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!