Check out some of these well-known challenges that runners take on in our national parks.
Toby Guillette has long been a fan of Joshua Tree National Park, having camped, hiked and rock climbed there for close to a decade. As he became more and more familiar with the land—exploring, studying maps and researching online—he realized that there was an epic trail running adventure waiting for him and his friends to explore.
Guillette was ready for something new anyway—he had finished 100-mile ultramarathons, road races of every distance and Ironman triathlons. His adventurous spirit needed more, and he soon realized that Joshua Tree had what he was looking for.
It took him and five of his friends more than a year to plan, accounting for everything that might go wrong in the unforgiving desert terrain. With the logistics in place, the six of them used the California Riding and Hiking Trail and did a 37.3-mile traverse of Joshua Tree. They finished in 7:49.
“There’s a section in the first half that we discovered on our first run there,” he describes. “It’s a long, narrow ridgeline like the backbone of a giant sleeping animal that slowly snakes downward as far as the eye can see.
“When our group stood together at the top of that section and took in the view below, the wind kicked up and we all dropped in for one of the most perfect sections of trail I’ve ever run. Words will never do it justice.”
More and more runners are discovering that America’s national parks hold running adventures that are hard to top. Unofficial records of the more well-known challenges are passed around online (known as FKTs, or fastest known times—there’s even an online community that keeps track). New ones, like the Joshua Tree Traverse, are drawn up every year.
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Runners find that these challenges test their limits, but more importantly, these challenges reenergize their spirit. The national parks are considered some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country and only the adventure runners have seen so much of them in so little time.
“Running across a national park is a very intimate way to experience the biggest, highest and deepest sights in our country,” said Guillette, who lives in San Diego.
These adventures are everywhere, from the breathtaking terrain of the west to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the famed Appalachian Trail in the east. Here are some of the more well-known challenges that runners take on in our national parks.
Ultrarunners gush about this run in Zion National Park in southern Utah. The 48-mile trek with 10,000 feet of elevation gain connects several trails in the park and is often done both east-to-west or west-to-east. The scenery of canyons, cliffs, flowers, trees and more make this route a must-do for ultrarunners. The FKT, according to the Fastest Known Time community, is 7:22:08, done by Mike Foote and Justin Yates going east to west in 2013. Photo: Toby Guillette
Conceptualized in 2008 by Matt Hart, this route circles the Teton Range of Wyoming at Grand Tetons National Park, going about 33 miles with 8,100 feet of elevation gain. The scenery is unmatched—if you run it counter-clockwise, the west slopes of the Tetons suddenly reveal themselves at Hurricane Pass and it is something you’ll never forget. Asked why he was inspired to draw up this challenge, Hart said, “I just think every mountain range with amazing trails should have an ultrarunning test piece that we can all go hammer and see who’s fastest.” Hart, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., first ran it for speed in the summer of 2008 and finished in 6:29. Once word got out about the amazing route, the FKT got lower and lower. It now belongs to Evan Honeyfield, who ran it in 5:34:31. “I was somewhat fast, but I knew people could run it even faster,” Hart says. “That is exactly what happened.” Photo: Matt Hart
Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
Easily the most well-known running adventure in the national parks, this challenge typically entails starting on top of the South Rim, going down into the canyon, climbing up to the top of the North Rim, then going back to where you started. It’s about 42 miles round-trip, going down either the South Kaibab or Bright Angels Trails to the bottom, and up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. Rob Krar, one of the best ultrarunners out there, finished the run in a blazing 6:21:47 in 2012 and has the FKT. He also has the FKT of the rim-to-rim run, going from the North Rim to the South Rim (about 21 miles) in 2:51:28. This run has gotten so popular that the National Park Service was forced to regulate it and issue special use permits for organized adventures. But the appeal of this challenge will surely continue. “One of the seven natural wonders of our world,” says Guillette. “There’s something universally colossal about it, especially when looking north from the South Rim.”
Smokies Challenge Adventure Run
This run stays on the famed Appalachian Trail for 72 miles, spanning from the southwest corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in North Carolina) to the northeast corner of the park (on the Tenneessee-North Carolina border). The run has been done many times, but the FKT was done by David Worth in 2011. The ultrarunner and Great Smokies park ranger completed the distance in 14:50:22, going south to north. “It’s one of the most scenic trails in the country,” he told the Knoxville News. “I’d like to run it again, but next time, I’ll leave my watch at home.” The SCAR only covers a tiny portion of the Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. But it’s a tough stretch--the highest point on the entire trail is within this 72-mile challenge—at Clingmans Dome, 6,643 feet above sea level.
Joshua Tree Traverse
One of the newer national park adventures out there, this route explores the desert park in Southern California along the 37.3-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail. Runners get to run in remote desert wilderness, alongside rock formations and through the famed Joshua tree forests that are found only in America’s southwest. Guillette and his crew believe they are the first to make this trek in a single day, finishing the route in 2012 in a time of 7:49 (not so much a FKT, Guillette says, but rather an “only known time”). It has been done by other groups since, typically starting on the west side of the park at the Black Rock campground and finishing at the North Trailhead near Twentynine Palms. Photo: Toby Guillette
Perhaps the most difficult challenge on the list, this run is on a 95-mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park. The route has more than 22,000 feet of elevation gain, with the highest point more than 6,700 feet above sea level. Due to the weather, there’s just a small window in the summertime to do it. While hikers typically take about two weeks to complete the loop, the record for fastest finish was done by Kyle Skaggs in 2006. He did it in 20 hours and 53 minutes.
High Sierra Trail
Starting in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California, underneath 250-foot-tall sequoia trees, the High Sierra Trail winds east toward the spine of the Sierra Nevadas, passing through the Great Western Divide and officially finishing at the John Muir Trail about 49 miles away. From there, many will join the JMT for 12 additional miles to the top of Mount Whitney, the 14,505-foot mountain that’s the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and finish at the Whitney Portal in Inyo National Forest. The adventure’s grand total is 72 miles with extreme elevation change. According to the Fastest Known Time community, Leor Pantilat has done this 72-mile trek the fastest, finishing in 15:46 going east to west.
Longs Peak Summit
The centerpiece of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Cables Route starts at the trailhead at 9,450 feet above sea level and goes 4.5 miles straight up to the summit of Longs Peak at 14,255 feet. A round-trip on this trail is about 9 miles, and the FKT was done by Andy Anderson in 2012 in a time of 1:56:48 (1:14:08 up, 42:40 down). Anderson broke his own record that day, but before Anderson, the FKT was set all the way back in 1979 by Chris Reveley, who finished in 2:04:27.