The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Cycling the National Parks

Cyclists in Yellowstone National ParkA view of cyclists on a road in Yellowstone National Park
Courtesy Trek Travel

Learn how to undertake one of the most rewarding experiences our parks have to offer - on two tires!

America’s national parkland is certainly no secret - more than 330 million people visited National Park Service sites last year, typically entering the park in a car, SUV, or camper, and spending their days driving to marquee attractions like Old Faithful, the giant redwoods, and the Continental Divide, and hiking the glorious trails.

But there is another way to navigate a national park: Cycling. The benefits include a healthy workout each time you hit the road, no worries about parking your car at, say, a tourist-packed waterfall or hot spring, and virtually 360 views everywhere you go. Sure, cycling always requires a little prep and know-how, and for that we turned to Grace Heimsness, a bike tour guide for Trek Travel with some important questions.

BT: What should cyclists know before traveling to a national park?

Grace Heimsness: Definitely study up on the typical weather for the time of year in which you'll be traveling so that you can pack and dress accordingly. Layers are a must in almost all parks, as is good footwear! Keep in mind that many parks close certain areas and trails seasonally. You can look these up on the park website in advance. This will give you an idea of where you'll be hiking ahead of time, and make sure you pack enough food, water, sunscreen, and clothing for the adventure. Don’t forget to study up on park rules! Three important ones are to pack out what you packed in, leave no trace, and keep your Clif bars to yourself (and let the wildlife take care of its own lunch!).

BT: When is the best time for cyclists to travel to national parks?

GH: It depends on the park, but summer is a great time. Early spring and late fall tend are also great, as the parks tend to be less busy. Keep in mind, however, that some areas of the park might be closed in the colder months. April-May and late October-November are my favorite times to visit.

BT: What is a good national park for a cycling beginner?

GH: The west side of Zion National Park is a great place for those who are just getting into cycling. While the road on the east side of the park--with tight corners, lots of traffic, and more punchy climbs--might be better for more seasoned cyclists, Zion Canyon Road is ideal for beginners and veterans alike. The road is closed to all traffic except park shuttles, and the gentle climb up to the Narrows is approachable for most fitness levels. Cycling in the shadows of stone giants like the Court of the Patriarchs and Angel's Landing provides an incredible opportunity to connect with the park on a profound level.

BT: What is a great national park for a more advanced cyclist?

GH: Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is an excellent choice. Going around the rim provides an excellent 360-degree experience of the park, and the frequent climbs and descents make for a challenging and rewarding conquest. Keep in mind that early in the season, half of Rim Road is typically closed due to snow.

BT: Any other favorite national parks for cyclists?

GH: Grand Tetons National Park has a fantastic bike path system, and the views of the Tetons from the valley are unbeatable.

BT: What essentials should cyclists pack with them in order to make the most of their ride through a national park?

GH: Make sure to bring your cell phone, layers, snacks, plenty of water, tools and parts for minor repairs, and a map of the park. Bring a pair of walking shoes if you plan to take a hike mid-ride. And always ride with both front and rear lights - the more visible you are to other vehicles, the better.

BT: Do you have any tips on how to stay hydrated and fueled for a bike ride through a national park?

GH: As a bike tour guide, my mantra is: Eat before you're hungry; drink before you're thirsty. A good rule of thumb is to drink one bottle of water per hour and one snack every 90 minutes or so.

BT: Are there any other important tips or advice that you want to share with cyclists?

GH: Wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Smile, wave, and play nice with other visitors. Lastly, respect your public land! We are fortunate to be surrounded by so much beauty, and it's our responsibility to take care of the planet that provides for us.

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