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Where athletes go for National Park Week

Diving, spelunking, sandboarding, and more activities that blend exercise with nature

During National Park Week (April 21 to 29), protected sites across the country celebrate nature’s beauty and encourage people to get outside and enjoy it. Doing so has many perks for athletes, both physically and mentally: Research shows that exercising outdoors can make you feel more energized, reduce mental fatigue, and encourage a relaxed state of mind.

Below, rangers at some of the country’s most stunning parks share their top spots for hiking, diving, and more.

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  • To go on a caving adventure: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

    To go on a caving adventure: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

    About 90 miles from Louisville and Nashville, this park is home to more than 400 miles of caves, making it the longest known cave system in the world. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with limestone ridges and a honeycomb of caverns to discover. 

    Ranger tip: The truly committed should book the Wild Cave tour, a six-hour spelunking expedition, says ranger Johnny Merideth. “It’s the most adventurous, most strenuous, and most rigorous,” he adds. You’ll wear a headlamp, heavy-duty coveralls, and knee pads while you climb, crawl, and squeeze through the darkness. By the end, Merideth says you’ll be “dirty, sweaty, and happy.”

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  • To get out on the water: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    To get out on the water: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    Located above Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and accessible only by boat, this half-million acre park consists of about 450 islands (the largest being Isle Royale) with a variety of hiking, boating, and camping options. Still, it remains one of the National Park System’s least-visited locales. Qualified visitors can explore the historic shipwrecks underwater, an opportunity only available to certified divers because of rough conditions. 

    Ranger tip: Ranger Liz Valencia recommends backpacking through these grounds, considering there are no roads in the park. Take the shorter 4.2-mile Scoville Point Loop or plan a multi-day trip to trek the 42-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail, which is dotted with campsites and runs from one end of Isle Royale to the other. A boat shuttle will take you back to your starting point.

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  • To take a thrilling ride: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

    To take a thrilling ride: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

    The park, set against the Rocky Mountains, is made up of grasslands, wetlands, forests, lakes, tundra, and more. It’s known for its otherworldly sand dunes that rise as high as 750 feet, the tallest in North America. Get to know the diverse landscapes by foot, sandboard, or horseback.

    Ranger tip: Head to Great Sand Dunes Oasis, near the park entrance, and rent a sand sled or sandboard, suggests Katherine Faz, the park’s public information officer. Raise your heart rate on the hike up the dune, then test your balance on the descent. Once you’re done, Faz suggests cooling off in the Medano Creek at the base.

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  • To walk alongside wildlife: <a href="https://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm" target="_blank">Assateague Island</a>, Maryland and Virginia

    To walk alongside wildlife: <a href="https://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm" target="_blank">Assateague Island</a>, Maryland and Virginia

    This park includes almost 40 miles of Atlantic coastline, where you have the opportunity to watch wildlife up close. The horses on the island actually descended from domestic animals, but have since adapted to living in the wild. You can spot them on the island’s many beaches.

    Ranger tip:  Keep your eyes out for dolphins, bald eagles, and wild horses on the guided bike tour led by Assateague Explorer, one ranger suggests. Or, you can rent a bike from Assateague Outfitters and follow the paved path to explore four miles of the island on your own.

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  • To leave it all behind: Channel Islands National Park, California

    To leave it all behind: Channel Islands National Park, California

    Hop on a catamaran and cross the Santa Barbara Channel to this archipelago of islands that stretches from Newport Beach to Santa Barbara. Despite their proximity to SoCal, the five islands that make up the 250,000-acre park have one of the system’s lowest attendance rates. “It’s like stepping back in time to how California was, maybe, 100 years ago,” says Yvonne Menard, the park’s public information officer.

    Ranger tip: Thanks to its rich marine wildlife, the park has been dubbed “the North American Galapagos,” she says. Pick a spot at Scorpion Anchorage, a scalloped, pebbly cove on the island of Santa Cruz. From there, you can get a full-body workout snorkeling through the kelp forests and kayaking along the craggy cliffs.

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48 hours in Milan

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