Marathoner Sets Out to Run All of America’s National Parks

Autumn Ray’s goal: 59 national parks before she turns 40 in four years

Arches
Arches National Park Autumn Ray

Autumn Ray trained for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials for six long years. Her goal: a Women’s “A” standard time of 2:37:00. But on a hot, dry February morning in Los Angeles, she realized her target was too ambitious when she missed it by 14 minutes. What next, she wondered?

This spring, Ray will answer her own question with an even bigger goal—one of the biggest challenges of her running career. Over the next four years, she will run all 59 national parks in the United States before she turns 40.

Like her new national parks adventure, the story of Ray’s challenge is best traced on a map. It starts in Libby, Montana, where she grew up. Ray regularly ran through her hometown—big sky country—in view of Glacier National Park. She kept running in college at Seattle University and while pursuing her M.D. at the University of Texas.

When she finished her residency and secured a job as an emergency medicine physician in Tucson, Arizona, she purchased a treadmill and ran on that. Whenever she had the chance, though, she would run outside—and when she had the time, she ran in national parks, speeding through the famous rim-to-rim stretch of the Grand Canyon and trekking through the more remote trails of Zion National Park to catch stunning views of its sandstone peaks.

Marathoner Sets Out to Run All of America's National Parks
Zion National Park Autumn Ray

“There’s a reason they’re national parks,” Ray tells Smithsonian.com. “They’re really, really special places. There’s something so unique about each of them—you don’t even know necessarily until you get there.”

Last April, during a late night pediatrics shift, the emergency medical physician sat down and began sketching a route to run the 43 national parks she had yet to visit. After she finished the Olympic trials, she began to think about her national parks dream more seriously. Her lease was almost up, her dog had just died and she was done with Olympic trials—why not go even bigger? A new goal began to take shape: run all 59 national parks in the United States before her 40th birthday in four years. Equipped with a teardrop camper trailer, she began her run in early March. So far, she’s run the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns and the top of Guadalupe Peak.

When it comes to experiencing national parks, runners have a unique vantage point. Most people who frequent the parks choose to hike or backpack through, but runners can see more of the park and follow less trodden trails.

“When running, I see a lot in a short period of time,” Ray says. “What a backpacker might cover in two to three days, I can do in a few hours.”

National Park Service officials acknowledge runners to some extent—there is a “Donate Your Mileage to the Parks” promotion through Charity Miles, which lets runners earn 25¢ per logged mile for the National Park Foundation, and the National Parks Foundation partners with Vacation Races, which organizes a National Park Race Series located adjacent to the parks. But when Ray reached out to the National Park Service for help planning her trip, she met with a reluctant response and was cautioned on her plans. It can also be dangerous for even the most experienced runners to trek too deep into the parks. In the Grand Canyon, for example, a sign ominously marks the death of an experienced marathoner, a University of Chicago medical student who died on a remote trail from dehydration. Ray understands the concerns from the Park Service. “You’re putting yourself out there, and they don’t want to be up all night trying to find you,” she says.

Careful planning and special gear will protect Ray on her runs. She’ll take to the trails equipped with trail running shoes that have more traction and grip than street running shoes, a hydration vest and a substantial amount of food, along with toilet paper, a small camera and a GPS alert system.

Marathoner Sets Out to Run All of America's National Parks
Joshua Tree National Park Autumn Ray

Her most anticipated parks include Shenandoah National Park, Yosemite National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, though, as she says, she's, “open to surprises.” She quips that national parks are “cheaper than Disneyland,” and her adventures will be appropriately frugal (financed with occasional ER shifts back in Arizona, couchsurfing with friends as she crisscrosses the country and camping once she arrives).

One thing she won’t do is get bored—as someone who never owned a television, she plans to spend her non-running time reading or charting future trails to run. She'll also blog her travels at Notes From a Teardrop, even though she remains hesitant about encouraging other trail runners to descend upon national parks.

"That's my only worry—as it gains popularity, you hate to lose the uniqueness of it," Ray says. "Being able to get out in a very isolated place on your own and be in nature and experience how vast it is [isn't the same] with 20 people running down the path behind you."

Looking for a way to experience national parks running without disrupting the landscapes that make them so unique? Here are seven upcoming race destinations near national parks:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains, which fall on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, are home to the nation's busiest national park—more than nine million visitors take a look every year. Known for its lush and diverse plant and animal life, the park has 100 native tree species. Those looking to get away can tackle the park's "Quiet Walkways," paths stretch a quarter-mile and offer, as the signs say, a “little bit of the world as it once was.” 

One iconic run through the park: braving the Appalachian Trail. While one extreme runner tackled 72 miles of the ATC in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it might be more manageable to run just a section.

The Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon takes place September 10, 2016. 

Yosemite National Park

The mission to protect Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, has been going on since Abraham Lincoln's presidency. He first signed a grant to permanently protect the park in 1864, though Yosemite wasn't officially established as a national park until 1890. John Muir, the naturalist almost synonymous with the park, played a big part role in that designation. Indeed, in 1889, he helped draw its proposed boundaries.

"No temple made with human hands can compare with Yosemite," wrote Muir, reflecting on the park's beauty. While giant, ancient sequoias might steal the spotlight in Yosemite, the park is also home to plenty of remarkable and diverse wildlife like mule deer, marmots, pikas and bush rabbit, not to mention flora like dogwood, warblers, and dwarf willows and matted flowers.

One iconic run through the park: the John Muir Trail up the Half Dome. While the rugged terrain and elevation gains makes it hard to speed through the trail, its incredible scenery makes it a bucket list must for trail running enthusiasts. 

The Yosemite Half Marathon takes place on October 8, 2016.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park, located near Estes Park, Colorado, got its name for a reason: It has lots of rocks, and old ones at that. Indeed, rocks that are nearly two billion years old can be found on some of its summits. The Continental Divide cuts through the park, letting visitors see a rare sight: water flowing to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The areas surrounding the park are pretty incredible, too: to the west there's the Neota Wilderness areas, to the north, Roosevelt National Forest and to the South, Indian Peaks Wilderness.

One iconic run through the park: along the Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes. Start on the Bear trailhead and choose your adventure. The trailhead offers short three- to four-mile runs, as well as all-day excursions to the lakes, waterfalls and craggy peaks. 

The Rocky Mountain Half Marathon and 5K takes place July 30, 2016.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, located near Springdale, Utah, is beloved for the massive, red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs that mark its canyon walls. The 147,000-acre parkland is flush with wildlife and hiking paths, and even has its own natural "subway." Visitors can take a nine-mile, round-trip hike to reach the narrow, sculpted tunnel created by the Left Fork of North Creek. The area, known as the Great West Canyon, offers diverse terrain and stunning backcountry views.

One iconic run through the park: Angel’s Landing. This national park is a cliff runner's dream, and the view from Angel's Landing is sure to put your head in the clouds. The scenic, sandstone route isn't for the faint of heart, though: In just two and a half miles from the Grotto Trailhead, runners climb 1,500 vertical feet.

Zion National Park's Half Marathon's 2017 race date will be announced soon.

Grand Teton National Park

Few places on earth can rival the natural beauty of Grand Teton National Park, located in northwestern Wyoming. The park is named for Grand Teton, the tallest mountain in the Teton Range, and is famous for the string of lakes that reflect the iconic mountain skyline.

Grand Teton's 18-million-acre span makes it one of the largest remaining intact mid-latitude ecosystems in the world. There's plenty to see in the park: Its lush landscape is populated by moose, elk, mule deer and bison, along with trout that can be found in the famous Snake River, which makes its way across the valley floor.

One iconic long run through the park: Death Canyon and Static Peak Divide to Teton Canyon. If you have seven-and-a-half hours to spare, consider this daring 20-mile mountain adventure. Trail Run Project maps out this destination route, which goes through wildflower fields, lakes, as well as waterfalls and intimidating passes. 

The Grand Teton Half Marathon takes place June 4, 2016.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park holds the distinction of being the world's first national park, and its famous Old Faithful Geyser has been going off in the park, mostly on schedule, since it was first discovered by the Washburn Expedition in 1870. Though the national park is primarily located in Wyoming, it also extends into Montana and Idaho. While it has many different ecosystems, its largest feature is its subalpine forest. 

Today, the park is home to 65 species of mammals, more than 1,000 species of native flowering plants and several hundred types of birds.

One iconic run through the park: Pelican Valley. See the beauty of Yellowstone's backcountry on this mostly single-track trail run. The up-to-16-mile route shows off the beauty of Yellowstone's wildlife and thermal springs. As iRunFar.com cautions, though, consider running this one with a group and make noise while you travel to avoid a surprise run-in with a grizzly bear. 

The Yellowstone Half Marathon and 5K takes place July 11, 2016.

Grand Canyon National Park

Chiseled by the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona records the geological story of the past 2 billion years. Fittingly, the park was named an Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. The one-mile deep canyon can be seen from the "South Rim," the more accessible part of the park, or the "North Rim," which is more remote and not open year-round. There are plenty of ways to take in the Grand Canyon's awe-inspiring settings: The park offers mule tours, river rafts and a variety of other ways to view what many consider to be one of the seven wonders of the natural world.  

One iconic run through the park: the Rim Trail. The 11-mile, paved run from Hermit's Rest to Pipe Creek Vista offers great views of the Grand Canyon along a relatively flat path. Go early to beat the crowds and enjoy a spectacular sunrise. 

The Grand Canyon Half Marathon takes place on May 7, 2016.