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Cycling: A Great Way to Experience Our National Parks

Have you ever biked in a national park?

Most of us who visit our national parks drive to the famous viewpoints, get out of our cars and take a few pictures before moving on to the next photo stop. Driving from 30-55 mph, we whiz by the scenery, rarely taking the time to fully absorb the beauty and tranquility of the surrounding landscape.

But, as my REI Adventures colleague Maureen recently discovered, road biking offers a great alternative to enjoy our national parks. Sightseeing from the saddle of a bike allows one to appreciate the landscape in a much more immersive and satisfying way. Winding roads and rolling terrain seem more exciting from a bike. A challenging pedal through the park to its high points is rewarded with spectacular views and an equally thrilling descent.

Recently, Maureen had the opportunity to join REI Adventures’ Death Valley Cycling trip in California. Along with 10 other cyclists, she spent three days spinning through the largest national park in the lower 48. Here’s her account of the experience:

Day 1: We began our journey at Scotty’s Castle, a historic mansion that offers a window into what life was like in this region during the 1920s and 30s. The mansion is located at the far northern end of the park in the green oasis of Grapevine Canyon. From there we had a fun descent dropping into the stark Mojave Desert scenery for which the park is famous. Riding the undulating terrain on Scotty’s Castle road, the multihued Grapevine Mountain range rose high to the east and the Panamint Range high to the west. The valley itself was filled with golden sand dunes, creosote bush, and the yellows, whites, and purples of spring wildflowers. We finished our ride at the Stovepipe Wells Hotel, our home for the next two nights. The historic hotel was built in 1925 along a scenic toll road through Death Valley which marked the beginning of the valley’s change from a mining community to a tourist destination.

Day 2: With the wind at our back, we began our ride from the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level). From the Badwater salt flats, which cover 200 square miles of the valley floor, we made our way to Furnace Creek, home to the national park headquarters and visitor center, via the multihued hills of Artist’s Palette drive (the name Artist’s Palette come from the mineral pigments that have colored the hills and mountains of Death Valley various shades of red, pink, yellow, green and purple). The rolling and winding road through the volcanic hills made for a spectacular ride!

Late that same afternoon, we were all excited to take a hike through the graceful Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Three unique types of dunes – categorized by their shape – are present with the tallest dune topping out at nearly one hundred feet high. Walking and running barefoot through the crescent, linear, and star-shaped dunes was a blast! The cool soft sand seeping through my toes made me feel like a child again. As the sun set to the west, brilliant pastel colors emerged from the dunes and the contrasting ripples and shadows created striking patterns across the sandscape.

Day 3: Our last day’s ride took us on a challenging climb, over 2000’ in 5 miles, to the top of Dante’s Peak (5,475’) where we were awed by a panoramic view over the entire southern basin of Death Valley. The ride was uphill the entire way and with an average grade of nearly 7% (max 10%), there was quite a sense of accomplishment upon reaching the top! (Those not so keen on big climbs could hop in the support vehicle whenever they wanted.) Peering directly below, we saw Badwater Basin, our starting point on yesterday’s ride. Directly across the valley was the highest point in the park, snow-covered Telescope Peak (11,043’). On a very clear day, one can see from the lowest point in the lower 48 to the highest point, Mt. Whitney (14,505’) located about 85 miles to the northwest as the crow flies. Our descent from Dante’s peak was fast and furious, dropping over 3300’ in 13 miles to reach highway 190, our route back to Las Vegas (via private vehicle).

I’ve always loved to cycle when I travel to places that aren’t necessarily ideal for hiking but have lovely landscapes nonetheless such as Napa and Sonoma Valley in California or the Alentejo and Andalusia regions of Portugal and Spain. Before my trip to Death Valley I hadn’t thought of biking in a national park as a primary way to visit but now I realize it’s an awesome complement to hiking for exploring our most treasured landscapes. 

We’d love to hear about your national park cycling trips!

 Below: Stark scenery and remarkably smooth roads make for awesome riding.

Death Valley cycling: great roads

Below: On the trip we ride from 282 feet below sea level to nearly 5500 feet high. Death Valley is not flat! 

Death Valley cycling: sea level sign

 Below: At Badwater Basin salt flats (282 feet below sea level), the lowest point in North America. The highest point in the park, Telescope Peak (11,403'), rises in the distance.

Death Valley cycling: Badwater

  Below: Riding the undulating terrain of Scotty's Castle Road. The Grapevine Mountains rise to the east.

Death Valley cycling: near Scotty's Castle

Below: Hiking the wind-sculpted Mesquite Sand Dunes; the tallest one rises 100 feet.

Death Valley cycling: Mesquite Dunes

Below: Happy riders at the top of Dante's Peak (5475'). Death Valley is not always hot and sunny.

Death Valley cycling: group shot

 Click below to see a video of an REI Adventures cycling group gliding through Utah’s Zion National Park

Photo below: Riding multihued hills of Artist Palette Drive, Death Valley National Park.

Posted on at 1:04 PM

Tagged: Cycling, REI Adventures, Travel, Weekend Getaways, death valley and national parks

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I have indeed biked through a national park! Last summer I rode the C&O Canal National Historical Park from end to end, 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland (and then onwards to Pittsburgh, but the Great Allegheny Passage isn't under NPS management yet). I also took two detours, to Harpers Ferry (another NHP) and Antietam National Battlefield. It was fantastic, though the 150+ year-old canal towpath was in less smooth condition than the California blacktop seen here.

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2 years ago we took our mountain bikes along to Grand Teton & Yellowstone National Parks. The paved path in Grand Teton from Moose Junction to Jenny Lake is a spectacular ride, and from what I hear they are going to extend it. There are also many dirt roads that make for good rides in both parks. Bunsen Peak road in Yellowstone is a challenging climb to the lookout. We frequently road our bikes on the back roads to access trail heads for hiking-double the fun!


Mike and I have used cycling as our primary source of travel through our National Parks for over 20 years now. Once we arrive at a National Park and set up camp, we have always cycled to see the sights and often to get to trailheads. Cycling in National Parks has so many advantages. Even if there is car traffic from many visitors, we have always found the cars travel slowly and with curtesy. They have come to admire the scenery too. There are certainly no big speeding trucks to worry about. There are often many roads with no traffic at all. When riding our bikes, we tend to stop at all the points of interest and learn so much more about the area. It's so easy to take your favorite photo as you don't have to find a spot to pull over. We have often seen wildlife crossing or near the road as we travel silently. We will NEVER forget a huge grizzly bear crossing the road in Glacier National Park.


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