Top Ten National Parks for Biking

Acadia National Park

Ocean or mountains—which do you prefer? On Maine’s Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park gives you both. Pedal along the rocky Atlantic coast and the island’s 17-peak chain rises overhead. Grind up the granite heights, surrounded by groves of spruce and fir, and see sweeping ocean panoramas.

With such scenic diversity, it’s no wonder that Acadia is the second-most popular park in America. Bring your wheels in April, May, late September, or October and you’ll have the island nearly to yourself.

Acadia’s 27-mile Park Loop Road provides a scenic introduction to the island for motorists and cyclists alike, cruising past the park’s most frequently visited attractions and its most rugged coastal areas. If your legs and lungs are up for it—park roads are primarily smooth and gently graded—take on the seven-mile grunt to the top of Cadillac Mountain. At 1,530 feet, it’s the Atlantic Coast’s highest point.

Fat-tire aficionados reap the benefits of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s philanthropic heart and oily wealth. A summer visitor to Mount Desert Island, Rockefeller commissioned and supervised 45 miles of crisscrossing carriage paths. The classic 22-mile Heart of Acadia loop rolls along the car-free, crushed-stone road, running through spruce and hemlock forests, over rustic bridges, and up some serious hills. If the loop’s long climbs (total elevation gain: 1,120 feet) don’t leave you breathless, the amazing overlooks will—the consuming force of the Great Fire of 1947 opened up the views at higher elevations.

Shenandoah National Park

Like to take the high road for killer views? Or would you rather pedal into the thick of things? Either way, Shenandoah is the park for you. From high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, you’ll see Shenandoah Valley’s classic pastoral vistas to the west and the Atlantic and the rolling Virginia Piedmont to the east. Come down from the heights to roam through the oak-hickory hardwood forests alongside black bears and white-tail deer. May is prime wildflower season, while mid-October kicks off fall color.

While countless hikers pass through these parts on their way down the Appalachian Trail, you can make an epic journey of your own by pedaling the length of Skyline Drive. This 105-mile, two-lane road runs through the park along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where sweeping ridgetop vistas make the tough climbs worthwhile.

As you tackle the hills and take in the scenery, keep an eye out for your four-wheel counterparts; while the speed limit is 35 m.p.h., distracting views, blind curves, and the lack of a paved shoulder create the need for defensive cycling.

Hit the Trail

Mountain bikers fret not—though Shenandoah National Park prohibits biking on its trails, the nearby George Washington National Forest offers thousands of miles of bikeable roads and trails. If you’re ready to test your two-wheel mettle, check out the 11-mile Bear Wallow and Little Passage Loop, a mere six miles west of Front Royal, Virginia. This highly technical single-track runs through remote, mountainous backcountry, with more than 1,000 feet of long, steep climbs.

Big Bend National Park

Ever see that bumper sticker”Don’t Mess With Texas”? Bring your wheels to Big Bend National Park and you’ll understand why. Bikers contend with safety concerns that seem straight out of the Old Testament, from flash floods to poisonous snakes. The routes are remote and travel over treacherous terrain.

So why brave a place the Spaniards dubbed El Despoblado (the uninhabitable region)? At 801,000 acres, Big Bend is one of America’s largest national parks—and one of its least visited. This is a chance to leave civilization behind—to surround yourself with canyons, desert, and mountains. It will be a two-wheel, Texas-size adventure you’ll never forget—just be sure to pack maps, patch kits and tubes, and more water than you think you’ll need.

On the Road

If you can set up a shuttle, the biking opportunities in Big Bend are endless. From Panther Junction to Castolon via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, cyclists spin across 35 miles (about three to six hours) of pavement and a number of steep hills. The route skirts the Chisos Mountains, passing photo-worthy geologic features and historic sites as it winds down to the Rio Grande Valley. Get an early enough start and you’ll catch the summer sun striking the mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon at ride’s end.

Hit the Trail

A shuttle is the way to go for Old Ore Road, which runs between Dagger Flats and Rio Grande Village. This trail will test your legs and lungs on 26 strenuous miles of loose gravel. With strikingly colored badlands flanking the high-desert scene and far-off peaks hovering hazily in the distance, the views are worth the effort. Head north to south for an easier ride and the best Chisos Mountains photo ops.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Losing your breath at high elevations is a small price to pay for breathtaking scenery. On your next bike trip, explore the rarefied air of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can get high on the Rockies (of course), as well as 650 miles worth of the Continental Divide, and the highest continually paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road.

At least 60 mountains in the park exceed 12,000 feet—the football field-size summit of Longs Peak is the highest at 14,255 feet—and more than 100 square miles of the park rise above timberline. Once you stop to survey the glacier-carved scene of peaks and valleys, evergreens and wildflowers, you’ll forget all about the burning in your legs and lungs.

On the Road

If you like to climb, check out Bear Lake Road—this 20-mile out-and-back ascends 1,500 feet in just eight miles. If that’s not enough of a workout for you, challenge your quads on one of the many hiking trails that fork off the road.

Narrow, winding, and mostly uphill, Bear Lake Road takes you on a tour of the park’s most picturesque scenery: The road passes through Moraine Park, flanked by mountains and glacial deposits, and it follows the cascade of Glacier Creek among aspen, fir, and lodgepole pine trees. The best views await you at Bear Lake, elevation 9,475 feet. Gaze upward over Technicolor-blue lakes to the Continental Divide, where Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) rise among the giants. Many peaks still bear glaciers, kin to the carvers of the region’s valleys and ridges.

Note: Since the road is narrow and the park is popular, get an early start or go late in the day to avoid the heaviest traffic.

Grand Teton National Park

To give your next biking trip a wild, western backdrop, complete with marquee beasties and soaring, snow-capped mountains, head to Grand Teton National Park.

The Teton range rises to more than 7,000 feet above the Wyoming landscape, and 12 of those peaks soar higher than 12,000 feet above sea level—high enough to support a dozen mountain glaciers. This park is the home where the buffalo roam—along with moose, pronghorn, and elk—so pack your camera and your binoculars before you get rolling.

On the Road

Teton Park Road is a 44-mile scenic gem. As it loops through the park from Moose to Jackson Lake Junction and back again, the road winds alongside two spectacular lakes, the Teton Range always in sight. Pull out your camera during the three-mile spin along the shores of Jenny Lake, where the tallest Teton peaks await your viewfinder. Up for a scenic side trip? A five-mile spur road climbs to the summit of Signal Mountain, one mile south of Signal Mountain Lodge and Campground. At the top, 800 feet above the valley, take in a panoramic view of the entire Teton Range, Jackson Lake, and most of Jackson Hole.

Hit the Trail

Head west of Jackson and the park for the physical and technical challenge of Black Canyon Creek. You’ll want to set up a shuttle for this 11-mile, one-way, off-road ride, leaving one car where Old Pass Road and Wyoming Route 22 split, then continuing on to the summit of Teton Pass (8,431 feet). Grind up a tough three-mile climb, take a quick breath, and snap some photos (the Snake River Valley lies below). After challenging your legs and lungs, test your bike-handling skills—and your brakes—on the eight-mile descent. Curving back and forth across the hillside, popping in and out of the woods, the trail drops toward Black Canyon Creek—an aptly named waterway that runs beneath the dim forest canopy.

Death Valley National Park

While the number of bike-friendly trails in some national parks leaves you hungry for more, Death Valley ‘s 3.3 million acres offer a vast smorgasbord of backcountry roads. Besides being a great place to ride, this California park offers an amazing environment of extremes.

Within Death Valley, you’ll find the nation’s lowest point and highest recorded temperature—282 feet below sea level and 134 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, the park hits a geologic high of 11,049 feet, and the chill of the night can sink down near zero. Death Valley is surrounded by nine mountain ranges and marked by ghost towns and narrow canyons. You can’t possibly explore everything on one trip, so start small, stay hydrated, and enjoy the ride.

On the Road

To take in Death Valley’s highs and lows, take on the steeps of Dante’s View Road. This 27-mile out-and-back road ride makes a serious climb to the top of the Black Mountains, the eastern boundary of the park. Be sure to layer for this ride—you’ll work up a good sweat as you ascend, and at 5,475 feet, the top’s a lot colder than the valley floor. Dante’s View looks down on Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and up toward Telescope Mountain (11,049 feet), the park’s western boundary and highest point. Before you coast down, take a seat and take in the High Sierras.

Note: Riding between October and April is best to beat the heat. Get an early start to avoid motor traffic

Canyonlands National Park

Since southern Utah is packed full of parks, you may have a hard time deciding which to ride first. Although Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion are all noteworthy destinations, Canyonlands is both Utah’s largest national park and its least visited—play your cards right and you can have this otherworldly landscape all to yourself. Millions of years of erosion have eaten away softer stone and left the harder, creating an unbelievable landscape of mesas, canyons, and pinnacles, all painted in rich desert colors. Bike amidst and atop layer upon layer of sedimentary rock sliced and shaped by the Green and the Colorado Rivers.

Note: Spring and fall are the best times for extended trips, since hot summer days discourage riding.

On the Road

Grand View Point offers a 24-mile out-and-back tour of the Island in the Sky—a high mesa that overlooks canyon country from over 1,000 feet above. Though the pavement rolls along at a gentle grade, the ride is long and the, uh, grand views of high-desert scenery are bound to make it even longer. You can spy a good deal of southeastern Utah from the trail, looking out across the canyons and mountain ranges for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Once you reach the turnaround at Grand View Point, continue on foot (less than a mile) for a good look at Junction Butte, cut off from the Island by erosion, as well as the White Rim Trail far below. If you have legs and lungs to spare on the way back, tackle a five-mile spur out to Upheaval Dome Overlook to complete your Island tour.

We suggest: To avoid traffic, beat the heat, and see canyon country in the best light, go either early morning or late in the day.

Redwood National Park

We all feel the need for speed now and again—rides where we spin hard, our eyes on the road, paying no attention to the scenery whizzing by. California’s Redwood National Park isn’t the place for that. These old-growth coastal redwoods are the tallest living things in the world. Some reach their 2,000th birthday as they rise toward 300 feet. Spruce, hemlock, and Douglas-fir add to the forest canopy, while mosses, ferns, and rhododendrons decorate the floor. Pedal through a redwood grove on a quiet, foggy morning and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a fairy-tale kingdom. So gear down, keep your head up, and soak up the magic.

On the Road

To really get a sense of how tall these trees are, head north from Prairie Creek Visitor Center on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. The wide, straight road lets you take in the full height of the redwoods ahead and keep your fellow cyclists in view. Seeing your riding buddy absolutely dwarfed against these giant trees will blow your mind. Don’t miss the 304-foot Big Tree—about a mile down the road and just a short hike off the trail.

The parkway runs beneath the cool, shady canopy of old-growth giants. With moderate climbs—and one steep stretch—on the eight miles out, you’ll enjoy an easy coast back to the start. Ride a little further south to hit the Elk Prairie overlook—you may spot Roosevelt elk grazing below.

Hit the Trail

You might ride the Prairie Creek/Ossagon Trail Loop in order to spy elk, to cruise along the coast, or to pedal beneath the towering redwoods. Scenery aside, this route travels via pavement, dirt, and—wonder of wonders—single-track! After duplicating the out part of the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway’s out-and-back, the ride heads coastward along the Ossagon Trail. You’ll cruise through thick redwood and alder forest, then emerge oceanside beside scenic Gold Bluffs. When the single-track splits, choose the fork less traveled—by the grazing elk herds, that is. Maneuver around elk and cars and pedal along, taking in the ocean views. It’s a long ride (19.1 miles), but the hills won’t kill—they’re either long and gradual or short and steep.

Crater Lake National Park

About 7,700 years ago, Oregon’s Mount Mazama erupted, collapsing in on itself. The result? A six-mile-wide bowl-shaped caldera. Sealed at the bottom by lava and filled by rain and snow, the caldera became a spectacular, sapphire-blue lake—the deepest lake in the U.S. and the seventh deepest in the world.

Crater Lake National Park is often called the”Gem of the Cascades,” and the entirety of its blue waters can be seen from almost any point on its rim—a 20-mile circle of cliffs trimmed with mountain hemlock, Shasta red fir, and whitebark pine. Whether you choose to cycle the rim or bike among the park’s other odd volcanic formations, this is a place no two-wheel traveler should miss.
If you come to Crater Lake, you have to do the rim. The 33-mile Rim Drive is tough—a narrow road with long, steep hills at high elevation (the route peaks at Cloudcap, 7,700 feet). The hardest part of the ride, however, may be keeping your eyes on the road. Make sure you spend time in the overlooks and pullouts, taking in the bluest water you’ve ever seen. Most cyclists start from the park headquarters area and pedal clockwise around the lake—putting one of the steepest and longest climbs at the beginning of the ride.

Sun Notch is one of the best spots to see Crater Lake’s Phantom Ship. From a distance, this vertical slab of hardened lava resembles a ship under full sail, especially at twilight or by moonlight. Sometimes, when the light is right, the island simply disappears from sight.

Hit the Trail

In contrast to the placid, seemingly bottomless beauty of Crater Lake, the park’s pinnacles are volcanic formations of a very eerie sort. During the Mount Mazama eruption, hot gasses bubbled up through lava-flow vents and cemented loose pumice into hundreds of bizarre, 200-foot stone trees. Pinnacles Panorama offers the best view of these strange spires. The biking part of all this is a 9.4-mile out-and-back trail—winding single-track and a wide dirt road—that connects the panorama with nearby Winema National Forest. The trail dives into a thick Pacific Northwest forest of lodgepole pine and fir, but you can get closer views of the pinnacles by hopping off your bike and making your way through the trees. A lookout at mile marker 2 offers a view of another set of spires.

Olympic National Park

About 95 percent of Olympic National Park is designated wilderness—off-limits to all wheeled vehicles. While that means bicycles, too, the roads and trails you can pedal are definitely worth the ride. Olympic covers three distinct ecosystems—the wild Pacific coast, the lush rainforest, and the rugged, glacier-bedecked high-country. Bring your bike to this three-in-one park for a taste of Olympic’s amazing scenic diversity.

On the Road

Go wet and wild on the Hoh River Road—an 18.8-mile out-and-back that passes through Hoh Rainforest, one of the few temperate rainforests in the world. The ride is pretty easy, although the road is narrow and sometimes heavy with traffic. Before you saddle up, stretch your legs on the Hall of Mosses trail (0.75 miles); the spongy stuff carpets the ground and the trees, hanging from the branches like green fringe.

As you pedal along, look for a downed Sitka spruce lying beside the pavement. These trees can live for 600 years and grow over 200 feet high; this one’s a mere 190, but riding along its length will give you a sense of how tall that really is. The wild and scenic Hoh River runs parallel to the road for much of the route—look through the trees for a peek at its glacier-fed, milky-white waters.

We suggest: Wear your rain gear and consider fenders—but let’s be honest, with up to 145 inches of rainforest precipitation each year, you’re still bound to get wet.

Hit the Trail

Whenever you find honest-to-god single-track in a national park, you gotta ride it. The 8.2-mile out-and-back Spruce Railroad Trail was built during WWI, when planes were made out of spruce. The war ended shortly thereafter, and the overgrown railtrail became the single-track that bikers enjoy today (plus a few sections of gravel road). The trail is mellow with a few rollercoaster sections. One narrow bit of single-track may require kids and newbies to dismount and walk, since taking a dive into Lake Crescent’s blue waters ought to be saved for Devils Point. This popular swimming hole features the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which some guess to be 300 feet deep. Cool off, dry out on the rocks, and take in the view of Storm King Mountain.