The 5 Best National Parks for Gravel Grinding

Photo: NPS

Here are five stunning national parks that are gravel-grinding playgrounds.

While most of the sinuous singletrack that resides inside our beautiful national parks is off limits to mountain bikers, the rise of gravel-ready adventure bikes has opened up a whole new under-appreciated resource in the park system: lonely, scenic gravel roads. While many of the paved thoroughfares inside our parks can be jam-packed with RVs and scenic cruisers, these gravel roads that traverse a park’s backcountry often go forgotten. That’s a good thing for you and your perfectly capable adventure bike. Here are five stunning national parks that are gravel-grinding playgrounds. 

1. Acadia National Park - Maine

Acadia is famous for its dramatic coastline, but on the interior of the park, there’s a 45-mile-long system of historic carriage roads established by John D. Rockefeller Jr., that traverse the valleys and mountains. Rockefeller created the road system to explore his estate by horse. And though you’ll still share some of the paths with equestrians, cars aren’t allowed, so you can take in the grandeur of the landscape in peace. Expect 16-foot-wide crushed stone roads lined with uneven granite blocks dubbed “Rockefeller’s teeth.” Bridges will take you over streams as the roads cruise by cliffs, waterfalls, and sporadic long-range views of the interior of the park. You can create a variety of loops that encircle Eagle Lake as well as some of the smaller ponds in the park, allowing you to pick mileage that’s suitable for families or hardened adventurers.

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2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park - Ohio 

Cuyahoga Valley is one of the few national parks that has purpose-built singletrack for mountain bikers, but the real two-wheeled gem in this 33,000-acre park that preserves a slice of Ohio’s former wilderness and cultural heritage is the 20-mile-long, crushed limestone Towpath Trail along the Ohio and Erie Canal. The canal helped open the wilderness of Ohio to the eastern U.S., when it was finished in 1832, but now serves as an artery for exploration. A handful of trailheads along the trail make shorter trips possible and also give you the chance to hop off the trail into small, historic towns—meaning, the path is particularly family-friendly. The towpath also connects the national park to the Cleveland Metroparks system, providing the opportunity for longer rides. You’ll travel along the Cuyahoga River, aka “the crooked river,” over protected wetlands and past historic locks, with little to no elevation gain. You can also use the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which runs through the park, as a shuttle if you don’t want to ride an out-and-back—just wave down the train at various stations and hop on board with your bike.

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3. Big Bend National Park - Texas 

Big Bend is wild and remote, protecting 800,000 acres of desert and lofty mountains as well as the Rio Grande and its towering system of canyons in the far southwestern corner of Texas. And adventure cyclists take note: Not only is there virtually no traffic inside the park, but unpaved roads outnumber the paved roads. There are 160 miles of dirt roads to pedal, traversing the desert and 8,000-foot-tall Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is no place for beginners: The weather and landscape are extreme, the unpaved roads are rough, and the climbs are legitimate. But for a seasoned gravel grinder, Big Bend offers a traffic-free, remote adventure through terrain that’s full of both subtle and dramatic beauty. Check out the 13-mile-long Old Maverick Road, which skirts around the edge of the Chisos and ends at the dramatic Santa Elena Canyon, for a taste of the dynamic nature the park has to offer. You’ll need to ride some pavement and put in long miles if you’re looking to do loop rides, but hire a shuttle and you can knock out some magnificent point-to-point adventures. Be prepared for triple-degree heat if you’re visiting in the summer, and do your riding early in the morning if you can. Oh, and be prepared to wait out the occasional sandstorm.

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4. Joshua Tree National Park - California 

Joshua Tree protects 790,000 acres of cactus, sand, clusters of monstrous boulders and the unique trees that the park is named after. Rock climbing is the probably king activity here, but gravel riding could make a run at the title thanks to the 100 miles of dusty dirt roads that traverse the park. The riding can be difficult, with unimproved 4x4 terrain and long, steep climbs, but the lack of traffic and otherworldly scenery earn this park on any gravel grinder’s bucket list. Multi-day trips (or masochistically long, single-day adventures) are your best bet, staging big rides out of the small border towns of Indio or Twentynine Palms. If you’re looking for less mileage and easier terrain, the Covington Flat area of the park has good out-and-back options passing some of the largest Joshua trees in the park. There’s also a 13-mile network of dirt roads through Queen Valley where you can ride and hike through large nests of boulders and Joshua trees. All campsites require advanced reservations through (Ryan Campground has a few sites saved specifically for cyclists). And keep in mind there’s no reliable water sources in Joshua Tree’s backcountry, so you’ll need to carry your water with you.

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5. Canyonlands National Park - Utah 

Canyonlands might be the most appropriately named national park in the system, preserving 257,640 acres of deep, sinuous canyons throughout the red-rocked landscape of southeastern Utah. The park is a maze of cliffs and rock towers punctuated by Native American rock paintings and historic cliff dwellings; the bike is arguably the best way to experience it, thanks to the White Rim Road, which forms a 100-mile loop of unimproved 4x4 roads through the heart of the Island of the Sky district. The riding isn’t technical (a well-equipped gravel bike with wide tires will suffice), but it is considered difficult because of the isolation and occasional punchy climb. It’s a multi-day trip with campsites scattered throughout, so bring your bikepacking gear and make sure you have the requisite permits to camp.

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All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.