Planning a Ride in a National Park? Here’s What You Need to Know

Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling From Bicycling For many cyclists, there are few things better

Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling
Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling

From Bicycling

For many cyclists, there are few things better than long and winding roads, minimal car traffic at low speed limits, and incredible views of nature. And at many U.S. national parks, this is just the case.

After closing in response to the coronavirus outbreak, most national parks have reopened to the public, with several safety precautions in place. And one way that people are especially encouraged to enjoy the parks right now is to do it on bike.

Cynthia Hernandez, the public affairs specialist at the U.S. National Park Service Office of Public Affairs, says that some national parks, like Yosemite in California and Acadia in Maine, are very popular among cyclists. But there’s plenty of great biking to be had at lesser-known parks as well—Hernandez suggests checking out Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Mojave National Preserve in California, and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

There are a few basic rules and etiquettes to follow in order to make the most of the roads, trails, and scenery. Before you go to any national park, be sure to check government websites so that you’re informed on the updated coronavirus-related restrictions and protocol. The National Park Service (NPS) encourages all visitors to follow the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and follow Leave No Trace principles. Visitors are encouraged to recreate with the people in their household, and give others plenty of room whether they are on a trail, at a boat launch, or in a parking lot.

Here are a few additional resources to take into consideration when planning a trip:

The NPS also has an excellent online resource about biking in national parks, including a comprehensive list of parks that allow bikes, and one that is broken into road biking and mountain biking.

Once you’ve checked park procedures, there are some general tips to keep in mind when biking in national parks.

Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling
Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling

Map It Out

Know where you’re going and what you’re getting into. National park maps are available at park entrances and visitor centers, and park rangers are happy to point you in the right direction. There’s a big difference between spinning around from scenic lookout points at the bottom of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and climbing Trail Ridge Road, which tops out at 12,090 feet. Also, know where the best water, refueling, and restroom stops will be. And be sure to carry a paper map with you, in case your devices fail or you don’t have GPS service.

Time It Right

If you are going to do a big climb, figure out about how long it will take you and plan accordingly. Check with area bike shops to ask how long different rides will take, and when the best time is to go. Don’t start something huge if it’s going leave you totally exposed at the hottest part of the day; and likewise, don’t start too late if you’re not prepared to ride past sunset.

Check the Weather

Weather can change rapidly in many parks; what looks like a brilliant, calm day, can turn into major storms without much notice. National Park websites have updated weather information, webcams, and information about typical weather patterns. If you’re climbing Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, be sure to look at predictions for the top, not just what it’s like at the base of the mountains. If it tends to rain in the afternoon, or get extremely windy, be aware of that.

Pack Light, But Pack Right

The NPS has an updated list of essentials that everyone should consider, depending on the type and length of their trip. With rapidly changing conditions, it can be tempting to pack everything, but be smart about layering. A thin vest, an easily packable rain jacket, and good gloves can go a long way. Be sure that you’ve got front and rear lights, sunglasses, sunscreen, and plenty of nutrition and water. It’s also a good idea to pack an emergency communication device, such as Garmin’s inReach, which can alert search and rescue to your location even without a cell phone signal.

Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling
Photo credit: Courtesy Micah Ling

Hydrate

If you’ve been traveling a lot, or if you’re at elevation, remember to drink water often. If you’ll be riding for several hours without access to refueling options, but will be close to streams or fresh flowing water, it’s a good idea to take purifying tablets or a water filter. Just be sure to read the directions before you set out, and plan ahead. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to start thinking about refilling bottles.

Know the Rules

Educate yourself on where bikes are allowed, and where they are not. Obey the rules of the road, and pay attention to vehicle traffic, as well as pedestrian traffic. Some national parks allow e-bikes in some areas, and mountain bikes on certain trails. Check with the park you’re visiting for updated details on where mountain bikes and e-bikes are permitted.

Avoid the Rush

Many parks are now requiring reservations to enter, in order to keep tabs on and limit the number of visitors throughout the day. Although cyclists and pedestrians are often exempt from reservation requirements, it’s still good to be aware of the busiest times of the day, and avoid them.

Many parks also open roads at the beginning and end of the summer season to bikes only. Though the windows are short, these weeks are phenomenal opportunities for cyclists to truly have the roads to themselves.

Consider a Dawn or Dusk Ride

There’s nothing like biking through a national park pre-dawn, and getting to an overlook for sunrise. Even on the busiest days of the summer and fall, most park roads are empty before 7 a.m. And some people even venture out in the moonlit hours, not only avoiding the crowds, but also the heat. With the right lights, and necessary caution, nighttime and early-morning riding in national parks is a special treat.

Respect the Wildlife

National Parks are home to many different animals. If there’s a chance that you might encounter a bear, moose, bison, or mountain lion, know how to react. If you’ve never been mountain biking in rattlesnake territory, read up on what to do in case of a bite. Know your surroundings so that you don’t put yourself, or the animals, in danger.

Be Aware of Others

Wear a face mask and abide by social distancing measures when around others, especially at lookouts, photo ops, restrooms, visitor centers, ranger stations, and park entries. Also, be sure to pay the gate fees, even when entering on bike. These fees go to maintaining and preserving the park so that everyone can enjoy it.

This is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly. This story will be updated as new information becomes available.

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