The Best US National Parks for Cycling: Part 2
In part 2 of our two-part series, we will explore a further 8 national parks and what they have to offer. Remember to visit the National Parks Service website when planning your trip to see updated park guidelines, road closures, seasonal conditions, and more relevant information.
Visitors can take advantage of bike rental services at most of the parks, or one of the many guided and self-guided tours available.
In part 1 of the series, we visited 7 breathtaking, bike-friendly national parks spread across the United States, discovering the various routes and trails on offer, along with key places to visit in each park, and park information and guidelines. We also included some important information about park safety and the fantastic annual parks pass, so be sure to check it out if you haven’t already.
Zion National Park
Cycling in Utah’s Zion National Park allows visitors a unique look at the wonders the park has to offer. Spread over 232 square miles, the park’s assortment of colorful sandstone cliffs, towering plateaus, and winding canyons highlight the diversity of the Colorado Plateau. Zion is open to visitors all year round and hosts a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals to complement the diverse geography.
Riders have the opportunity to stop at their leisure along the 6-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, on which only shuttle buses can operate. With less than 500 ft of elevation gain over the 6 miles, the road is suitable for most riders, and the park’s shuttle buses are equipped with bike racks just in case. Cyclist groups in the park are limited to 6, and cyclists are required to come to a complete stop so shuttle buses can pass on the Scenic Drive.
Another option for cyclists is the picturesque 1.7-mile Pa’rus Trail, a riverside multi-use path that begins at the visitor’s center and connects with Scenic Drive. All roadways are open to cyclists, however, bike traffic is prohibited on the other trails and in the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (although other transportation can be taken through the tunnel).
At all trailheads and major bus stops there are designated areas to lock your bike, so you can enjoy the areas of the park closed to bicycles, including, most notably, the depths of the Narrows gorge, or the heights of Horse Ranch Mountain, which overlooks the park at staggering 8,726 ft.
Crater Lake National Park
Oregon’s 33-mile Rim Drive in Crater Lake National Park is a dream ride for many cyclists. The United States’s deepest lake, Crater Lake has formed roughly 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed leaving behind only the caldera in which the 1943 ft deep lake and its iconic crystal clear waters formed. Crater Lake draws more than 750,000 visitors each year, with cyclists an ever-growing part of that number.
Rim Drive runs along the edge of the lake, complete with the challenging terrain of steep gradients and rapid descents. Scattered along the drive are 30 different viewpoints that riders can visit to soak up the vast expanse of the 6-mile wide lake and its surroundings. The loop challenges even seasoned riders with almost 3900 ft of elevation gain spread over the 33 miles.
Unfavorable winter conditions mean that Rim Drive is only open to cyclists from late May to late October each year, depending on snow. For two Saturdays of the open season, the road is closed to motorized traffic for the “Ride the Rim” vehicle-free cycling experience, giving opportunists a unique chance to experience the road in tranquility.
Mountain bikers can tackle the 8-mile long Grayback Drive trail, an unpaved road closed to vehicle traffic.
Shenandoah National Park
Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park spans 300 square miles in the mid-Appalachian Blue Ridge Mountains. The park’s two most prominent peaks, Stony Man and Hawksbill surpass 4000 ft in elevation which, in the summer sun, are often surrounded in a haze arising mostly from the park’s dense forestry. Cool and clear winter days usually offer the clearest look at the Virginia countryside.
Along Skyline Drive, the focal route for cycling visitors, there are 76 overlooks and some truly breathtaking vistas of the park. The road stretches the length of the park, 105 miles long, giving visitors several hours of cycling to take advantage of, and with various accommodation options along the route, one can easily turn a visit to Shenandoah a multi-day trip.
As mentioned, the fog in the park means extra caution and visibility preparation is needed before visiting. Shenandoah in particular is home to hundreds of black bears (depending on the season), so make sure to keep an eye out for them and the rest of the park’s abundant wildlife while maintaining a safe distance.
Cycling is permitted on all paved roads in the park, however not on trails or unpaved roads. While the park is open year-round, portions of Skyline Drive (the only way through the park) are closed due to weather conditions during the winter, so make sure you check before your visit.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
South from Shenandoah along the Appalachian mountains lies the country’s most biologically diverse national park (19,000 identified species), covering over 800 square miles. Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides visitors an array of towering mountain tops, vast hardwood forests, and an intricate 2,100 mile-long network of mountain streams punctuated with beautiful waterfalls.
Clingmans Dome dominates the skyline at 6,644 ft tall and is surrounded by another 16 peaks standing over 5000 ft, easily seen from Cades Cove Loop Road, the one-way 11-mile road highlighted as the park’s main route for bikes. The road passes by 19th-century homesteads and provides an opportunity to see some of the park’s varied wildlife.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is reserved for non-motorized traffic on Wednesdays from June 17th through September 30th, and as the park received over 12.5 million visitors in 2019, there is no better time to visit by bicycle.
Unfortunately, mountain biking and riding on park trails is prohibited in the park except on the following three trails: the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and the lower Deep Creek Trail.
Saguaro National Park
Arizona’s lesser-known Saguaro National is named after the iconic saguaro cactus that dominates the Sonoran Desert. A representative of the Wild West, the saguaro can grow to a towering 40 ft and is protected within the park.
The park is famous for its prehistoric history that dates back 8,000 years with over 450 archaeological sites and 60 historic structures including rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs), rock shelters, and bedrock milling sites.
Cyclists visit Tucson and Saguaro year-round due to their favorable weather conditions and cycle-friendly infrastructure, making the park and its stunning desert scenery a must-visit. Due to extreme heat in summer, visitors should carry extra water, as there is none available on the popular biking routes.
There are two main routes to take by bike: the 8-mile long Cactus Forest Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District, and the 6-mile Bajada Loop Drive in the Tucson Mountain District. Both loops are open to all vehicles so following regular road safety guidelines is expected. Cyclists should note that the Cactus Forest Loop is paved, and the Bajada loop is gravel. Two shorter trails, the Hope Camp Trail and Cactus Forest Trail are also open to cyclists.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley is a unique place. The natural abundance found in the park is due to its location and the blending of the Appalachian Plateau with the Central Lowlands. Shaped by glacial activity, the park is now built on the backbone of the snaking Cuyahoga River, which helps plants and animals to flourish in the park’s rich ecosystem.
The park is also home to historical mills developed around the waterways of the Ohio & Erie canal, as well as Brandywine Creek and its formidable 65 ft waterfall.
Visitors by bike can take advantage of the abundant cycling infrastructure. The most popular trail is the 20-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail which follows the route of the canal built in the early 1800s. If you don’t feel up to the return trip, you can jump on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad with your bike. Riders should note that this trail is made of compacted gravel.
Aside from the historical towpath trail, Cleveland Metroparks have over 60 miles of paved, multi-purpose trails for bikes and other non-motorized traffic, and bordering the park there is the 16-mile Summit Metro Parks bike and hike asphalt trail.
Cuyahoga Valley is a playground for mountain bikers. The East Rim Trail System has over seven miles of trails for intermediate riders, with more currently under construction. As well as East Rim, there is a 9.9-mile single-track loop called the Bedford Singletrack and the 5-mile Hardy Road Mountain Bike Trail.
The park can be enjoyed year-round except for some minor closures due to maintenance and weather.
Badlands National Park
Cycling Badlands National Park is the perfect way to experience the beauty of one of the United States’ most archaeologically rich destinations. Located in South Dakota, Badlands covers 244,000 acres of prairie mixed with beautiful canyons, sandstone spires, and peculiar buttes.
The rapid erosion in the park results in ongoing discoveries of fossils, providing a glimpse of the ancient life that once lay claim to the region. You can visit the park’s fossil preparation lab during your visit to see the process up close.
There are four main areas to ride within the park. For riders who prefer paved roads, the challenging 24-mile Badlands Loop Road takes riders past the park’s main visitor’s center, as well as several overlooks where Badlands’ famous sunrises and sunsets can be enjoyed.
The Sage Creek Loop road (23 miles) goes through the heart of the Badlands wilderness area and includes 12 miles of paved road, and features four breathtaking overlooks. Northeast-Big Foot Loop (27 miles) and Northeast Loop (17 miles) are two easier trail rides with a combination of gravel and pavement starting from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Visitors to Badlands regularly encounter wildlife, including the formidable bison which roam the prairies. It is required to keep a distance of at least 100 ft from all wildlife, and if passing by bicycle, cycle alongside a car to shield you while you pass.
The park can be enjoyed year-round, 24 hours a day (except for rare road closures due to weather).
Big Bend National Park
The Lone Star State’s Big Bend National Park is a medley of rich ecosystems centered around the Rio Grande river on the Mexican border. The peaks of the Chisos Mountains rise up to 7,825 ft (Emory Peak) from the plains of the Chihuahuan desert, bringing a vivid green dimension to Big Bend, where visitors can catch a glimpse of the park’s diverse plant and animal life. The trinity of immense mountains and the vast desert is brought to life by the abundance of the Rio Grande, making the region a plentiful home to indigenous peoples and settlers for more than 10,000 years.
The diverse and bountiful terrain within the park makes it a uniquely satisfying cycling destination. Cyclists can find challenges of all shapes and sizes within the 100 miles of paved road and 160 miles of trails in Big Bend. Touring the park by bike gives visitors an unmatched view of the splendor held within, and is possible year-round with few exceptions due to weather. Extreme heat during the summer makes this period especially challenging and requiring greater preparation.
There are nine distinct bike trails within the park categorized as easy, moderate, and strenuous. Visitors can choose the route best-suited to them depending on the area of the park they want to visit, fitness levels, and time available (route durations range from 1.5-6 hours). Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village trail is a visitor favorite that passes close to the Hot Springs where visitors can warm up in the balmy 105°F water during the cooler winter months.