8 National Parks Every Trail Runner Should Visit
100 years in, America's national parks 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.