Exploring National Parks By E-Bikes

The bikes took them into grand open spaces, brought them up close to wildlife and became the starter to many engaging conversations with perfect strangers.

Editor’s Note: We pay tribute to Lornet Turnbull, an award-winning journalist who was passionate about the outdoors and shared that love of nature with our readers. She previously wrote about finding healing in hiking following a cancer diagnosis. Lornet died of cancer on January 11, 2023, her 59th birthday. She completed this article in December.

There’s nothing quite like cycling Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, sweeping views of its jagged, snow-capped mountains peaking up all around you. Or riding alongside bison and through prairie dog towns in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Toss in a battery-powered motor for some pedal assist and your biking adventure goes from routine to something quite … transcendent. 

At least that’s how it felt to me as my husband, Steve, and I put our new e-bikes through their paces on our first RV trip across the country: Seattle to Quoddy Head, Maine, and back. We drove through 29 states and cycled more than 400 miles through a dozen national and local parks, through the streets of small towns oozing Americana, over sand dunes and on sandy beaches, on trails of tangled ruts and roots, along a path honoring U.S. presidents and right past a black bear that rose to greet us in Yosemite National Park. 

Bicycling wasn’t supposed to be the centerpiece of these six weeks—but it turned out to be a highlight. Up to this point, I hadn’t visited many national parks outside Washington state, where I live, and this cross-country adventure was my chance to check several more off my list. We wanted to soak up the brilliant fall colors as we motored east. And a year after a cancer diagnosis, I wanted to lose some of the fatigue from chemotherapy treatment and taste some good food once again. The e-bikes helped make all those things more attainable, giving us access to places the 25-foot motor home could not, while adding an element of fun. 

Person resting next to a bike along a scenic road in Glacier National Park
The author next to her e-bike along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of Lornet Turnbull.

We’d given e-bikes a lot of thought before getting them a few months before we took off on the trip. But we didn’t get them only for this journey. From the moment he first read about them, Steve, a longtime mountain biker, was sold on the idea. He liked the e-bike’s promise of Lance Armstrong–like endurance. I was slower to adapt. I thought that adding a wholly unnatural source of energy to a perfectly good bicycle was, well … kinda like cheating.  

During a January visit to New York, we rented a couple of e-bikes to pedal around Central Park. The experience was like walking on one of those movable sidewalks at the airport. I started warming to the idea. When I began chemo treatment, the relentless fatigue made the idea of e-bikes seem more appealing. And then we bought a house that required a healthy climb to reach from any direction. The debate in my head was silenced.  

We wanted electric bikes that could handle not just the hills throughout Seattle, short rides through our neighborhood and routes across the region’s floating bridges but for the occasional rides we took on gravel trails in the mountains.  

Taking a pair of battery-powered bikes on a 9,500-mile journey across America in a borrowed motor home required a fair amount of planning. We’re not RVers; Steve’s brother and his wife had graciously allowed us to use their 25-foot Winnebago View for this trip. We thought a lot about what we’d need and tried to imagine every possible hazard we might encounter along the way. When I joined an online RV group to seek advice, I was shocked by the number of people who suggested we take a gun. We took bear spray and a baseball bat instead—and needed neither. 

We both know our way around a bicycle. Good, basic bike maintenance skills, like knowing how to fix a flat tire or repair a broken chain come in handy if you find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere. In packing a go bag for the bikes, we took no chances, including in it spare tubes, patch kits, a multi-tool, a tire iron, tire pressure gauge and a hand pump. Before getting the e-bikes, we already owned a heavy-duty bike rack more than capable of hauling nearly 100 pounds of bikes. (Tip: Check the bike rack manual to make sure yours can handle the weight of your bike.). 

From our first stop in Glacier National Park to the Grand Teton mountain range, and all through Yosemite and state parks in between, the bikes took us into grand open spaces, brought us up close with wildlife and became the starter to many engaging conversations with perfect strangers.  

On the days we rode, we recharged the batteries at night. And whether we stayed in a campground or a Cracker Barrel parking lot, there was the nightly ritual of tucking the bikes beneath the back slide-out of the RV and locking them up for the night. We always removed the batteries and other attachments before mounting them onto the rack on the motor home. That helped lighten the load of the bikes, but also safeguarded against anything flying off while we were driving. One item we regretted not bringing: covers for the bikes. They would have served us well as we drove through a deluge in Minnesota and encountered bugs and dust, road grime and other elements. 

One frequent question we got asked by curious onlookers: How many miles do you get from a single charge? The answer, of course, depends on many factors such as terrain, the total weight of the bike, what assist mode you’re riding in and how fast you’re riding. It’s important to have a general idea of your battery’s range and to keep track as you cycle, especially when it isn’t so easy to call someone to rescue you. On this trip we learned a hard lesson about all this—and by we I mean Steve. 

On our second day in New Hampshire, after we’d taken a coach ride up Mount Washington, we rode the bikes about 10 miles on a system of trails comprising gnarly roots and packed gravel at the base of the mountain. I needed a break, but Steve wanted to keep going. He decided to cycle the Presidential Rail Trail, a 20-miler that runs between the White Mountains of New Hampshire, many of them named for U.S. presidents. 

The trail took him through a colorful fall landscape, along the Moose River, past waterfalls, grazing horses and deer, and past beaver ponds, where he had a brief encounter with a tail-slapping beaver. 

In fact, pedaling along in full-power mode, Steve became so enthralled that he lost track of time. And about 8 miles into his 12-mile return trip, the bike’s battery ran out of juice. Luckily, the trail was flat and, while it took more effort to propel the nearly 50-pound bike, Steve kept right on pedaling, without electric assist. He made it back exhausted but exhilarated by the ride. He’d certainly do it again—but maybe next time while doing a better job of managing his battery.  

E-Bikes in National Parks                                                                                

As the use of e-bikes became more prolific, the Department of the Interior (which oversees national parks) felt compelled to resolve one lingering and fundamental question: Are these bicycles or are they motorized vehicles? 

To increase recreational opportunities and access to e-bike use on public lands, the federal agency, in 2019, came up with guidance around electric bicycles, defining them as low-speed bicycles with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of fewer than 750 watts (or 1 horsepower). The department also established three classes for e-bikes and directed the National Park Service to provide guidance regarding their use on public lands.  

According to the National Park Service, e-bikes may be allowed on roads, parking areas, administrative roads and trails that are open to traditional bicycles. E-bikes are not allowed where traditional bicycles are prohibited, such as in wilderness areas. Riders should always check specific park rules before planning a visit, including speed limits.  

Ride your e-bike responsibly. Always check the land manager’s current rules on where your e-bike class can ride.

Glacier National Park, Montana  

  • Route: Going-to-the-Sun Road 
  • Distance: 16 miles between Avalanche Campground and the Continental Divide at Logan Pass
  • Website: Bicycling at Glacier

E-bike notes: Bikes and cars share this narrow, winding road that has been described as one of the most scenic in the world. There are no bike lanes or shoulders and no restrictions on the bikes that can use it. For me, Going-to-the-Sun-Road illustrates a key advantage of the e-bike: the idea that no path is too intimidating. You find yourself climbing steeper grades like this more enjoyably than you would on a regular bike. 

Summary: The spectacular views of glaciers, waterfalls and soaring mountains can become a distraction as you climb toward Logan Pass at 6,646 feet. Nine miles from Avalanche Campground, where we started, there’s a 180-degree hairpin turn with a dead-on view of Heavens Peak, an 8,987-foot Instagram darling with permanent snow cover. It’s also a popular stopping point for a potty break. 

Other Tips: We parked the RV near Avalanche Campground on the west side of Logan Pass and cycled eastbound. You can also park on the east side of the pass at St. Mary Visitor Center and cycle west. Regardless of where you park, if you make it to the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet and turn back, the return is one long exhilarating ride downhill.  

If you don’t make it all the way to Logan Pass, don’t despair. I made it only 9 miles of the 16 miles; Steve made it 13. That night, as we brooded over our shortcomings, it occurred to us: We’d been cycling at an altitude of around 4,000 feet, with only a day or so to acclimate (and for me, barely two days out of chemo). And all is not lost.

Cyclists in Grand Teton National Park. Electric bikes are allowed on paved and unpaved roads and the multiuse pathway, but not on trails.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming 

  • Route: South Jenny Lake to Moose, Wyoming  
  • Distance: 7.3 miles 
  • Website: Biking in Teton

E-bike notes:  According to the Grand Teton National Park, biking is allowed on all paved roads in Grand Teton as well as the gravel roads of Two Ocean Lake Trail and Grassy Lake Road. Check regulations for any restrictions on your e-bike. 

Summary: The flat ride to and from Jenny Lake was uncrowded when we visited. Good thing, too, because it is surrounded by such monumental beauty; it was hard to keep our eyes on the road. We cycled past a field of grazing horses and along the way a prairie dog crossed our path, looking for all the world like it had just walked out of a fairy tale.

Where we stayed: We drove from Yellowstone to Grand Teton, stopping at Old Faithful geyser before continuing to Jenny Lake, where we parked the RV. After the ride, and unable to reserve a site at the nearby Headwaters Campground and RV Park, we dry-camped (without RV hookups) in an overflow multiuse lot with plenty of flat, open spaces and away from other vehicles. It was the cheapest night we spent on the entire trip.  

Yosemite National Park, California  

  • Route: Yosemite Valley roads
  • Distance: More than 12 miles of designated paths; bicycles can also ride on roads
  • Website: Biking in Yosemite

E-bike notes: E-bikes are allowed everywhere bicycles are, as long as they have operable pedals and electric motors of less than 750 watts. Biking is prohibited on hiking trails. If you don’t bring your own bicycle, you can rent or borrow one through the park’s free bike-share program (2-hour limit).  

Summary: Your e-bike comes in quite handy in a place like Yosemite, where there’s so much to see and do: the iconic Half Dome, El Capitan (a rock climber’s dream) and Yosemite Falls. Getting from one to another is nearly impossible by car; in fact, some roads are closed to cars and only accessible by bicycle, shuttle or by foot.  

If you have time, check out the Ahwahnee, a historic landmark lodge known for its stunning architecture. It was designed to highlight the icons surrounding it, including the falls and Half Dome, and has been tagged the crown jewel of national park lodges. We tried to have brunch there but missed it by a few minutes.  

Where we stayed: After more than 35 days on the road, we treated ourselves to a hotel stay at our final park. We were lucky to score a room with a dynamic view at Yosemite Valley Lodge, which is usually booked a year in advance. We parked the RV and loaded the bikes inside, something we did each time we got hotel rooms. If you’re tent camping, plan and book early because the campsites go quickly.

1 Comment