t a lot of options to experience this park if you don’t want to — or can’t — hike the trails.
4. Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona
Quick Overview: One cool thing about this park is that it surrounds a city, which means you can easily get away from it all in the morning and head back to town for dinner in the same day — without an hours-long car ride. There are two districts to Saguaro, with a different experience in each. In the east, you’ll travel the Cactus Forest Loop road with several turnouts to help you catch views of the mountains dotted with saguaros. In the west, you’ll find yourself wanting to take the unpaved roads to explore more, but don’t worry; you won’t get stuck here, even without four-wheel drive.
When We Visited: While it was late January when we rolled through Tucson, the weather was great. Because it’s a desert climate, you’d probably be fine to visit nearly any time of the year.
Our Top Tip: We disagreed on which district was better, so definitely go to both. They aren’t too far apart, and your entry fee gets you access to both.
What was Unforgettable: Getting up close to this unique species of cacti was a really unique experience. Saguaros grow to over 40 feet tall in the 150+ years they live, so respect your elders!
What Sucked: There isn’t a lot to do in the park. Once you drive through both districts and spend some time among the saguaros, you’ll feel ready to mark this park complete.
5. Joshua Tree National Park near Yucca Valley, California
Quick Overview: Ah, the famed Joshua Trees, the funky yucca plants that have inspired albums and films alike. Unlike saguaros, which are rare outside the park, we found Joshua Trees to be quite common in the region as you drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. We entered in from the south, so we had to drive deep into the park toward Yucca Valley to see our first Joshua Tree (a real wtf moment).
When We Visited: At the end of January, which is when we visited, the Joshua Trees haven’t quite bloomed (that happens around February/March), and wildflowers aren’t as plentiful as they’re expected to be later in the spring.
Our Top Tip: Take your time exploring Joshua Tree because there are a lot of trails to lose and find yourself on if you venture off the main road through the park.
What was Unforgettable: Aside from the trees, the park is also home to giant boulders, which we found even more impressive. Have fun climbing some near the Cottonwood Campground!
What Sucked: We liked Joshua Tree well enough, but desert landscapes just don’t really rev our engines as much as other park environments.
6. Death Valley National Park near Lone Pine, California
Quick Overview: Death Valley is an underrated park that has a lot to offer. From the valley of sand dunes to the “painted” rocks of Artist’s Palette, we were enamored with the park. Everywhere we looked was worth a shutter click, so you know we put our cameras to work. Even beyond the points of interest, Death Valley is just beautiful in its own way.
When We Visited: January was a great time to visit the park because it can get HOT in Death Valley (that’s how it got its name!), but evenings get cooler in winter, too, so pack layers.
Our Top Tip: Don’t try to do every destination in the park at once, or, if you only have a day, pace yourself among a selection of hot spots to get to within Death Valley.
What was Unforgettable: You MUST make the hike out to the Badwater Basin salt flats, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It contains miles of barren land with nothing to block your view around or above you. The extreme quiet and solitude is best observed at night, when the stars and moon reflect off the white salty earth beneath your feet, and the rest of our galaxy is plainly visible by just looking up.
What Sucked: It takes a lot of driving to get to Death Valley. It’s beautiful, but come prepared with snacks and other comforts if you’re spending the day here.
7. Channel Islands National Park off the Coast of Ventura, California
Quick Overview: While there are eight islands that form the Channel Islands archipelago, only five are part of the National Park: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands. The most popular islands that visitors frequent are Anacapa, which is the island we ferried to, and Santa Cruz, which offers more in the way of activities. Don’t bother shopping ferry pricing as there’s only one boating company, Island Packers, allowed to moor at Channel Islands National Park. Luckily, we found their pricing fair and their service great.
When We Visited: We were really industrious for the first month of our trip and went to Anacapa on January 27. The weather was lovely, although layers and sunscreen are a must due to the gusty winds and lack of shade.
Our Top Tip: If you camp overnight on Anacapa, there is a good chance you will have the entire island to yourself. Of the 30 people in our excursion group (the only one of the day), none of us were camping. Had we known that ahead of time, we definitely would have taken this unique opportunity.
What was Unforgettable: We actually enjoyed the ferry ride over as much as the island itself because we spent a little time chasing dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel. Don’t plan to fall asleep on the boat!
What Sucked: To go to the different islands, you have schedule separate ferries and spend all day on each one. And, unless you camp on the island, you will be arriving after sunrise and before sunset. Bummer.
8. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
Quick Overview: We have a special place in our hearts for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park since we used to live on the Big Island, but the unbiased opinion is that this park is unique. Depending on current conditions, you may see the glow of lava at Kīlauea, an active volcano in the park. On our most recent visit, the crater had collapsed, and the lava receded such that you couldn’t even get near the overlook to look for the glow. However, just a year prior to our visit and you could have hiked out to an active lava flow.
When We Visited: Don’t be concerned about the weather in Hawaii. It’s pretty moderate year-round, and the only time you’ll feel cold is at higher elevations. Prices on lodging and airfare can be a little higher in the peak tourism season of winter though. We went in February.
Our Top Tip: Plan for extra time outside of the park to visit other Big Island attractions like the nearby Black Sand Beach and the Puna tide pools. The entire island is just as interesting as this awesome National Park.
What was Unforgettable: Don’t neglect the drives, especially the Chain of Craters Road, where you’ll take in sweeping views of historic lava flows down the cliffside until you end up at a dramatic dropoff into the Pacific Ocean.
What Sucked: Getting here takes about six hours in a plane just from the West Coast, so that part is always our least favorite.
9. Haleakalā National Park on the Hawaiian Island of Maui
Quick Overview: The name of the park means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, and it includes two disconnected districts, the summit area and the coastal Kipahulu section. You’ll want to get tickets for the sunrise at the summit, which is a separate (inexpensive) cost, and plan time for both districts as there’s more hiking in Kipahulu.
When We Visited: It was February, so Maui, like the Big Island, was very comfortable in temperature. Know that the summit is MUCH COLDER than the rest of Maui, something we were unprepared for the first time we went.
Our Top Tip: Give yourself time in both districts, especially since the weather can impact your experiences. The first time we tried to catch the sunrise several years ago, there was 100% cloud cover. The most recent time we hiked in Kipahulu, it rained the whole time.
What was Unforgettable: While the sunrise is what’s most famous at this park, our hike out to Waimoku Falls was truly awe-inspiring (and worth getting soaked for).
What Sucked: It takes several hours of driving to get up to the summit, back down, and out to the coast, so make sure you account for that in your planning, and do the drives during daylight for some great views along the way.
10. National Park of American Samoa in the Middle of the Pacific
Quick Overview: Getting out to American Samoa takes some planning. If you’re flying from Hawaii, you’ll likely fly in via Hawaiian Airlines, which only makes two trips per week to the main island of Tutuila. Part of the National Park is on Tutuila, but it also spans across two other islands, Ta‘ū and Ofu (both are part of the Manu’a Islands chain), that you’ll have to fly or ferry over to.
When We Visited: Hawaiian Airlines lands in Pago Pago on Tutuila on Monday and Thursday nights, and we spent the four days in American Samoa during early February, which is summer in the southern hemisphere.
Our Top Tip: We wish we had stayed a full week and planned trips out to the other islands. The beaches of Ofu are extremely secluded, and from the postcards we saw would have been well worth a visit.
What was Unforgettable: Although it is technically an American territory, this place is effectively a foreign country. Unless you are Samoan, you will be a minority here, as 89% of the population is native. Take some time to talk to people who live there and learn about the culture. It is dramatically different from that of the rest of the United States.
What Sucked: One of our shared goals on this trip was to get a picture with every park entrance sign. This one proved especially challenging given that there are feral dogs everywhere on the island. These dogs are not your friends — they’re territorial, mean, and not for petting. It’s suggested that you carry a big stick to fend them off, and in fact the guy who lives by the park sign used one to help keep the dogs away as we took our picture. Wild!
Want to know more? On our National Parks page, you can browse a list of all the parks in this series (plus some more parks that were added after we took our original trip).You’ll also find info on the converted van we traveled in and how much it all cost.