Whatever style of off-road running you love most—and there are so many different kinds—you can make a safe bet that somewhere in the U.S. there’s a splendidly scenic path that can make all your trail running dreams come true. To help pinpoint which U.S. running trails are the best of the best, we called on a team of experts comprised of some of the country’s most experienced and well-versed trail runners. From the rugged wilderness of Vermont to sweeping views of California’s coast and the beloved landscape of the Grand Canyon to Alaska’s incredible backcountry terrain, this list is a collection of their top trail running recommendations.
According to Joe Grant, an elite trail and mountain ultra-runner and the founder of Alpine Works, a venue that educates about and encourages outdoor exploration, this trail’s Keyhole Route (beginning at the East trailhead) is the most accessible and popular path up the mountain. “The trail climbs a couple thousand feet to tree line before working its way north west to Granite Pass,” he said. “There is a cut off trail west before the pass for the Chasm Lake trail which is a nice alternative route if you're not feeling up to going all the way to the summit of Longs Peak, but still want amazing views of the Diamond and Chasm Lake.” Runner’s should come prepared, though. Grant describes the route as long and strenuous. Beyond Granite Pass the trail becomes more challenging with third class terrain. Past there the route leads through The Narrows and The Homestretch before reaching the summit at 14,255 feet.
Part of the Texas Hill Country on San Antonio’s north side, Liza Howard, a competitive ultra-runner and a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, recommends this rugged range of land for its rocky, single-track routes surrounded by a forest landscape full of live oak, ashe juniper, and mountain laurel.
In close proximity to the Alyeska Ski Resort, Nancy Hobbs, founder and executive director of the American Trail Running Association, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running and chairperson for the Mountain Ultra Trail Council, recommends these trails for easy access to grand views of the Chugach Mountains. However, just because the routes are easily accessed doesn’t mean the terrain isn’t challenging. Hobbs said runners should be prepared for rugged backcountry terrain and wildlife encounters including bears and moose.
“It's hard to pick one trail or route in this spider web of single-track, but any hike through the red needles and fins of sandstone is worth it,” said Meghan M. Hicks, senior editor at iRunFar.com and a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine. However, she did recommend that runners make sure to visit the grassy expanse of Chesler Park and the “tight squeeze” of the Joint Trail. And if you’re in search of a lengthier running adventure, she suggests adding in the out-and-back trail to Druid Arch.
“True Midwestern wilderness” is how Hicks described this expansive 296-mile long trail, which she says includes everything from rugged cliffs and hills to an array of forest wildlife. “It's not uncommon to see moose or to hear timberwolves howl and the views of Lake Superior are so lovely,” she said.
Hobbs highly suggests the trails of the White Mountains because the area offers runners a wide variety of terrain to choose from. “Rocks, creeks, slick footing in spots, trees, roots, vistas, elevation changes… It’s truly magical,” she said. “Some iconic traverses incorporating some of the high points in the Whites can make for a fun, long grind on a summer day.” Plus, the mountain has overnight huts available to runners covering extra-long distances.
At about three miles long, Hobbs recommends this route—a snaky single-track path that connects with many other trails—for a quick run up Vail Mountain. “The wildflowers in the late summer are incredible and the leaves changing in the fall are spectacular,” she said. Also of note: the Vail Recreation District hosts a series of races here from May to September.
According to Hobbs, Barr trail is the most notable and widely used trail in the Colorado Springs area. At 11.8 miles long and with an ascent of 7,900 feet, the route, which finishes at an altitude of 14,115 feet at Pikes Peak, is challenging and vigorous. However, she said that other enticing (and less arduous) options in the area include Monument Valley, Stratton Open Space, Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Palmer Park, Cheyenne Mountain State Park and Mueller State Park.
Part of Montana's Glacier National Park, according to Hicks this route covers about 7.6 miles out and back. She says the trail’s first two miles are mostly flat but after that runners should expect a steady incline the rest of the way. Oh yeah, and in addition to the breathtaking scenery you’ll likely spot some wildlife on your way. “From bighorn sheep to bears, lots of wildlife sightings are possible in addition to the gorgeous turquoise blue ice of the glacier itself,” Hicks said. However, she did warn that runners remain cautious as some of the trail does travel through grizzly-bear territory.
Both Hobbs and Nick Clark, a well-recognized elite mountain runner from Fort Collins, Colo. who blogs about trail running at irunmountains.blogspot.com, love this rim-to-rim route simply because it’s classic. Hobbs said it includes a variety of terrain, a diverse ecosystem and plenty of elevation changes. “What's not to like about running in one of the most scenic spots in the world?” she said.
About 9.5 miles long roundtrip, the Dipsea Trail is part of California’s East Bay Trail System and on clear days offers sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and Mount Tamalpais. It’s also host to a handful of trail races throughout the year. Generally, the trail is open year round but Hobbs suggested that runners take caution during the winter “mud season” when conditions are sometimes unsafe.
“Quintessentially New England,” is how Clark describes this challenging trail. One of his favorite multi-day options, it spans 270 miles and is the oldest thru-trail in the country. Don’t show up unprepared, though. Clark says this one will “serve up quite a beating.”