8 Great National Parks for Trail Running

Trail Running in National Parks

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Trail running in national parks isn't a new phenomena, but with the number of trail runners surging, it does place new demand on the parks and trails. If you're excited to explore the parks in your area at a faster clip, call ahead to ask the park rangers whether they have tips specific to runners. For instance, starting early in the day can help you avoid backpackers and hikers. Also, knowing what gear to carry, how much water to keep with you and whether there are any specific rules about right-of-way on the trail can help keep you and other park-goers safe.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

National Park Service

The Appalachian Trail is a foot path that spans more than 2,100 miles through the Appalachian mountains, all the way from Georgia to Maine. The trail is free to use, making it a great place for trail runners to test their legs on a wide variety of terrain. While the fastest known time for someone to run the entire Appalachian Trail was set by Andrew Thompson in 2005 (an incredible 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes), there's no reason you can't enjoy small sections of the trail in a few hours' time. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is an excellent resource for finding trails and sections in your desired running location.

Big Bend National Park

National Park Service

 If you want to get "lost" in the wilderness, head to Big Bend National Park in West Texas. The park features more than 150 miles of trails, and while the terrain can be rough - ranging from dessert to rivers to mountains, the scenery is rustic and beautiful. Temperatures vary by up to 20 degrees between low and high elevations, so it's also a great place to start a run early in the day, finishing at a higher elevation before heading back to lower ground. Just remember - it's rugged - plan and pack accordingly.

Canyonlands National Park

Maggie Tacheny / Flickr

Rivers split the Canyonlands National Park into four districts - the Islands in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers themselves. While the Maze and the rivers may not lend themselves to easy trail runs, the Islands in the Sky and the Needles have a variety of trails ideal for every level. These trails range from short and easy to long and extremely difficult. Grab a friend to explore - the park is often primitive, so the buddy system is particularly important. 

Photo: Maggie Tacheny

Coronado National Memorial

National Park Service

The Coronado National Memorial isn't just a statue; rather, its more than 4,700 acres of protected land in southern Arizona. While the memorial doesn't boast as many hiking trails as many other state parks, the ones you'll traverse offer a mix of challenge, beauty and history. For a challenge, try the four-mile Crest Trail - it climbs for two miles before entering the Coronado National Forest. It's also part of the Arizona Trail which stretches from the Arizona-Mexico border all the way to the Arizona-Utah border, so if you want to extend your run, it's always an option.

Crater Lake National Park

National Park Service

Crater Lake, located 60 miles from Klamath Falls, Oregon, is a breathtaking site to behold. And while weather can be tricky year-round, with some snow storms popping up even in August, the summer is an excellent time to plan a high-altitude trail run. Try the Mt. Scott Trail - a five mile out and back run that takes you to the highest peak in the park (8,929 elevation) if you want a real challenge.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

National Park Service

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area isn't a single park, but a conglomeration of multiple park areas that add up to one of the largest urban parks in the world. Most of the parkland is free to visit, and because of its proximity to San Francisco, it's one of the easiest parks to access. There are numerous paved and rough trails for runners to enjoy, ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Try the 3.6 mile Golden Gate Bridge Walk (not a true trail run, but beautiful nonetheless), or take a more rugged run from Stinson Beach to Mt. Tamalpais - a climbing 17.3 mile course that rewards you with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay.

Discover more Golden Gate National Recreation Area trails here.

Grand Canyon National Park

National Park Service

Modern trail running in the national parks started at the Grand Canyon when, in 1969, a female park ranger repeatedly ran from one rim of the canyon to the other, trying to beat her husband, who was driving a car. The trend built steam in the '80s, and took off after the book Born to Run came out. Today's trail runners hoof it to the park almost every morning to try their hand at the 21 mile rim-to-rim route that includes a 4,000 foot descent, followed by a grueling ascent. If you're new to trail running, you might want to build up to this route, instead sticking to the paved, mostly-level Rim Trail around the park. 

Ice Age National Scenic Trail

National Park Service

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail covers 1,200 miles of former glacier land looping across Wisconsin. Running opportunities abound, and it's easy to find suggested trails by region on the Ice Age Trail Alliance website. For one of the most impressive views, try the Devil's Lake Segment featuring almost 11 miles on quartzite bluffs surrounding a 360 foot lake.

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