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America's best idea

This summer, the USA’s National Parks Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. Since the service was founded in 1916, its parks have played host to hikers, climbers, skiers and some of the world’s most hard-core adventurers. We asked some of these extreme sportsmen and women to talk about the parks that inspire them...

America's best idea

Text by Graeme Green

 Death Valley, California

“Death Valley is about as far away from Earth as you can get while still being tethered to it. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was here: a skin-searing 56.7oC. The road gets so hot during summer it can melt the soles of your sneakers. Places have names like Dante’s View, Furnace Creek, Devil’s Hole and Stovepipe Wells. It’s not the most inviting place for a run, but a small group of runners take it on every year during the annual Badwater Ultramarathon, a 217km continuous foot race through Death Valley that pits the world’s most extreme athletes against the world’s most extreme elements. From the first time I did it two decades ago, I’ve been captivated by this majestic land. There’s something magical about it, something entirely otherworldly.” 

Dean Karnazes is an American ultramarathon runner and one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World, according to Time magazine. The bestselling author of Ultramarathon Man, his feats include running for 350 continuous miles, and 50 marathons in all 50 US states in 50 consecutive days. ultramarathonman.com


Canyonlands, Utah

“As an adventure swimmer, I always look for new places to explore and challenge myself. Canyonlands National Park, with both the Colorado and Green rivers, offers an incredible landscape of canyons, mesas and buttes. Before the Colorado joins the Green river and goes into Cataract Canyon, there are some wonderful parts to swim. The water is incredibly clean and it offers a fantastic open-water river-training venue. Quite often, I end up drinking the river as well and I’ve never had any health problems. The Colorado river has been my training venue for the last 10 years and I always find it very inspirational and challenging. I hope other people get inspired by it as well.”

Martin Strel is a Slovenian long-distance swimmer and star of the film Big River Man. He holds Guinness World Records for swimming the entire lengths of the Amazon, Mississippi, Yangtze and Danube rivers. In 2011, he completed his Colorado River Swim challenge for documentary series Stan Lee’s Superhumansstrel-swimming.com


Shenandoah, Virginia

“Shenandoah National Park is for me often a space of reflective suffering, as I’m usually up there grinding out a massive training day, but I’m always glad I made the trip. Part of the charm of its mysterious landscape is that it’s always different. Some days, I climb up through the fog to sapphire blue skies and peaks emerging like green islands in a white sea. Other days, it’s autumn’s splendour, with crimson and gold leaves flying. On winter days, the trees are somber and the ripples of the mountains show their true shape with a light dusting of snow. It’s no wonder singer-songwriter John Denver wrote about Shenandoah’s legendary ‘country roads’ in 1971 in his most popular song, Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Jeremiah Bishop is a professional bike racer in cross-country, short-track and marathon-distance endurance events. A 14-time member of the US national cycling team, he’s represented the country at world championships and the Pan-American Games, where he won gold in 2003. He’s also a member of the Topeak-Ergon Racing Team, which takes on endurance races around the world. jeremiahbishop.com


Grand Canyon, Arizona

“Within this park is an ultrarunner’s rite of passage. The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is a 77km trek that exposes runners to incredible changes in elevation (6,100m), temperature (up to 47oC) and exposure. My first night inside the National Park, on the eve of my 28th birthday, I stared into the depths and realised our goal of double-crossing the canyon was an intimidating endeavour. We faced intense heat, blew out our quads on the descents, and ran a reverse mountain, climbing to the safety of the Bright Angel Lodge as our finish. Marking my birthday with 28 candles and hundreds of dramatic photos remains a highlight in my career. I’ve run the R2R2R at least four times since that initial visit. I’ve set a Fastest Known Time, as well as hauled out a struggling friend. Each experience puts me in my place, shows me what I’m capable of and, most importantly, increases my respect for what great, wide open spaces offer our personal growth.” 

Krissy Moehl is an Amerian ultramarathon runner, coach, author, public speaker and race director. In her 16-year career, she’s run more than 100 races, winning at least half, including the 165km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and the 160km Ultra Trail Mont Fuji and Hardrock 100. krissymoehl.com


Capitol Reef, Utah

“I first came across Capitol Reef National Park during my 13-year human-powered circumnavigation of the globe. My expectations weren’t high, but the further I got into this little-known 980km2 wilderness ride of twisting canyons, cathedral domes and natural bridges, the more I could feel the prehistoric landscape winding its way into my heart. Early visitors clearly felt the same way. Fremont Indians settled along the Fremont river 700 years ago, happily planting fruit trees and leaving intricate petroglyphs on the surrounding cliffs, followed by 19th-century Mormon pioneers.”

Jason Lewis is a British explorer and the first person in history to circle the Earth using only human power: kayaking, biking, pedalling a tiny boat and rollerblading. The 74,842km journey took 13 years to complete, with a crocodile attack, pirates, two broken legs and four Guinness World Records along the way. He’s also an author and motivational speaker. jasonexplorer.com


Yosemite, California

“Yosemite is unique in the world. From the towering sequoia trees through the tranquil backcountry to the impressive size of El Capitán in Yosemite Valley, there’s something spectacular for anyone who goes there. As a climber, the sweeping granite walls are my favourite thing here. The cracks soar to the sky,
a small weakness that allows passage. When I’m there, I discover the intricacies of the rock and, in doing so, I learn a bit more about myself. There isn’t a climber in the world that hasn’t heard about Half Dome. If gravity is your calling, then Yosemite is a ‘must do’ on the bucket list of life.”

Conrad Anker is an American rock climber, mountaineer and author. He’s famous for his ascents in the High Himalayas and Antarctica, as well as climbs across the US. He’s also team leader of the North Face climbing team. conradanker.com


Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana & Idaho

“Yellowstone has dramatic, epic scenery and incredible numbers of animals in abundance, including wolves, bison, elk and bears. What’s more, the whole place has the fragility that comes from being placed right over the top of one of the largest volcanic zones in the world. Yellowstone represents everything about nature in the modern world: stunningly beautiful, yet teetering on the edge of existence. It always reminds me we have to make the most of the now because you never know how long everything sticks around for – before you know, it might all be too late.”

Ed Farrelly is a British mountaineer and adventurer who has climbed some of the biggest mountains in the world, including Baruntse (7,129m) in Nepal, Aconcagua (6,961m) in Argentina and Khan Tengri (7,010m), Kyrgyzstan, as well as rafting the Grand Canyon and completing the Mongol Rally. In 2012, Farrelly ranked sixth in a list of the 20 most-seasoned adventurers, explorers and expedition leaders in Men’s Fitness. edfarrelly.com


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