As a boy I was fortunate enough to have a family that enjoyed camping and hiking, so we spent countless weekends wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. It was during that time that I gained a love for the outdoors, but it wasn’t until I rediscovered the mountains in my 20s that I gained a true appreciation for mountains that our predecessors had the foresight to set aside as protected land. And so began my love of the National Parks, a subset of protected lands meant to ensure some of the best natural wonders in our country are preserved for future generations.
Over the past several years my mother has put forth the goal of visiting all of America’s National Parks during her retirement, which got me inspired to start doing the same thing. The neat thing about America’s National Park system is they do not just preserve one type of natural wonder, but encompass a great diversity of terrain; from mountains to meadows, wildlife refuges, swamps, canyons, rivers, caves, volcanoes, spectacular rock formations, massive glaciers, towering forests and expansive deserts. This is what is so intriguing about the National Parks, the diversity of landscapes and uniqueness that sets many of the parks apart. So I’ve hatched a plan to outline and execute ultra distance runs in all (or as many as possible) of the National Parks. The purpose is to try and see some of the amazing sights each of these parks have to offer deep within their boundaries, but to do so in one incredible day. Often visits to the National Parks simply encompass a short driving tour with several stops at paved lookouts, but I think that misses what makes most of these parks so wonderful.
Cruising up the trail out of the Virgin River in the middle of the Zion Traverse (May 2009)
Looking down the South Kaibab trail across the Grand Canyon during a R2R2R run (Oct 2010).
Pausing atop El Capitan to take in the Yosemite Valley during a 64mile circumnavigation of the Valley rim (July 2015).
So far I’m only four parks into this long term project, but am excited for the prospects of where it might take me in future years (many years). Surprisingly I’ve already mapped out ultra distance routes in 50 of the 58 National Parks, more than I’d expected was possible. Some of these routes follow classic lines such as the Bryce Canyon’s Under the Rim Trail while many others are creations of my own design, with assistance from locals of course. So far my completion list includes the Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim, Zion Traverse (W->E), Yosemite Valley Rim Circumnavigation, and the Grand Teton Circumnavigation that I completed this past Monday. All have been fantastic adventures and full of amazing scenery deep within the backcountry of each park. The goal is not to set an FKT (unless it’s a First Known Time), but to enjoy and experience each park in a very unique way.
Sunset on the Tetons with a little smoke hanging in the air 9/11/16.
This past week I made a quick foray up to Grand Teton National Park for a run of the Grand Teton circumnavigation. I started from the Lupine Meadows TH just before sunrise in a dense cloud of smoke from the Berry Fire that had flared up the day before. As I ran south along the valley trail toward Death Canyon the smoke obscured views of the Tetons looming overhead. Suddenly a loud crash echoed out of the forest ahead and I saw a black bear come storming across the trail in front of me, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. Five minutes later another explosion in the forest and a massive bull elk came bounding through the woods. The sun finally rose through the smoke as I started my way into Death Canyon, its massive walls towering overhead as I finally descended deep into the park. After a short jog up Death Canyon I hung a right onto the Alaska Basin trail and began the long uphill grind. The fall colors were lighting up the underbrush; yellows, oranges and reds. When I finally topped out on the Static Divide I was treated to fantastic views down into Death Canyon and back down toward a smokey Jackson Hole. The air up high was clearing out and as I ran the high traverse across upper Alaska Basin, views into the Teton backcountry were quite expansive.
Smokey morning light on the Tetons over Taggert Lake, 9/12/16.
The Alaska Basin Trail as it climbs out of Death Canyon, 9/12/16.
Looking back into Alaska Basin and at Sunset Lake, 9/12/16.
After a short climb to Hurricane Pass I was finally treated to an in your face view of the Tetons, shrouded in clouds. The receding Schoolroom Glacier and its mint green moraine lake to the right, the depths of Cascade Canyon far below. This one moment is what makes this route so magical. I then descended the trail back into Cascade Canyon, opting to run the shorter loop that would take me out the mouth of Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake. Cascade Canyon, with its 3000ft high walls towering overhead and its gently cascading creek filling the valley with the sounds of moving water was a very pleasant way to finish the loop. As I neared Jenny Lake I slowly picked up more and more on coming traffic, though being September things had somewhat quieted down. The final few miles around Jenny Lake were fairly mellow and I was definitely pretty beat. With less than a ½ mile to the car I paused in a clearing and glanced over to see a moose munching away in the tall grass 100m away. This is what makes the National Parks so spectacular, not just mountains, lakes and trails, but the preservation of the natural flora and fauna as well.
View of the Tetons from Hurricane Pass with Schoolhouse Glacier to the right and Cascade Canyon to the left, 9/12/16.
Upper Reaches of Cascade Canyon with towering peaks overhead, 9/12/16.
My loop of Death Canyon, Alaska Basin, and out Cascade Canyon had covered 34miles and 7400ft of vertical gain/loss, in 8hours 45minutes, not super fast, but a beautiful day out with lots of photos taken. For the more ambitious, one can add on the Death Canyon shelf trail (+4.7miles) and/or the Paintbrush Divide (+10.2miles, +3000ft) making for up to a 50mile loop. Any and all variations give you a spectacular look into what makes Grand Teton NP so magnificent. Sadly I wasn’t able to tackle my Yellowstone National Park run as the Berry Fire had closed the connecting highway, for another day I guess. This was my last big foray into the Rockies before leaving the country for 5-6months. Special thanks to Vfuel for supporting all my fun habits and the Pro-Leisure Tour (PLT) for giving me the time to wander the mountains and the world. Happy trails, until next time.