Vacation doesn’t mean leaving your training behind, and this is the year to (re)discover the America in USA Triathlon. Adding a swim, bike or run in one of the 400-plus National Park System locations embodies the full USAT acronym.
Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872 as the first of its kind in the world. As protected lands expanded, most notably under President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the century, the need emerged for a dedicated group to manage federal lands.
The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, oversees important environmental and cultural areas, from cities to seashores, mountaintops to miles of underground caves. But the key ingredient to public lands is the public.
I crisscrossed the country last year to explore 70 national parks. Here are 10 spots that will give you a breath of fresh air and boost your heart rate.
Training tip No. 1: Know before you go. Visit findyourpark.com and check the NPS websites of individual park units for updates on road closures, construction, weather and events.
Training tip No. 2: Listen to your body. According to the Institute for Altitude Medicine, VO2 max diminishes 3 percent for every 1,000 feet above a mile in altitude. With less oxygen available, you breathe harder through drier air. Emphasize water intake and manage your exertion levels.
Training tip No. 3: Smile. Stay safe and admire the scenery when you need a break. After all, a training session shouldn’t deprive you of the grander outdoor experience. Take it from Teddy: “It is an incalculable added pleasure to anyone’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”
SWIMApostle Islands National Lakeshore
Lake Superior surrounds a collection of 21 islands and a sliver of mainland. Kayaking is the prime sport, but swimming should be high on your list. Little Sand Bay and Julian Bay are good options for beaches to get your feet wet. Pack your wetsuits. Summer water temps are 60 to 65 if you’re lucky.
BIKEDeath Valley National Park
The biggest national park in the continental U.S. contains Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. But the home of the (in)famous ultramarathon is suited for bikes. Nearly 800 miles of roads are available for both mountain biking and road cycling. Avoid the summer, though. Temps hit 118 degrees the day I visited.
Grand Teton National Park
Jackson, just south of this mountainous park, has created an ideal stretch of paved, multi-use paths. You can find multiple entry points in town and in the surrounding communities of Moose and Wilson. You’ll ride north to get into the park as you take in views of the jagged range that towers 13,000 feet above the Snake River.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi
A 444-mile ribbon follows a travel route that has been used for thousands of years. The park is underrated in many ways, especially its value for visitors on two wheels. It caters to cyclists with amenities like bicycle-only campgrounds spaced to accommodate riders covering 50 to 60 miles a day.
RUNDelaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor
Mammoth Cave National Park
Come for the caves, stay for the trails. The world’s longest cave system sits underneath a little-talked-about network of trails that zig and zag for more than 80 miles. From easy to rugged, there's something for everyone. You'll venture from ridgetop to river, from sinkholes to springs and from old guide's cemeteries to overlooks.
National Mall and Memorial Parks
District of Columbia
National monuments cluster in ways that allow for all kinds of routes. Stay on the Mall itself for a straight shot through history, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Or veer off to some of the less-crowded areas, like George Mason statue. Wake up early and end your run at Lincoln’s top step for a sunrise you won’t forget.
Yosemite National Park
Parks in the western U.S. provide some of the most jaw-dropping views, but backcountry wilderness doesn’t pair well with running. The likelihood of encountering bears and other large wildlife increases when you’re striding along a trail. However, the Valley Floor Loop in Yosemite gives you 13 miles of relatively flat terrain with lots of entry points.
TOTAL PACKAGESAcadia National Park
This is the place where mountains meet the sea. You’ll find opportunities for the full range of triathlon disciplines in the park that also celebrates its centennial this year. Ride or run the paved roads up Cadillac Mountain, one of the first spots in the nation the sun hits each morning. For a car-free experience, head to the 45 miles of crushed-gravel carriage trails. Then hit Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach. Lifeguards are on duty in the summer, but bring your wetsuit for water temps that struggle to see 60 degrees. Bar Harbor is the place to fuel up after your workout.
Crater Lake National Park
The 33-mile Rim Drive gives you views of the sapphire lake, whether you’re on two feet or two wheels. Plus, since 2013, the park has instituted several car-free days each summer and fall. Starting at the park headquarters and traveling clockwise will put the steepest sections of the road at the start of your workout. Cleetwood Cove is the only legal access to the lake, via a mile of switchbacks down to the cold, deep water. As a bonus, the park is two hours from Bend and some of the best craft beer in the Northwest.
Dustin Renwick is a freelance writer who drove nearly 30,000 miles in five months. Read more about his trip at dustinrenwick.com.