Purple Mountains and Fruited Plains
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U.S. national parks offer endless singletrack trails—and you own them!
Photo by William Snyder
Whether it’s from a glacier’s melt-y foot in the Pacific Northwest to the Rocky Mountains’ purple haze, from a waving sea of head-height grass on the fruited plains to an orange sunrise burst above the Atlantic Ocean, the trails managed by our National Park Service take you there.
The National Park Service was created 95 years ago to preserve wildlands across the United States. Since then, the agency has established more than 84 million acres of American soil as national parks, monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, preserves and other areas. Included in this acreage are thousands of singletrack miles, a trail runner’s dreamscape.
Here you’ll find beta for eight National Park Service areas, including their trail-running opportunities and the information you need to pull off a vacation there. We’ve chosen some of America’s sweetheart parks, like Shenandoah National Park and its showiest waterfalls. We’ve also tossed in some surprises, like the unknown trail-running mecca of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and its wheat-colored sand dunes.
So, go ahead, rip out a page, or two, or four, and get planning. Alternately, let this inspire you to choose your own adventure in a National Park Service site not listed here. But, whatever you do, get out and trail run America’s national treasures.
Mount Rainier National Park
Get Up Close and Personal with the Northwest’s Glaciated Giant
Smack dab in the center of Mount Rainier National Park, its 14,410-foot namesake mountain rises 10,000 vertical feet from the surrounding topography. Draped with a cloak of glaciers, its upper reaches form a whitewashed silhouette against the green rainforests that fill the Pacific Northwest landscape. Over a million-and-a-half people visit the park each year to get up close and personal with the mountain.
Mount Rainier’s trail system connects runners with the mountain in two ways, by traversing its flanks and by ascending separate highpoints that yield views of the glaciated giant. A shining example of this is the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which encircles Mount Rainier.
Jason Henrie, a 37-year old Flagstaff, Arizona-based ultrarunner, has run the Wonderland Trail in two days. “To run it in a single push or a couple of days embodies all the elements of a top-tier trail run,” he says. “You will experience a sense of fear and excitement, serious commitment and isolation, world-class trails and terrain-based sensory overload.” While on the trail, Henrie noted a peculiar commonality, a “oneness” between the mountain’s topographic highs and lows and his physical and emotional ups and downs. He says, “Run it and you will understand.”
- Glacier Basin Trail, seven miles out-and-back. Park at White River Campground’s trailhead parking area and run 1200 vertical feet up into Mount Rainier’s subalpine world. You may spy flashy wildflowers, agile mountain goats and ant-size alpinists further up the mountain. Add on a mile roundtrip on the Emmons Moraine Trail spur to see Emmons Glacier, the largest in the continental United States.
- Shriner Peak Trail, eight miles out-and-back. The trail ascends more than 3400 feet to the peak and its fire tower. Begin in a Douglas-fir forest, then break out to big views with 2.5 miles to go. From the top, enjoy Mount Rainier in its whole-mountain glory and the rest of the Cascade Range before dive-bombing downhill. Consider planning this run to see sunrise light turn Mount Rainier the color of cotton candy.
- Wonderland Trail, variety of possible distances and route layouts of up to 93 miles. Tackle all 93 miles at once or enjoy shorter chunks of the trail. For example, running to Panhandle Gap and back from the trailhead on the road to White River Campground offers 14 roundtrip miles of views toward Mount Rainier’s northeast side in exchange for an uphill effort. Grind out the 1.5-mile ascent out of Longmire onto Rampart Ridge for more mountain vistas, then return the way you came.
Getting There. The park is a two-hour drive southeast of Seattle and a three-hour drive northeast of Portland. Use the Nisqually Entrance on the park’s southwest side for fastest access from all points west.
Seasons. June through October offer the best trail-running conditions. Most park trails are buried under feet of snow from sometime in November through mid- to late May. Snow persists into July on highest-elevation trails. While rainfall is possible throughout the trail-running season, the driest months are July and August.
Camping and Lodging. The park has four campgrounds, each with its own opening and closing dates (360-569-2211, www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/camping.htm). For lodging, the National Park Inn is open year-round and the Paradise Inn is open from mid-May through early October (360-569-2275, www.mtrainierguestservices.com).
Other Activities. Thousands of climbers and mountaineers are drawn to the higher half of Mount Rainier every year. The park’s paved roads are the prized pedaling grounds for cyclists. Worth a look-see are the wildflower displays of summer. Kindly refrain from picking flowers, as it is illegal.
By The Numbers
35 square miles of snow, ice and glaciers surround the summit of Mount Rainier.
22,000 feet is the elevation gain on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail.
260 miles of trails are maintained by the National Park Service in Mount Rainier National Park.
Grand Teton National Park
Ride High on the Cowboy State’s Alpine Singletrack
The Grand, Middle and South Tetons in northwest Wyoming rise to three shark-tooth summits. Two hundred years ago, French-speaking fur trappers saw something more in the peaks when they named them the “Trois Tetons.” Whether or not you see three breasts or just a whole lot of rocky mountains, a visit to Grand Teton National Park will make your jaw drop. From the east, the Teton Range claws itself more than 6000 vertical feet out of the pancake-flat Snake River Valley in a few horizontal miles.
Sean Meissner, 37, an ultrarunner and one of the sport’s ambassadors who resides in Sisters, Oregon, spent a few post-college years living and running in Grand Teton. “Be cautious of bears and moose, and give them and other wildlife space when you encounter them. And you will encounter wildlife while running trails there,” says Meissner. “Start and finish your runs early, as afternoon thunderstorms are powerful and can be dangerous.” Grand Teton National Park has enough wildlife, wild places and wild environmental conditions to drop your jaw for many reasons.
- Signal Mountain Trail, 6.8 miles out-and-back. Park at Signal Mountain Lodge, cross the main park road to the east and climb onto the trail. Hoof it up the runnable 800-foot climb, take in a sweeping southward view and return the way you came.
- Phelps Lake Trail, 6.6-mile loop. Park at Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve and follow the signs for Phelps Lake. Loop the lake in either direction, stopping now and then to take in views of the Teton Range.
- Paintbrush and Cascade Canyon Trails, 19-mile loop. Park at the String Lake Trailhead and follow signs toward Paintbrush Canyon Trail. The climbing begins almost immediately as you ascend the glacially carved canyon. Press upward past Holly Lake at 9450 feet to 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, the route’s high point. Take care on the exposed descent back below treeline to appropriately named Lake Solitude. Run 2.7 miles, then turn left and let it rip down Cascade Canyon Trail. Don’t trip, though, as you gawk at the Grand Teton. At the bottom of the canyon, bear left around the northwest side of Jenny Lake and back to the String Lake Trailhead.
Getting There. Grand Teton is five-and-a-half hours north of Salt Lake City and four hours south of Bozeman, Montana. Direct flights into the small Jackson Hole Airport, which is surrounded by Grand Teton National Park land, are often cheaper than the cost and time involved in getting to the park from a larger, far-off airport.
Seasons. An abundance of snow accompanies winter in Grand Teton. Lower-elevation running may be accomplished from mid-April through late November, and high-altitude trails are usually accessible from July through September. Spring and fall high temperatures range between 40 and 60, and summer highs sometimes reach 80.
Camping and Lodging. Six campgrounds are scattered around the east, flat side of the park, with differing opening and closing dates (307-739-3300, www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm). An array of lodging possibilities is available in the park, from luxury services to rustic cabins (307-739-3300, www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/lodging.htm).
Other Activities. Jackson Lake, Jenny Lake and the Snake River provide opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, rafting and/or powerboat tours and independent travel. Hiking is the park’s most popular outdoor activity, while climbing and mountaineering are also prevalent.
By The Numbers
230 miles of trails snake through Grand Teton National Park.
2 species of bears inhabit the park, the American black bear and the grizzly bear. Use extra caution to avoid surprise encounters by scanning the terrain and shouting when moving through brushy areas. Also, carry bear spray and know how to use it in the unlikely event of an altercation with a bear.
13,770 feet above sea level is the summit elevation of the Grand Teton, the park’s tallest mountain.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Get Lost among Other-Worldly Hoodoos, Fins, Slots and Arches
Bryce Canyon National Park is located on the edge of the conifer-covered Paunsaugunt Plateau where it drops away to the east in a series of topographic stair steps. The landscape is as strange at it gets here on Earth, with hoodoos, fins, arches and slots the color of grapefruit and papaya. Geologists tell us that Bryce Canyon’s rocks are soft limestone, heavily eroded by rain and frost wedging into strange formations that will stretch your imagination.
Sixty trail miles zigzag through the rocks, enough for several days of fun. Running on them feels like a fiction adventure in Alice’s Wonderland or Dr. Seuss’s Tower of Turtles. Says Beth Vukin, a 31-year-old trail runner from Salt Lake City, “The hoodoos and red rocks make me think I’m running on Mars. Or maybe among a million phallic symbols.”
- Bryce Amphitheater Trails, variety of possible distances and routes up to 10 miles. You cannot go wrong with any trail in the Bryce Amphitheater, the area containing the park’s most robust hoodoo formations. Drop several hundred vertical feet from the plateau into the tangle of erosional features from Sunrise, Sunset or Bryce Points. The don’t-miss sections of trail include the south side of Navajo Loop Trail, what’s called Wall Street because the narrow trail dissects coral-colored rock walls not unlike the layout of New York City’s artificial canyon, and Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail, on which you can play a game of hoodoo peek-a-boo with your running partners.
- Rim and Fairyland Loop Trails, eight-mile loop. Park at Fairyland Point and run south for 2.5 miles on Rim Trail, replete with views of pumpkin-colored rock formations that look like a thousand G. I. Joe figures standing at attention. Hang a left at Fairyland Loop Trail and run 5.5 miles back to Fairyland Point. Include the short spur trail for a view of Tower Bridge, a rock arch.
- Under-the-Rim Trail, 23 miles point-to-point. This aptly named trail extends mostly north to south between Bryce and Rainbow Points near the bottom of the topographic stair steps containing Bryce Canyon’s famous rock formations. Never flat, the primitive trail is either descending into or climbing out of one of perhaps 15 drainage systems. Plan a car shuttle and run south to north for a total of 4500 feet of elevation gain. In spring or after a summer thunderstorm, expect to get your shoes wet at creek crossings, and keep gas in the tank for the last, grinding ascent to Bryce Point.
Getting There. About 20 miles east of Interstate 15 at Cedar City, Utah, Bryce Canyon is a five-hour drive south from Salt Lake City and a two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of St. George, Utah.
Seasons. Spring, summer and fall present the best trail-running conditions. In spring and fall, temperatures reach 60 to 70, with summer highs rising to about 80. In winter, snow blankets Bryce Canyon’s higher elevations and can impede trail access.
Camping and Lodging. Two national park campgrounds cost $15 per night: North Campground, which remains open all year, and Sunset Campground, open from late spring to early fall (435-834-5322, www.nps.gov/brca). The Bryce Canyon Lodge is open from April 1 through October 31 (877-386-4383, www.brycecanyonforever.com).
Other Activities. Because the park has some of the darkest night skies in North America, attending one of Bryce Canyon’s astronomy programs steals the show. The main road in Bryce Canyon is 18 snaking miles long and perfect for road biking.
By The Numbers
7.4 is the limiting magnitude of the park’s night sky, where about 7500 stars are visible to the naked eye on a clear night. Compare this to looking through Manhattan’s light pollution to a 2.0 limiting magnitude night sky and just 15 visible stars!
9115 feet above sea level is the maximum elevation in Bryce Canyon.
200 is the number of days each year that temperatures rise above and fall below freezing, creating the freeze-thaw cycle that contributes to the formation of Bryce Canyon’s unusual rock formations.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Running through a Sea of Grass in the Land of Oz
In the rocky Flint Hills of east-central Kansas lay the 10,900 acres of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. A century-and-a-half ago, these four- to six-foot-tall grasses stretched across 140 million acres of central North America into what ecologists say must have looked like a sea of grass. With the exception of a few remnant grass stands scattered around the continent, almost all tallgrass prairies have been gobbled up by the agriculture industry.
A visit to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is like stepping into the world of Brewster Higley, the fellow who penned the famous words, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play,” in 1872, while living in that sea of grass. Almost all the trails here are doubletrack, made of compacted gravel or dirt.
- Red House Trail, six-mile “figure eight.” Park at Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch Headquarters and follow signs for Red House Trail. Travel in either direction along rolling doubletrack surrounded by tallgrass. Grass height is tallest in mid- to late summer. Because the route is a “figure eight,” you can cut off the far 2.2-mile loop to shorten your jaunt.
- Fox Creek Trail, 6.1 miles out-and-back. Park at Bottomland and Fox Creek Trailhead and head north through half-mile-long Bottomland Trail and onto Fox Creek Trail. You’ll be meandering through the interface of Fox Creek’s riparian area and tallgrass prairie. This route is mostly an out-and-back, though it diverges for short stretches then merges again, daisy-chain-like, to keep the scenery fresh.
- Big Pasture and Scenic Overlook Trails, variety of possible distances and routes up to 13 miles. The trail system loops and lollipops, allowing you to customize your outing. For an approximately 13-mile run, head out Big Pasture Trail from Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch Headquarters and bear right at most of the trail markers, traveling the outermost trails of the Big Pasture Trail system. Keep an eye out in the tallgrass for glimpses of the park’s shy and recently re-introduced bison herd. When you reach trail marker 29, hang a right onto the three-mile Scenic Overlook Trail back to the trailhead.
Getting There. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is located about 20 miles west of Interstates 35 and 335 at Emporia, Kansas. The park is an hour-and-a-half’s drive northeast of Wichita, Kansas and two hours by car southwest of Kansas City, Kansas.
Seasons. Trail running is possible throughout the year, though the temperature is most pleasant in the fall, winter and spring. Late-summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, and temporary trail closures for prescribed fires sometimes occur in May and June.
Camping and Lodging. No camping and lodging facilities are located in Tallgrass Prairie, but are available in the small communities of Strong City and Cottonwood Falls, just southeast of the park.
Other Activities. Catch-and-release fishing in three ponds and Fox Creek is popular with both local and out-of-town visitors. Before the preserve gained federal designation, the area was used for cattle ranching. Now-historic homesteads dot the prairie and are hiking destinations for most visitors.
By The Numbers
8 feet long are the roots of some species of tallgrass, providing them groundwater access.
1996 was the year that Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was established and added to the system of National Park Service-administrated sites.
2 bat species call the preserve home. Keep your eyes peeled for them during twilight trail runs.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Bears, Dunes and Birdlife on the Shores of Lake Michigan
According to the Ojibwe legend of the sleeping bear, a mother bear and her two cubs were forced into western Lake Michigan by a wildfire. They fled the fire by swimming east across the lake. The mother bear made it, but her two cubs grew tired before shore and drowned. The Great Spirit, the Ojibwe god, pitied the mother bear and created two islands, what are now North and South Manitou Islands, in honor of her cubs. Today, the mother bear lies under the sands of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and a few real-life American black bears roam the site.
With over 100 miles of tempting trails over large and always-shifting sand dunes, around inland lakes teeming with birdlife and under the green leaves of hardwood forests, Sleeping Bear is a trail runner’s haven.
“The dune-scapes are hard to describe,” says Jonathan Clinthorne, a 24-year old graduate student at Michigan State University who makes a running pilgrimage to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore each spring. “The contrast between a huge blue lake and golden dunes makes everything seem colorful and vibrant. I can’t get enough of the crisp, fresh air blowing off the lake.”
Dunes Trail, 3.5 miles out-and-back. Park at the trailhead for the park’s famous Dune Climb and head west directly over the climb. From the summit of the Dune Climb, you’ll see the Dunes Trail continue another one-plus mile to Lake Michigan. Descend the sand all the way to the lakeshore, then return the way you came. The trail’s length isn’t as challenging as its shifting sands.
Alligator Hill Trail, nine-mile loop. The trails of Alligator Hill may be divided into three distinct loops that drop across grassy fields and rise to viewpoints of Lake Michigan and the inland lakes. The terrain is rolling and all runnable. Form a “figure eight” with the loops and add a 1.5-mile out-and-back to the Big Glen Overlook for a nine-mile run.
North Manitou Island Trails and Beach, variety of possible distances and routes up to 20-plus miles. Traveling to this island in Lake Michigan requires a ferry trip and, depending on the time of year, one or more nights of camping on the island with no campground facilities. Trail and beach running here can be effected by either fastpacking or running from a base campsite.
Getting There. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula about 25 miles northwest of Traverse City, Michigan, which contains the closest airport. Otherwise, it’s a four-and-a-half hour drive northwest of Detroit.
Seasons. The best trail running occurs from early May, once the snow has melted, through sometime in November, when the snow begins to stick again. During peak summer season, expect temperatures between 80 and 90 and sometimes uncomfortable humidity.
Camping and Lodging. The Platte River Campground is open all year. Campsites vary from walk-in sites to full RV hook-ups and begin at $12 per night. The D. H. Day Campground is open from early April to late November and costs $12 per night (231-326-5134, www.nps.gov/slbe). Sleeping Bear has no lodging facilities, but the small town of Empire, which splits the site in half, does.
Other Activities. The paved, two-lane state highways that snake through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore make sweet road-biking terrain. Pedal about 34 rolling miles along Highway 22 between the park’s north and south termini. Opportunities for guided and independent canoeing and kayaking are endless on the park’s two slow-flowing rivers, a number of its inland lakes and on Lake Michigan. Use caution and plan well for boating on Lake Michigan as dangerous wave and wind conditions are sometimes present.
By The Numbers
35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline are encompassed by this National Park Service site.
21 inland lakes are inside the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore boundaries.
2 islands, North Manitou and South Manitou Islands, located in Lake Michigan, are part of Sleeping Bear and are accessible to the public.
Shenandoah National Park
500 Miles of Wild Trails in the Capital’s Hip Pocket
Shenandoah National Park has long been a wild-place getaway from the bustle of our nation’s capital and the rest of the busy East Coast. Rightfully so, as almost 200,000 acres rise up to the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the largest tract of preserved lands in the east-central United States. The park is home to a robust and healthy food chain, from top-dog predators like American black bears to important little guys and gals, such as spotted skunks and the Shenandoah salamander.
Trail running on some of the park’s 500-plus miles is a sure-fire way to get a piece of the wilderness action. Thirty-three-year-old ultrarunner and iRunFar.com Editor-in-Chief, Bryon Powell, couldn’t agree more. Though he now resides in Park City, Utah, he once called Washington, D.C. home and Shenandoah his getaway for running wild. “The seasons are what make Shenandoah amazing. Mountain laurel and other wildflowers enliven the spring. In summer, the trails are green tunnels with peephole overlooks of even more green,” he says. “Fall colors are no less stunning than those of New England, and winter provides solitude that contrasts the eastern megapolis.”
- Rose River Loop Trail and Rose River Fire Road, four-mile loop. Park at Fishers Gap Overlook, cross Skyline Drive and follow the signs for Rose River Loop Trail. From the trailhead, descend steadily for one mile until you reach the edge of Rose River. Take time to stop and smell the figurative roses at the 67-foot-tall Rose River Falls. Follow the singletrack as it clings to the banks of the Rose River, then turn right to return uphill via Rose River Fire Road.
- Whiteoak Canyon Trail, 7.3 miles out-and-back. Park at Whiteoak Skyline Drive Trailhead and head down Whiteoak Canyon Trail. It’s a bomber singletrack descent to a series of cascades and falls called Upper Whiteoak Falls; the largest has an 86-foot drop! Continue another 1.3 miles and 500 or so feet down to Lower Whiteoak Falls. When you’ve had your fill of tumbling water, put the pedal to the metal back uphill.
- Rockytop and Big Run Portal Trails, 14.7-mile loop. Park at Browns Gap Parking area and follow Madison Run Fire Road. In less than a mile, bear right onto Madison Run Spur Trail and travel about a half mile to the junction of Rockytop and Big Run Portal Trails. Turn left onto Rockytop Trail and run up, then down the spine of 2645-foot Rockytop. At mile 8.3, turn right onto Big Run Portal Trail, which follows the Big Run drainage uphill. Don’t forget to re-trace your steps along Madison Run Spur Trail and Fire Road to the parking area. You’ll gain about 3000 feet of elevation on this run.
Getting There. Shenandoah National Park is a long, skinny, northeast-southwest oriented park. Its northern reaches are just south of Front Royal, Virginia, and 70 miles due west of Washington, D.C. Its southern terminus is 25 miles west of Charlottesville, Virginia, and 140 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
Seasons. Trail run all four seasons. Expect summer highs in the 80s and 90s and the daily possibility of thunderstorms. Fall colors are spectacular. In winter, highs range from the 20s to 40s, depending on elevation. Occasional winter storms cover Shenandoah’s higher-elevation trails with snow.
Camping and Lodging. Four campgrounds are located inside Shenandoah National Park, and each has its own characteristics and opening and closing dates every year (540-999-3500, www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm). Four lodging facilities are available in the park (540-999-3500, www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/lodging.htm).
Other Activities. Skyline Drive stretches for over 100 miles through Shenandoah’s highest elevations and a scenic drive or road-biking outing on it is a vacation highlight. The drive has a remarkable 75 scenic overlooks, so get ready to gawk. Horseback riding is a popular spring, summer and fall activity. You can bring your own stock or join a guided trip.
By The Numbers
101 miles of the famous 2175-mile Appalachian Trail meander through Shenandoah.
40 percent of Shenandoah National Park is designated wilderness, giving it an extra layer of federal protection from human impact and development.
75 years old is the age of Shenandoah National Park this year.
Acadia National Park
Step Back in Time on the Atlantic Seaboard
“Maine in general is a magical place,” says Chicago native, legal assistant, and ultrarunner Paige Dunmore, 29. “Running in Acadia National Park is like stepping back in time to when the world was untouched and free of exploitation. On the trails, you feel secluded, like you’re the first one who’s been there.”
While Acadia does offer trail runners solitude, the Wabanaki, the original inhabitants of what’s now the state of Maine, have been in these lands for thousands of years. Their tribal name translates into English as “People of the Dawn Land” and indicates one of the North Atlantic seaboard’s coolest qualities: sunrise over the ocean.
No matter what, do not leave without a sunrise run on some of the park’s 125 miles of trails or to one of the park’s high points, maybe the popular Cadillac Mountain, the fire tower atop Beech Mountain or Sargent Mountain’s lonely summit. Plant yourself on some of Acadia’s rosy granite and listen to a chorus of seabird squeaks and squawks while the sun explodes from the ocean horizon.
- Ocean Path, four miles out-and-back. Ocean Path stretches two miles between the parking areas for Sand Beach and Otter Point. Start at either end, run to the other and return the way you came. The trail is flat to rolling, and provides epic ocean and coastal views about every, uh, minute. You’ll hear Thunder Hole before you see it, a rock formation below the trail into which ocean water flows and booms loudly. Watch seabirds frolic on winds as you run along the cliffs.
- Cadillac Mountain North Ridge and South Ridge Trails, 5.9 miles point-to-point. Sunrise from Cadillac Mountain is a must-do run. Arrange a car shuttle, bring a headlamp and leave from the Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trailhead about an hour before sunrise. Ascend to the mountain’s 1530-foot summit along an exposed and runnable 2.2-mile climb. Continue via the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail, a 3.7-mile gentle descent, to near the Blackwoods Campground.
- Trails from Echo Lake Beach, variety of possible distances and route layouts up to 15 miles. Park at Echo Beach and run west into Acadia’s lesser-known west side. Pick your route poison here on the some of the park’s remote, inland singletrack through thick forests replete with both conifers and deciduous trees. Here and there, you’ll make digger ascents and descents on and off rounded granite mountaintops that offer peeking ocean views. Almost any route provides lots of elevation change. If you want to run farther, veer off trail for a road mile or two and connect to more singletrack east of Highway 102. Don’t miss a post-run dip in Echo Lake.
Getting There. Acadia National Park is a one-hour drive southwest from Interstate 95 at Bangor, Maine, and five hours northeast of Boston. The airport in Bangor may be your best local-airport bet, as it’s served by a host of national airlines.
Seasons. Most of Acadia’s snow falls during December through the end of March. You’ll typically find good conditions on the park’s trails from mid- to late April through sometime in November. Acadia’s famous fall colors occur during October.
Camping and Lodging. From May 1 through October 31, the Blackwoods Campground serves as home sweet home to trail runners for $20 per night. In April and November, sites run $10 per night, and in the winter are free. The Seawall Campground is open from late May through late September and sites start at $14 per night (207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad). No lodging exists in the park, but can be found in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and other local communities.
Other Activities. Every October, Acadia’s deciduous trees change color and form a natural rainbow palette. Tourists flock to practice the art of leaf peeping. Acadia’s intertidal zone—the land that’s underwater at high tide and above water at low tide—makes for some fun exploration. Few national parks offer access to the intertidal zone, so tide pooling at low tide is a quirky way to spend the day. Remember not to touch or take, as everything you find is protected by federal law.
By The Numbers
45 miles of historic carriage roads exist in Acadia and originally provided surfaces for horse-drawn travel. You can run on them today.
6000 years of human history is recorded in the park.
47,000 acres are federally protected as Acadia National Park.
Big Bend National Park
Don’t Mess with West Texas
The feeling of geographic loneliness in the continental United States is rare these days, but the Lone Star State’s Big Bend National Park and its 801,000 empty acres offer a heaping plate of it. Located in far west Texas, where the Rio Grande bends the state into Mexico, and the Chihuahuan Desert fingers its way into the United States, Big Bend also proffers a trail runner’s playground.
From 1800 feet above sea level along the Rio Grande, the international border, to a 7832-foot high point, Emory Peak, Big Bend’s diverse terrain yields an ever-changing 150 miles of trails. You’re on your own here, in a water-void, cactus-riddled, sharp-rocked world, but with the right preparation and tools, the sky is Big Bend’s trail running limit. Local trail runner and 23-year Big Bend National Park resident, Melissa Forsythe, 57, says, “Running in Big Bend is pure joy. The trails are littered with rocks, sand, a few mountain lions and views that change by the mile.”
- Window Trail, 5.2 miles out-and-back. Begin at the Chisos Basin Trailhead and drop about 1000 vertical feet over 2.6 miles into the Oak Creek drainage. The trail has an excellent grade and compacted surface that make for fast first miles before funneling into a 20-foot wide canyon and pour-off, or dry waterfall, your turnaround point.
- Chimneys Trail, seven miles point-to-point. Arrange a car shuttle and run Chimneys Trail east to west for a small net loss of elevation. At 2.4 miles, you’ll arrive at the Chimneys, the yellow, eroded remnants of a geologic dike that have for millennia served as a point of navigation. Take a moment to respectfully observe Native American petroglyphs and pictographs as well as a rock shelter and an earthen tank, remnants of Big Bend’s pre-national park ranching era. Continue among technicolor badlands to the western trailhead.
- South Rim Loop, 14.5 to 17.5-mile loop. Head out the Laguna Meadows Trail from the Chisos Basin Trailhead and climb 1500 feet in about three miles. After this big climb, the trail is rolling. At 6.5 miles, you’ll arrive at the Southwest Rim and its 2000-foot near-vertical drop into the desert. At the Boot Canyon and Southeast Rim Trails junction, go left into Boot Canyon for the 14.5-mile version of this run or right for the 17.5-mile trip (note that portions of the right-hand Southeast Rim Trail are closed in spring for peregrine-falcon nesting). Both routes eventually travel through Boot Canyon, past its namesake rock and down the Pinnacles Trail back to the trailhead.
Getting There. Big Bend’s headquarters at the Panther Junction developed area is 125 miles south of Interstate 10 at Fort Stockton, Texas. The nearest airports are in Midland, Texas, four hours northeast, and El Paso, Texas, five-and-a-half hours northwest.
Seasons. Known for summer heat exceeding 100 for most of June, July and August, trail running here is best in fall, winter and spring. Occasional winter storms dollop the Chisos Mountains with several inches of snow that quickly melts. February through April offer superb climatic conditions paired with the annual wildflower and cactus bloom.
Camping and Lodging. Base yourself at one of the National Park Service’s three campgrounds for $14 a night, the Rio Grande Village Campground, Chisos Basin Campground or Cottonwood Campground (432-477-2251, www.nps.gov/bibe). Near the Rio Grande Village Campground lies a concessions-operated full-hook-up campground for RVs. Campsites here start at $29 per night (877-386-4383, www.foreverresorts.com). The Chisos Mountain Lodge is the park’s all-year lodging facility (877-386-4383, www.foreverresorts.com).
Other Activities. Birding is a popular spring activity, when various migratory bird species stop in for a few days, weeks or months and enhance the park’s robust year-round population. The park is known for its 200 miles of dirt roads that provide play terrain for jeep-ers and mountain bikers. You can raft and canoe on the Rio Grande independently or with a guide.
By The Numbers
70 million years ago, what’s now Big Bend was a massive swamp and floodplain that served as home to dinosaurs. Today, the park preserves dinosaur and other fossils that tell the region’s oldest history.
245 miles of the Rio Grande channel through Big Bend.
450-plus species of birds have been observed in the park. This whopping avian diversity is a result of bird migratory patterns as well as the ecological variety created by elevation change.
Meghan M. Hicks is a writer and outdoor educator based in Park City, Utah. She has worked in three national parks and vacationed in a couple dozen more.