In early 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the act that designated Yellowstone as the first-ever national park, it would set a precedent of setting aside some of the nation's most spectacular and prized lands for the American people. The idea, in this one case, was to protect the Yellowstone area's singular geothermal features. But it was also, as noted by outspoken park advocate Ferdinand V. Hayden, to be "a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
We imagine that in his staid, Victorian frame of mind Hayden imagined society ladies and gents picnicking next to Old Faithful in the height of summer and, on occasion, venturing up some rugged trail in petticoats and frocks for a long view over the Lamar Valley or Yellowstone Lake. But could he have imagined today's hardy cross-country skiers who venture deep into the park's snow-covered backcountry, braving sub-zero nights for a rare, crowd-free peek at this winter wonderland?
Or, for that matter, that runners would be jogging up the 1,000-foot prominence of Grand Teton's Signal Mountain? Or that bikers would be huffing and puffing over the Continental Divide inside Glacier National Park? We're putting our money on no. But whether it was the founders' intention or not, the national parks have become a symbol of wilderness recreation and sporting perfection.
What's more, the U.S. National Park System has grown tremendously since the start, to include hundreds of protected areas that span more than 84 million acres. From the ancient goliath Redwoods and sequoias of the West coast, to the majestic blue mountains of Wyoming, to the awe-inspiring lake country along Minnesota's northern border, the nation's most fragile and unique ecosystems stand undisturbed-well, almost.
Today, most of these parks strive to strike a delicate balance between development and preservation: hiking, biking and skiing trails have been carefully carved through woods and over mountains, paved roads offer runners and cyclists (oh, right, and motorists) access to hard-to-reach corners of theses sprawling wildernesses and well camouflaged handholds allow climbers to scale thousands of feet up sheer granite cliffs. These are America's pristine playgrounds, open to all for skiing, paddling, mountaineering, running, hiking, rock climbing and biking.
We've done the job of scouting all the parks (seriously, just take a look at our National Parks Ranking, if you don't believe us) to find which ones are best for each of your favorite outdoor sports. From the empty hiking trails of North Cascades National Park to the frothing whitewater rapids at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, here are 14 national parks that were practically made for sports adventures!
Canoeing-Voyageurs National Park
Why: This series of interconnected waterways that flow north into the arctic watershed of Hudson's Bay together make up a majestic collage of land and water. Today's canoeists follow in the paddlestrokes of the voyageurs, French trappers who once thrived on the region's fur trade. Ambitious stargazers can float out into any of the park's lakes at night for 180º views of the Milky Way and, on occasion, the ghostly dancing of the Northern Lights. More Info
Runner-up: Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Take your pick of the Colorado and Green rivers when you paddle through the serenity of southern Utah's canyon country. Just be sure not to paddle into Cataract Canyon, or you'll find yourself in over your head (literally) in churning, Class V rapids. More Info
Backpacking-Rocky Mountain National Park
Why: Here you can take a swing at Rocky Mountain's "Grand Slam," a two-day trek across the Mummy Range. The two-day journey crosses 18 miles of alpine tundra, tagging nine 11,500-plus-foot summits along the way. Get an elevation head start at Chapin Creek (10,640 feet), and camp at Lawn Lake to prep for day two. Remember to follow hardened surfaces and trails left by bighorn sheep or fellow summit-baggers, being careful not to crush the fragile tundra plant life. More Info
Runner-up: Olympic National Park, Washington
For a longer stay beneath the open sky, try the two-week, 93-mile Wonderland Trail that loops beneath Mt.Rainier's summit, taking in conifer forests, alpine ridges, rushing rivers and rolling wildflower meadows. More Info
Climbing-Yosemite National Park
Why: Yosemite Valley's towering granite cliffs are practically the birthplace of modern rock climbing. And it's no wonder, given the surplus of inspirational, challenging (most are rated 5.8 or harder) rock lines. Several multi-pitch classics, like the Nose of El Capitan and the Steck Salathé, reach 1,000-plus-feet into the clear Sierra skies. More Info
Runner-Up: Joshua Tree National Park, California
For thrills a little closer to terra firma, boulder-crawlers should visit the monzogranite-that's a grippy volcanic rock-mecca of the West, which offers more than 8,000 climbing routes. More Info