Lesser Known National Parks For Trail Runners
The first recorded trail race, as we know them today, took place in 3300 B.C. in Scotland. In the United States, however, the sport is far more entwined with the American West than Celtic crags. In 1974, the first Western States Endurance run kicked off modern trail running as we know it, winding through the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you want to capture the essence of that experience without enrolling in the official race, there are more possibilities than ever, not only in other sections of the Sierras, but in National Parks nationwide.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
For the full on Sierra experience, head to Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks. There are 800 miles of trails to cover, so you could spend years just running that park and still find something new. To narrow it down, however, try running amidst epic redwoods on the Giant Forest Loop Trail. It’s on the shorter end of the spectrum at 7.5 miles. You’ll even have a chance to run by the largest tree on the world.
Push yourself harder on the Mineral King Loop, which clocks in at 25.6 miles and will carry you up and down about 9,000 feet. This rugged route will reward with with splendid views, including some of the Little 5 Lakes and Big 5 Lakes. Be prepared to take some sections slow— the scree towards the end will have you scrambling more than ambling.
Great Basin National Park
If you love to run mountains, you’ll love to run Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park. You could do this eight mile, 3 thousand foot stretch as a hike, sure. Running it, though, adds an extra spicy challenge, as you power through timberline past mule deer and alpine meadows lush with flowers. For a less taxing trail, take on the Alpine Lakes Loop. This 2.6 mile run has just a 400 foot ascent and offers splendid vistas of Stella Lake. The real magic to this loop, however, is how it crosses the one of the very last remaining alpine glacier. Now is the time to give it an attempt— scientists estimate it will be gone in 20 years.
Theodore National Park, North Dakota
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to run through the Badlands of North Dakota, here’s your chance. Theodore National Park doesn’t get the same attention as its more famous siblings like Yosemite, Arches, and Tahoe. It’s never the less spectacular. Get some of the best views of the Little Missouri National Grassland as you head out on the 3.8 mile Summit Trail. True to it’s name, the trail is quite steep, and you’ll find yourself enjoying a solid workout.
Your dogs may well be barking after the rocky scramble, so be sure to bring a pair of OOFOS along to recover afterwards back at your hotel or campsite. To see even more of this remote park, give the 4.2-mile Caprock Coulee loop a try. Not only can you see the Little Missouri River as you run, you might even encounter some bison for a true plains experience.
Shenandoah National Park
This notoriously pretty part of the world is more than just the rolling, verdant hills you’ve seen in movies set in the region’s Civil War History. Not far outside of D.C., Shenandoah National Park is also home to lush rivers, creeks, and waterfalls that are especially beautiful in springtime. Head to the White Oak Canyon to Cedar Run Loop for nine miles and seven waterfalls along the trail. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be running in and out of canyons with two thousand feet of elevation gain and loss along this route. Hope your hamstrings are ready!
Lassen Volcanic National Park
If the steep climbs featured in other parks got you excited, and you like your trails taller rather than longer, you’ll love the Lassen Peak Trail. How often can you say that you’ve had the chance to run on an extinct volcano? This particular trail packs 2,005’ of elevation gain into just two and a half miles. It already starts up high at 8,000 feet, putting the summit at about 10,000. This is an excellent way to go about training at elevation.
Guadalupe National Park, Texas
High in the mountains of Texas, Guadalupe National Park is packed with trails well worth giving your all. You can avoid a lot of the crowds with whom you’d be competing at busier parks all while taking in the variety of landscapes in this part of Texas, from pine-crusted mountains to forbidding salt flats. The run from Tejas Trail to Pine Top would be plenty for many runners, but know you can keep going along Guadalupe’s well-marked trails.
This is excellent back camping country, so if you like to turn your trail runs into treks it’s hard to beat Guadalupe for a quality and uncrowded experience. Now is the time to take advantage of many National Parks, when the weather is warmer and dryer and you won’t be faced with snowpack or impassable roads. With plenty of water, some good sneakers, and a pair of OOFOS to wear after your run, you should have an amazing season of prime trail running.
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