8 National Parks Every Trail Runner Should Visit
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“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
—John Muir, Our National Parks
It may be hard to fathom that Muir, often called the Father of the National Parks for his visionary conservation efforts, penned the above words in 1901. More than a century later, they ring true as ever.
This August marks the centennial of America’s national parks, established in 1916 with the formal creation of the National Park Service. Though the country’s first national park, Yellowstone, had already been created in 1872, it took the concentrated passion and efforts of many wilderness enthusiasts to make a cohesive national-park system a reality.
Today, the parks remain as much—if not more so—a refuge from industrialized society and the harried pace of our modern lives. And, for trail runners, the 59 parks that currently make up our national-park system offer a lifetime’s worth of singletrack to explore.
Here, we highlight eight parks that are veritable trail-running paradises, as well as a few of the runners who love them. From the rugged ridgelines of Glacier to the sea-sprayed paths of the Channel Islands to the old-growth Appalachian forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, these parks may be as close to Muir’s envisioned “fountains of life” as a trail runner can get.
1. Olympic National Park
Washington / est. 1938
It’s hard to imagine a more diverse national park than Olympic’s nearly one-million acres. Tucked away on the peninsula sandwiched between Seattle and the Pacific coast, its ecosystems range from subalpine meadows to temperate rainforest to rugged beaches.
More than 600 miles of trails meander through the park’s interior. In the belly of the rainforest, the singletrack is plush and surrounded by the rich green of moss, ferns and old-growth trees. On the coast, the trails follow rough beaches, dotted with tide pools and picturesque rock islands. And in the high country, alpine lakes and some 200 glaciers abound on the park’s jagged peaks.
“The wild, empty beaches, seamounts and pristine alpine meadows are an ever-changing, always-awe-inspiring backdrop to my life,” says trail runner Amelia Bethke, 28, of Bellingham, Washington.
She has been visiting the park since she was 10, and, as an adult, spent a year working on a trail crew and living out of a tent in the park. “You could run in the park for a year without retracing your steps if you wanted to.”
Each fall, the Great Olympic Adventure Trail Run marathon and half-marathon finish at the shores of Lake Crescent on the northern edge of the park.
Be a tourist: Take a dip in the mineral-laden soaking pools at Sol Duc Hot Springs.
Hoh River Trail to Five Mile Island. This flat, enchanting 10.5-mile jaunt passes through the mossy magic of the Hoh, one of the country’s largest temperate rainforests.
Lake of Angels. This trail gains a brutal 3,400 feet in just four miles, topping out at a spectacular lake nestled in a craggy cirque.
High Divide Loop. A stunning 18-miler through old-growth rainforest and a subalpine basin replete with sparkling lakes, spectacular views of Mount Olympus and frequent mountain-goat and black-bear sightings.
2. Mammoth Cave National Park
Kentucky / est. 1941
As its name suggests, this park is best known for its massive caves. In fact, its 400-plus miles of surveyed passageways make it the world’s longest cave system—a wild maze of labyrinthine tunnels and caverns made of limestone and sandstone stalactites. Several species of bat inhabit the caves as well.
The caves require a formal tour guide to explore, but more than 90 miles of trails exist above ground, too. Most are rolling, forested single- and doubletrack shared with equestrians. Get ready for damp feet; the trails cross a seemingly infinite number of creeks as they wend their way around ravines, cave entrances and sinkholes.
On Sundays, the Bowling Green Road Runners host runs on park trails, which they call “one of the more untapped running resources in south-central Kentucky.”
Be a tourist: Take a cave tour and watch for bats near amusingly named formations like the Birth Canal, the Frozen Niagara and Tall Man’s Misery.
Sal Hollow Buffalo Creek Loop. A classic, lush 11-mile loop pocked with small waterfalls, natural springs, sinkholes and cave entrances.
Big Hollow Trail. A new, forested eight-mile trail, prime for fall colors and developed solely for mountain biking, hiking and trail running.
First Creek Trail. A boggy six-and-a-half-mile roller coaster of a point-to-point trail that passes creeks, rock formations and First Creek Lake.
3. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Ohio / est. 1974
Ohio’s only national park is a refuge from the urban sprawl of its neighboring cities, Cleveland and Akron. Much of the land was reclaimed decades ago from old junkyards and toxic dumps that have since been cleaned up and naturally overtaken by the park’s grasses and wetlands.
Today, the park is home to more than 100 miles of rambling trails, dense green forests, creek beds, waterfalls, wildlife including bobcats, deer, coyote and bald eagles, and a vibrant community of trail runners passionate about conservation efforts in their backyard park. Last year alone, the Burning River 100-Mile Endurance Run—which passes through the park—raised more than $20,000 for a local nonprofit, the Conservancy for CVNP, whose initiatives include cultivating a world-class trail system in the park.
Jim Christ, 52, of Hudson, Ohio, says, “This area is a hotbed for trail running, and I believe it’s because the national park is available to us. When I travel for business, it’s hard to find locations where ultrarunning is the norm. But around here, everyone’s running a 50K.”
The group Christ founded, the Crooked River Trail Runners, often sees more than 100 runners at their Thursday-night runs in the park.
Be a tourist: Take a vintage train ride through the heart of the park on the 51-mile Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, or pay a visit to the beaver marsh—a former junkyard also cleaned up by local citizens—where it’s easy to catch sight of otters, beavers and waterfowl.
Ledges Trail. Just two miles long, this rocky, technical loop winds through gorgeous hemlock forest and quartz-studded rock formations.
Plateau Trail. This four-and-a-half-mile loop peaks in its beauteous glory in October, but its thick hemlock, oak and maple woods offer a fun, peaceful ramble anytime.
Buckeye Trail. More than 30 miles of this 1,444-mile trail (which, looping around Ohio, is the longest circuitous trail in the country) pass from the northern tip of the park to the southern tip. A locals’ favorite section is the four-and-a-half-mile stretch from Pine Lane Trailhead to Boston Store Visitor’s Center—“You will see more people running it than hiking it!” says Christ.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado / est. 1915
For a veritable sampler platter of Colorado mountain running, look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park’s 360 miles of trails and quarter-million acres of soaring peaks, alpine lakes and abundant wildlife. More than a quarter of the park’s sprawling acreage sits above treeline.
The park boasts 72 peaks above 12,000 feet, including its crown jewel, 14,259-foot Longs Peak, a source for many creative FKT records in recent years, including the so-called Longs Peak Biathlon—biking from downtown Boulder to the park, summiting Longs on foot and returning to Boulder on bike.
A favorite route of Nick Clark, 41, of Fort Collins, is a 17-mile, talus-laden peak linkup known locally as Mummy Mania. “For those who want to get into the nooks, crannies, crevices and peaks of the park,” he says, “there is quite literally a lifetime of exploring to be done.”
Be a tourist: Take a scenic drive on America’s highest continuous paved road, the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, which traverses the park. Keep your eyes peeled along the tundra for elk, marmots, pikas and bighorn sheep.
Lakes Loop. Forget peak bagging; this 12-mile “lake-bagging” loop through the park’s subalpine zone takes you past a number of scenic waterfalls and lakes, including Bear, Helene, Odessa, Fern and Cub.
Deer Mountain. A popular, six-mile out-and-back through ponderosa forest and open meadows, topping out at just over 10,000 feet.
Longs Peak Keyhole Route. An arduous, bucket-list adventure of 15 miles with Class 3+ scrambling to the top of the park’s only 14er; in the words of mountain runner and adventurer Peter Bakwin, “It’s a run, it’s a hike, it’s a scramble! Stunning, challenging, totally classic!”
5. Glacier National Park
Montana / est. 1910
One of the largest national parks in the lower 48, Glacier’s one million acres of high-alpine wilderness has been dubbed the “Crown of the Continent,” and for good reason. With only one paved road passing through the park, Glacier is no place for the lazy or the tame. Rather, its 700 miles of remote backcountry trails, alpine lakes (700 of those, too), glaciers, waterfalls, massive cirques and snow-capped peaks beckon the hardiest of adventurous souls.
“It is one of the most untrammeled and intact ecosystems in our country,” says Mike Foote, 32, of Missoula, Montana, who first visited the park more than a decade ago. “I appreciate that the park administration has largely managed to keep Glacier’s wild character and integrity.”
Abundant wildlife call the park their home, including grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, moose, mountain goats and bighorn sheep, as well as several endangered species like wolverines and Canadian lynx.
Be a tourist: Post-run, treat yourself to a scoop of Montana’s renowned huckleberry ice cream.
Highline Trail. A classic, 12-mile point-to-point trail, mostly above treeline with soaring views before dipping into the trees for a net-downhill cruise.
Ptarmigan Tunnel. A steep, 5.3-mile (one way) trail leads to this impressive engineering feat, a 240-foot tunnel blasted through the mountain in the 1930s; the climb up is steep, frequented by wildlife and offers dramatic views of surrounding peaks and glaciers.
Siyeh Pass. A 10.4-mile, point-to-point trail through spruce forest and open meadows, past waterfalls and up steep switchbacks.
BEAR SAFETY IN NATIONAL PARKS
Bears are common in many national parks.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare, but the National Park Service (NPS) nevertheless encourages visitors to take extra precautions to avoid bear encounters.
In Glacier, where bear activity—including grizzlies—is especially high, the NPS officially discourages trail running, due to the theoretically greater likelihood of spooking wildlife when moving more swiftly.
Missoula mountain runner Mike Foote says the key to not surprising animals is to make ample noise when you run—particularly in high wind, near streams or when coming around blind corners. Talk, clap, call out or sing loudly. Don’t, says Foote, simply “use bear bells or play music out of your phone; wildlife is most reactive to the human voice.”
The NPS also advises traveling in groups and, in more remote backcountry areas like many of the trails in Glacier, carrying bear spray.
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee + North Carolina / est. 1974
Sprawling over the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than a half-million acres of dense forest, bluffs and waterfalls—and a whopping 900 miles of trails. This inventory includes a 72-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that cuts through the heart of the park; running it in a single go is known colloquially as the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR). Jobie Williams, 44, of Nolensville, Tennessee, calls it “a rite of passage for Southern ultrarunners.”
Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park, thanks in part to its rich history—beginning with its earliest inhabitants, the Cherokees, and, later, throngs of European settlers. When Congress later authorized the government to protect it as a national park, more than 1,200 of the area’s homesteaders, miners and loggers were evicted from the land to make way for the park.
“When you travel its trails,” says Williams, “the park retells these stories by way of half-standing rock walls, family cemeteries and old, rusted machinery.”
Be a tourist: Watch the park’s famous synchronous fireflies light up the night in late May and early June.
Chimney Tops. A quad-busting 1,400-foot climb over two miles, with a steep rock scramble at the top.
Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte. Eleven miles roundtrip, this popular trail passes a number of scenic rock ledges, arches, historical sites and panoramic views.
Gatlinburg-to-Cherokee Traverse. A 35-mile, north-to-south traverse of the park, offering a big taste of classic Smokies terrain.
More than 70 of the early settlers’ cabins, barns, schoolhouses and other log structures remain in the park today, infusing its hallowed hills with a unique sense of history.
One popular site is the old log cabin and 122-acre property of five unmarried sisters who refused to leave their land when the government conducted its mass evictions in 1934.
Ultimately, the Walker sisters were granted a special lease to live out the rest of their lives inside the park. There, they continued to raise sheep, grow crops, churn butter and spin their own clothes from the wool and cotton they cultivated until 1964, when the last sister, Louisa, passed away.
You can visit the sisters’ original homestead site, located just off the 1.3-mile Little Brier Gap Trail.
7. Channel Islands National Park
California / est. 1980
Rugged mountains, canyons, steep singletrack, sea caves, coastal cliffs, white-sand beaches, tide pools and charming little foxes the size of house cats—what’s not to love?
Channel Islands National Park, which encompasses five islands and lies just a few miles off the bustling beaches of Los Angeles, has it all. Half of the park’s quarter-million acres are located under the ocean—but on those that lie above ground, trails abound. Wildflowers blanket the islands’ grassy hillsides and coastal bluffs. Whales, dolphins, harbor seals and the native island foxes can frequently be seen. In fact, a full 145 species of plants and animals are endemic to the islands—that is, they’re found nowhere else on earth.
In the fall, the largest island, Santa Cruz, hosts a USATF-sanctioned 23K race called the Eco-Extreme Trail Run that concludes at the Scorpion Harbor Marine Reserve.
Be a tourist: Kayak through the hundreds of sea caves on Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, including the vibrantly colored Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world.
Lobo Canyon, Santa Rosa Island. A classic five-mile loop (can be extended up to 11 miles) through desert canyons, moss-draped trees, pristine beaches and tide pools.
Del Norte Trail from Prisoners Harbor to China Harbor. A 15.5-mile (one way) trail to a secluded pebble beach on Santa Cruz Island.
Inspiration Point. Much of Anacapa Island is closed off for marine conservation, but a two-mile, figure-eight trail on the east side of the island offers dramatic, 360-degree views of the coves and coastlines.
8. Canyonlands National Park
Utah / est. 1964
Edward Abbey famously described Canyonlands as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth.” A playground of red-rock mesas, towers, arches, slot canyons and sandstone spires, Canyonlands is split into three whimsically named districts—Island in the Sky, the Needles and the uber-isolated Maze, which avid trail runner Buzz Burrell once called “probably the most remote spot in the lower 48.”
The Needles District is perhaps best suited for trail running, with extensive slickrock trails that offer a virtually endless array of loops and explorations. The Island in the Sky District has a number of fantastic trails, too, as well as the 100-mile White Rim Road, a jeep road that’s seen lots of action from the FKT crowd in recent years. To cover the road in 24 hours had long been the exclusive turf of mountain bikers until the mid-1980s, when Burrell did so on foot.
Most trails in the park are marked primarily with cairns, so require some attention to follow. And be sure to BYOW, or Bring Your Own Water—lots of it.
Be a tourist: Make a road trip out of it—two more national parks, Arches and Capitol Reef, are within spitting distance of Canyonlands.
Lost Canyon Squaw Canyon Loop, Needles District. An awe-inspiring 8.7-mile lollipop loop through slickrock, sandy washes and red-rock buttes, with backcountry campsites along the way.
Neck Spring, Island in the Sky District. A gently rolling, 5.8-mile loop through diverse vegetation and historic ranching sites.
Druid Arch, Needles District. Eleven miles out and back to one of the park’s most iconic arches.
This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.