Attention, bicyclists: Ever want to cross the Continental Divide, circle the rim of an ancient volcano, or follow the path of an historic canal? Look no further than America’s national parks.
Here are seven national parks that offer cycling routes with world-class scenery:
> Crater Lake
Perhaps because the window of opportunity is so very small, the desire to bicycle at Oregon’s Crater Lake is so very large.
With an average annual snowfall of more than 44 feet, paved Rim Drive is usually closed until late May or early June. When the snow is cleared, the road opens to foot traffic, then bicycles, and then cars until around October when weather begins closing the road again.
Riders who slip in through that window will cycle beside America’s deepest lake (1,943 feet), which dazzles guests with its rich blue waters shimmering within a 6-mile-wide caldera created when Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed about 7,700 years ago.
The 33-mile rim road, edged with fir and pines, creates a wonderfully appealing tour for riders who can handle some steep hills and numerous curves. Beginners are pleased to complete a single circuit; experienced cyclists push themselves to pedal three laps to complete a century ride (100 miles or kilometers).
Thanks to the fortune of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the efforts of anonymous road crews, between 1913 and 1940 access around Acadia was made far easier and much lovelier with the addition of 45 miles of stone and gravel carriage roads which, at the time, came with a ban on motorized traffic.
The roads designed for horses have since been supplemented by the 27-mile Park Loop Road that tracks the island coast before slicing into the center of the park with a separate road leaping up toward 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain.
In general, the loop road is relatively level while the ascent to reach the peak presents steep grades. As a reward, though, are commanding views of the Maine coast.
Depending on the road selected, cyclists may be sprayed by mist from the sea, steering clear of pedestrians, or giving wide berth to equestrian traffic. That’s part of the beauty of Acadia. There’s something for everyone.
Considered one of America’s most stunning drives, the fact that cyclists get to experience Going-t0-the-Sun Road unencumbered by two tons of metal also makes this Montana road one of the most impressive rides.
It’s demanding to tackle the one road that bisects the park, and cyclists straining to propel themselves up and over 6,646-foot Logan Pass will wish their bicycle was equipped with cruise control.
The payoff is in the sights: the crisp blue sky, the Matterhorn-shaped peak of Mount Reynolds, the alpine flowers and fir trees, and especially a glance back to see the recently conquered thin black ribbon of road snaking around the steep hills.
From border to border, the ride’s roughly 50 miles, so plan on several hours to complete the stretch. And planning pays. For about 12 miles between Logan Creek and Logan Pass, east-bound bicycle traffic is prohibited between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and bicycling in both directions is stopped during the same time period between the Apgar and Sprague Creek campgrounds.
> Cuyahoga Valley
There are four superb trails in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, but for bicyclists the standout is a path that also pleases joggers and pedestrians.
Once reserved for barge-towing mules, the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail rolls for about 20 miles in the park beside the famous waterway, while additional miles of trails extend beyond the park into the Ohio & Erie Canalway.
In addition to abundant shade and a wide berth, one thing that makes this family-friendly ride so appealing is its ease and the chance to enjoy a variety of sights and sounds and feelings. There are marshes and covered bridges, boardwalks and woods, and historic structures like the circa 1836 Boston Store.
For riders whose energy flags, it’s simply a matter of finding a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad station and flagging down a passing train (yes, train) that, for a nominal fee, takes them and their mount back to their starting point.
> Grand Teton
Travelers entering Grand Teton via the park’s main north-south highway U.S. 191 experience an impending sense of, well, grandeur, courtesy of the towering peaks dubbed by French fur traders as Les Trois Tetons–the Three Breasts. The sight of snow laced along broad swatches of granite are all part of the park’s larger than life scenery that fuels riders.
While the roadway is wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic as well as cautious bicyclists, in 2009 new multiuse pathways near the south end of the park improved the ability of riders to hit the road with a heightened sense of ease.
The scenic trails include level paths through sagebrush flats that parallel the main road leading to the shores of Jenny Lake and incredible views of the tallest Teton peaks, long-standing landmarks in western Wyoming.
While riders needn’t be cowed by oncoming traffic, heed the advice of park rangers who suggest steering clear of bison, moose, elk, pronghorn, and bears.
> Death Valley
One iconic image of the American West includes bleached cow skulls resting in the depths of Death Valley—which may nudge some bicyclists away from even considering a ride here. But in addition to rugged paths designed for mountain biking, this California park offers several easygoing rides.
Cyclists may share the main road with public vehicular traffic, but there are also designated bicycle routes. Among the short (1- to 2-mile) routes of pavement or packed gravel in the Furnace Creek area, bikers can take a Wild West ride by pedaling to the Harmony Borax Works through Mustard Canyon.
Farther away is Twenty Mule Team Canyon, which offers a 3-mile loop ride, and you can continue along the road to explore on foot the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Countering the obvious drawbacks of temperatures that have hit 134° F, there is a palpable spiritual essence here.
Longer stretches (6 and 7 miles) lead to hidden canyons and overlooks which, for riders with time, stamina, and a generous supply of water, are worth exploring.
Yellowstone National Park is a fascinating place any time of the year, but for bicyclists the high season is springtime. For one brief, shining moment between mid-March and mid-April, as the roads are thawing out from the winter freeze and prior to a mass of travelers filtering into the park, cyclists are granted something spectacular: exclusive access to portions of Yellowstone roads.
It’s easy to be awed by Yellowstone’s geological variety show at peak capacity, but imagine riding in the West entrance to find the road between here and Mammoth Hot Springs reserved especially for riders, joggers, pedestrians, and other nonmotorized traffic. Sneak in through the south and east entrances for short rides, too, although there may be road crews prepping the asphalt for summer visitors.
Since the weather is inclined to be notoriously notorious, for a sure bet give it a few more weeks until all the park services are up and running and the roads are clean and clear. By late spring or early summer all the main roads through the park are open to traffic, although stubborn snowbanks can make riding more dangerous.
Even in good weather, drivers on this splendid two-lane figure-eight road may seem less concerned with the safety of bicyclists than their need to stay on schedule. In that case, opt for one of the handful of short designated bicycling/hiking trails that are found in the Mammoth, West Entrance, Old Faithful, Lake, and Tower-Roosevelt areas; some are paves, while some are gravel.
> The Rules of the Road:
With bicycling comes a sense of freedom and independence, a train of thought that’s magnified on a ride in a national park. In reality, the rules of the road in most national parks are likely more stringent than when pedaling around a town.
While rules may vary, generally riders are expected to wear a helmet and high visibility clothing, ride single file, have visible headlights and taillights if riding after dark, and stay to the right and ride with traffic.
Recognize, too, that along with hazards such as snow, ice, and sand, national parks can present unusual hazards, such as deer, elk, moose, prairie dogs, and an assortment of other wildlife blocking your way. If you see bison or bear on the road, rangers suggest, turn around.
Ride safe, ride happy.
This article was excerpted from the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.