The Pacific Northwest is one of the most captivating parts of the country, the way it’s shrouded and shaped by perpetual fog, rainfall, and aspiration. We came here expecting to be dazzled, and it did not disappoint. It felt like returning home — both because of the warmer weather and some of the familiar sights.
We’d been to Yosemite, the Redwoods, Yellowstone, and Crater Lake on a previous trip, but this time we were excited to do some of the things we missed before, like seeing the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone and actually driving some of the Rim Drive at Crater Lake. It didn’t go completely as planned (spoiler alert: it was still pretty icy in some places), but we did come away with plenty of good stories and tips.
@tripofalifestyle Know before you go. — #nationalparks #pacificnorthwest #pnw #craterlake #mtrainier #olympicnationalpark #northcascades ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle
This is the fourth 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:
Yosemite | Redwood | Lassen Volcanic | Yellowstone | Grand Teton
Glacier | Crater Lake | Mt. Rainier | Olympic | North Cascades
31. Yosemite National Park near Mariposa, California
Quick Overview: There’s a reason more than 4 million people make time to visit Yosemite each year — it’s just worth it. When you drive in through Tunnel View, and you see the valley open up in front of you, it’s simply breathtaking. Yosemite has pretty much everything, from exhilarating recreation to accessible adventures to impressive views.
When We Visited: Years ago when we first visited Yosemite, it was was very cool — literally. It was overcast and misty, and we had to wear jackets and beanies. This time, we got to enjoy our strolls to the waterfalls and through the meadow on a perfect, 72-degree afternoon in the middle of April.
Our Top Tip: We wish we had made more time. There is a lot to do here, so stay a while.
What was Unforgettable: You just don’t get tired of the granite vistas, the rushing waterfalls, and the lush greenery. Every direction you look, it’s just magnificent.
What Sucked: This is one of the most visited parks, so there are LOTS of tourists all year long. It’s difficult to find a bit of nature to enjoy on your own if you don’t seek out lesser-trekked trails.
32. Redwood National Park by Crescent City, California
Quick Overview: Redwood National Park is intertwined with several Redwood State Parks. Luckily, the imaginary borders don’t really matter much when you’re exploring. With its super tall trees stretching into the sky, this place is similar to Sequoia National Park, but what’s unique here is the vast Pacific coastline. Not only do you get to commune with these massive redwood trees, but you also get to take in some gorgeous, cliffside, NorCal views.
When We Visited: It was mid-April when we visited the Redwoods, but it was still breezy enough to want a light sweater (even with the sun out).
Our Top Tip: Don’t spend too much time going to the visitor centers here. There aren’t too many displays, and you want to make time to drive the full length of the park areas (basically Eureka to Crescent City) with time for exploration.
What was Unforgettable: Since we had just visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon the week before, and because we’ve been to Redwood National Park in the past, we were seeking a different experience than wandering in the groves. We found a really great picnic spot overlooking the ocean, and that led us down to the shore where we saw seals playing in the water.
What Sucked: There’s no one standout thing to do at this park, which is sort of a blessing and a curse. You don’t have to do something, but then that leads to the question of what should you do. Try to make time to see a little of everything — a minimum of one to one-and-a-half days.
33. Lassen Volcanic National Park closest to Redding, California
Quick Overview: We arrived to a completely snowed-in entrance gate and recently plowed path to the visitor center (which still had several feet of snow covering it). There were basically no other people, except for the rangers plowing the road further up the mountain. We walked from the visitor center to Sulphur Works, a four-mile trek, one-way, that you can usually drive. We then left to go to the other side of the park since most of Lassen Peak Highway was still closed for winter. Even if it was fully accessible, I’m not sure how awesome it would be because a lot of the views from the road were obstructed by forest.
When We Visited: Somehow April 23rd was still too early to visit this park. Temperature-wise, it was pretty comfortable, but there was so much snow still blanketing literally everything.
Our Top Tip: Please visit this park during peak season to see it at its best. Given its size, there’s plenty of space for anyone who comes to explore it.
What was Unforgettable: The pristine solitude. We were completely alone nearly everywhere we went.
What Sucked: Prepare yourself for the sulphurous smells you’ll encounter at the hydrothermal areas. It’s…unpleasant.
34. Yellowstone National Park along the borders of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Quick Overview: Did you know there’s a Grand Canyon in Yellowstone? It’s appropriately called Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which is named for the, er, yellow-colored stone the Yellowstone River cut through so many years ago. The creative naming aside, this park has so many phenomenal spots to visit that it’s best to make a list, map it out, and take your time exploring it all.
When We Visited: Even at the end of April, which is when we visited, the weather can be unpredictable. We wore jackets and pants during the day, and it was still very cold at night, so if you’re camping you’ll want to be prepared for freezing temperatures. We even got hailed on.
Our Top Tip: There are five entrances that connect to a figure-eight road system that’s centered in the park, and with the driving speeds maxing out at 45 mph, you’ll want to give yourself time to get around. All the big points of interest are pretty spread out. It took us an hour and a half to go from Mammoth Springs to Old Faithful without stopping for pictures.
What was Unforgettable: Yellowstone is the quintessential National Park — it has canyons, waterfalls, rivers, forests, wildlife, and unique geothermal areas. The whole park is worth your time, and you won’t be disappointed. Each turn in the road takes you somewhere new.
What Sucked: For us, the weather was uncooperative. We were really excited to finally see Grand Prismatic Spring after missing it the first time we visited years ago, but there was so much fog we could only catch small glimpses of it at a time.
35. Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Quick Overview: This park is actually connected to Yellowstone by Highway 191, so if you’re in the area you have no excuse to skip either one That main highway takes you alongside the peaks for a sweeping mountain view, but if you take Teton Park Road, you’ll be able to get right up close to them.
When We Visited: When we left Yellowstone, we drove all the way out and around to get down to Grand Teton National Park since the road wasn’t fully cleared between the two parks yet on May 1st. And it was still pretty chilly.
Our Top Tip: Grand Teton National Park is one of the most visited parks in the system, so while we recommend a visit during the warmer, peak-season months, you should try to be in the area just before or just after said season.
What was Unforgettable: At one point we came to a part of the road where several cars had stopped. Apparently some dots on the horizon had been identified as bears. We waited them out, and the momma bear and her two cubs ended up coming back and crossing the road in front of us. By then, a ranger had come to keep everyone safe (there were also way more cars stopped and people taking pictures). It was our first bear experience of the trip, but it wouldn’t be our last.
What Sucked: The road closest to the peaks was still closed for the season, so we could only really drive along the highway and view them from a distance.
36. Glacier National Park close to Kalispell, Montana
Quick Overview: Glacier National Park, which includes extended portions of the Rocky Mountains, is situated in northern Montana along the Canadian border. It has nearly 700 miles of hiking trails, and several points of interest throughout, including the famed Lake McDonald. This park ranks high with us for both enjoyment and beauty.
When We Visited: Our visit to the park couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. We arrived there on May 11th, and the lady at the outfitter shop convinced us to rent bikes the next day. The main road was still partially closed to vehicle traffic, so we were able to safely get up and down a portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road on a beautiful, not-too-hot, spring day.
Our Top Tip: Find an adventure while you’re at Glacier. It’s really easy to just take in the great views from the car — without doing the work of hiking, biking, or kayaking somewhere else — but you should try to get out there and make some memories while you’re there, too.
What was Unforgettable: The drive to Glacier National Park was amazing in its own right, but the moment we arrived, we were greeted by a warm sunset melting into the cool mountains surrounding the pristine Lake McDonald. It was perfect.
What Sucked: We did not make it all the way up Going-to-the-Sun Road (it’s steep, okay?), and we also missed the bus back down, so we had a long haul back and turned in our rented bikes within 30 minutes of the shop closing. The rush to get there in time was not the best way to end our time at the park, but at least it was good exercise.
37. Crater Lake National Park near Klamath Falls, Oregon
Quick Overview: Crater Lake, the second deepest lake in North America, is situated pretty far from any major cities. It’s over two hours of driving to get to Eugene, Oregon, to the northwest, or Bend, Oregon, to the northeast, both of which are worth a visit while you’re in the area. Crater Lake isn’t fed by streams; it formed when a volcanic eruption collapsed the mouth of Mount Mazama, creating a crater that filled with rain and snowfall.
When We Visited: When we tried to go seven years ago at the suggestion of a friend, the roads were completely closed off from the winter season. This time, we were visiting a little earlier in May, and we at least got to drive part of Rim Road and catch a glimpse of the lake. It was still pretty cold, and a snow storm moved in on us as we were heading out.
Our Top Tip: Definitely check the weather and the road closures. At this latitude and altitude, you’re bound to run into issues (as we have) with icy conditions long into spring.
What was Unforgettable: You’re driving for a while into this thick forest before you start climbing up and up to the visitor center at Rim Village. You might be tempted to try to see a corner of the crater on your way to the parking lot, but it’s safer for everyone if you just proceed to a spot, park, and walk over to the rim. It’s quite a sight.
What Sucked: We thought we were done with getting snowed on. We were not.
38. Mt. Rainier National Park outside Seattle, Washington
Quick Overview: You’ve probably seen those iconic images of Seattle — the skyline with a massive mountain rising up behind it. That peak is Mt. Rainier, and on a clear day it can be seen watching over the city.
When We Visited: Mt. Rainier is probably the most finicky vista in Washington. When we went into the park for a closer look, a storm was rolling in that created whiteout conditions near the peak. No matter what time of year you go, be prepared to give yourself a few days to try and get to the top for that view.
Our Top Tip: Check the weather and know that as you climb in altitude, it can change in an instant. Be prepared to find other ways to enjoy the park if you don’t get the view you wanted.
What was Unforgettable: At one point, a small animal scampered across the road, so we stopped in our van to let it cross safely. It turned out to be a rare Cascade Red Fox, which only lives in this park, and after it crossed the road, it paused and just looked at us for a long time before jumping back into the foliage. There were no other cars on the road, so we felt safe parking to just share this moment with this fox — and it was absolutely magical.
What Sucked: Getting all the way to the Paradise area of the park, and not being able to see a single thing. As we were parking our car in the lot for the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, it literally disappeared in front us, snowfall cloaking the entire building.
39. Olympic National Park by Port Angeles, Washington
Quick Overview: An important note to make when planning your trip to Olympic is that there’s no central nexus of the park. The park’s points of interest are dispersed, and you have to plan stops in different “districts” on the Olympic Peninsula. There’s lots of different landscapes, which means there’s a lot to see and do. If you want beaches, Olympic’s got ‘em. If you want mountains, they’re in the park too. There’s even a rainforest!
When We Visited: It was the middle to end of May when we were exploring Olympic National Park. It was very comfortable inland, but the coast was still very blustery and cold.
Our Top Tip: The park offers too much to do in one day, so give yourself time to make it around to the different areas like Hurricane Ridge or Hoh Rainforest. Plan to catch a sunset on the coast.
What was Unforgettable: Okay, so, this might not be everyone’s dream experience, but I wanted to see a banana slug really badly. I’d heard about them years ago when Steven went to the University of California for grad school (he went to UCI, whose mascot is the anteater, but UC Santa Cruz’s mascot is the banana slug), and I thought it was hilarious that a school would even want that mascot. Anyway, that was 2012, and I finally got to see one irl in 2019 among the mosses at Hoh Rainforest.
What Sucked: Driving from area to area definitely disrupts the experience. I prefer to just go in and immerse myself in a park, and it was harder to do that with all the exiting and re-entering. I prefer being able to do loop roads, so you don’t see the same thing twice, but every road was in and out the same way.
40. North Cascades National Park near Cokedale, Washington
Quick Overview: Highway 20 cuts through North Cascades National Park along the Skagit River. The area has been shaped by the river as well as glacial activity, which feeds the lush forests in the area.
When We Visited: It was here, in northern Washington at the end of May, that I finally got to wear a crop top and shorts. The weather was warm and inviting, and we found ourselves looking for ways to spend more time on the trails and out by the lake because of it.
Our Top Tip: Drive over the Diablo Dam to the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. The campus is huge and has wifi (most of the area doesn’t have great cell service), shaded hiking trails, and actual flush toilets with running water. It was a nice little break in the drive.
What was Unforgettable: There was a replica of a goldenrod crab spider in the visitor center 18 times larger than actual size — white with red spots. I got a picture with it, and Steven said he wanted to see one in the park. A short drive later, we were at Ladder Creek Gardens photographing some foxglove wildflowers, when I noticed something inside one of them. Steven changed lenses and got to see the iconic spider up close.
What Sucked: It took me a lot longer than I would like to admit to learn how to skip a rock on Diablo Lake, a feat I have yet to repeat.
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.