Our national parks are a gift, one we’ve given to each other. One we’ve inherited and, with any luck, will pass down to the generations that follow us. There is something humbling about traveling through them, about seeing the things and places that our forebears held dear and understanding why. There isn’t a bad park in the system, but there are some that shine above the rest. Our favorites, the ones we hold above the others and share, are the parks we love to ride.
Glacier National Park, Montana
No brochure prepares you for your first time peering over the guardrail. Snowy mountain peaks fuel waterfalls that mist passing riders, flowing down the valley through conifer forests, ending in bright blue lakes carved out by glaciers. This is a place full of views that take your breath away.
You can’t visit Glacier on a motorcycle without someone suggesting you ride the Going-to-the-Sun Road. They’re not wrong. Carved into the steep grade of rock and forest are 50 miles of sweeping curves and hairpin switchbacks with an occasional tunnel granting passage through the mountain.
A fleet of restored red buses from the 1930s transports tourists through the park, often slowing the pace down to a crawl. Think of them as a blessing in disguise. With only a few places along the road to stop and smell the wildflowers, the leisurely pace is ideal for taking in the ever-changing view.
Keep an eye out for mountain goats, and don’t forget to catch your breath. —Jenny Linquist
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Despite all that territory, there are only a handful of paved roads that wind their way through the firs, aspen, and stone. Paradise Road and Stevens Canyon Road are two of the most brilliant—scrambling two lanes that flirt with rivers and mountain lakes as they work their way toward State Highway 123.
At 6,400 feet, the weather’s usually chilly, even in summer months, so layer up. It’s worth it. —Zach Bowman
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The drive stretches 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, winding its way atop the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap. Only in movement-mad America would a road be planned as the crowning feature of a park. Along the way there are around 70 overlooks, one every 1.5 miles, giving Dad ample opportunity to haul out the 35mm and pose the family atop a stone wall in relief against the Piedmont Valley below.
It’s easy to imagine America’s age of innocence, and easy to picture Stony Man Overlook crowded with happy families leering out the windows of shiny aquamarine Buicks with whitewall tires.
Old Rag. Bearfence. Sugarloaf. White Oak Canyon. Big Meadows. Shenandoah’s landmarks have captured the imaginations of generations. They’ll capture yours too. On the park’s various hiking trails, the rustle of tawny leaves seems to carry the whispers of miners, moonshiners, and miscreants who called it home well into the 20th century.
There are national parks that boast bigger mountains and more rugged vistas, but few possess Shenandoah’s adoptive embrace. It seems to grab time and keep it as its own. Every age belongs to it, and it in turn belongs to you. —Seth Richards
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park preserves the bounty and severity that Lakotas knew well and later settlers would learn the hard way.
Just 7.5 miles south from the tourist hell of Wall Drug, the land embodies the hopes and failures of our Manifest Destiny. Every turn reveals a vista more spectacular than the last. Looking north from Prairie Wind Overlook, the plush grasslands predate humans of any kind. Looking south from Saddle Pass Trailhead, impassable canyons and hoodoos stretch to infinity. Might as well ride a Honda Cub, you’ll be stopping a lot.
Done drinking in the view? Head south on 377 to the Cowboy Corner Filling Station for the cheapest six-pack of Bud you’ve seen in some time. —Anders Carlson
Joshua Tree National Park, California
The riding is relaxed, with narrow sweeping curves leading you through forests of Joshua trees—ancient plants that have weathered hundreds of years to reach their height. A tangle of campsites and hiking trails can be found just off the main road. A tangle of campsites and hiking trails can be found just off the main road. Some trails lead to giant granite boulders with a bird’s-eye view of the landscape from the top, others take you down haunting dusty roads to gold mines dug in the late 1800s. After the sun goes down, the elevation and desert air provide perfect conditions for stargazers to see the cosmic dust of the Milky Way.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Two hours of riding will get you from one end of the park to the other, but it’s best to fill your gas tank, load up on water, and plan for a long soak in the heat. The magic of Joshua Tree is only really revealed when you take the side roads and immerse yourself in the desert. —Jenny Linquist
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Glassy smooth with staggering vistas of the Cascade Mountains, it’s hard to keep your chin off your tank. It’s a place so stunning that it’s hard to believe it’s real, that it’s not some fantasy whipped up by a movie studio a few states south.
Near Ruby Mountain, the road skirts alongside Ross Lake before joining the Skagit River on its way toward the Pacific. On a warm day, you’ll feel the temperature drop 10 degrees near the water, a blessing that will have you considering stripping off your kit for a quick dip. Take a break at Gorge Creek. The falls there turn magnificent with any rain, and the short hike down the overlook path is all the excuse we’ve ever needed to stretch our legs. —Zach Bowman
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska
During peak visitor season between May 20 and September 13, Denali restricts visitors to riding just the first 15 miles of the 91-mile Denali Park Road. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve provides a true adventure in the form of a 13.2-million-acre expanse with only two roads in. Neither are paved.
Feeling more adventurous? Nebesna Road leads riders 42 miles farther away from fuel and repair services, and could have some rapid-flowing creeks to cross around mile 29. Check in with the Slana Ranger Station before you take your rig for a swim. —Robyn “RoKo” Kocienski
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
As you lean into curves on sun-dappled roads or ride past the raw volcanic earth, you can’t help but to think of the first humans that found this place, how lucky they were, and how they’d marvel at what we’ve made of it.
Engineers carved the 68-mile Beartooth Highway from Cooke City to Red Lodge in 1932, and it dips in and out of Montana as it scrambles over and around the stark mountains there. It remains one of America’s great rides, and a perfect gateway to Yellowstone.
At any turn you might encounter the wildlife Yellowstone is famous for. Stopped cars are a good sign of bison traffic. And with gas, hotels, and eateries within the park borders, Yellowstone is a great choice for family or road-focused rides. —Katy Manch