8 National Parks Every US Trail Runner Should Visit

8 National Parks Every US Trail Runner Should Visit

After a 100 years the national parks of the US offer more trails than ever for runners in search of joy, adventure and a respite from modern society

Krissy Moehl on the Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Fred Marmsater


“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

Many of Olympic’s trails pass through verdant old-growth forest. Photo by Ben Herndon/Tandemstock.com

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.



Olympic’s “wild, empty beaches.” Photos: Ben Herndon/Tandemstock.com (top); T.M. Schultze/Tandemstock.com


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

Christian Heeb/Auroraphotos.com

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

Joe Grant in Rocky Mountain National Park’s technical, high-alpine country. Photo by Fred Marmsater

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.


Ian Shrive/Tandemstock.com



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!”

See the rest of the Parks you should not miss at the full article here http://trailrunnermag.com