From a rugged, ultra-muddy backcountry path in New Hampshire, to a lung piercing, single-track in New Mexico, we present America’s finest and toughest trail runs — totally worth it, but guaranteed to kick your butt.
Pounding the pavement does a number on your legs. You can feel it. After a while, shin splits, stress fractures, and sore knees might hinder your gait. But before you get hurt and resort only to cross training, consider adding trail workouts to your endurance routine. Running on varied terrain keeps you on your toes, demands better forward form, and works opposite muscle groups in your legs and core. Plus, explosive heart rate intervals on a low-impact surface ensure max cardio benefits with low risk of injury.
But finding good trails—like running shoes— can be tough. Our advice? It’s all about taste. Figure out exactly what you want from your run. Maybe you like technical single-track littered with boulders and stumps to improve agility, or maybe it’s earthy double-track wide enough where you can cruise for miles. Maybe you like hot deserts, cool forests, or high-altitude mountain ridges. Being choosey isn’t a bad thing. It just means you’ll enjoy your run even more. Here, we picked America’s top 10 trails for serious runners who like challenge and variety.
Like to get dirty when you hit the trails? The ultra-muddy reputation of this 7.5-mile out-and-back should do the job. The Lower Nanamocomuck Trail located slightly northwest of Conway, New Hampshire, was originally built with skiing in mind, but from March to November it’s open to runners and mountain bikers. It’s a classic New England backcountry path, and therefore doesn’t gain much elevation. Start at the gravel Bear Notch Road in White Mountain National Forest and follow the tight single-track along Swift River. You’ll cross an occasional log bridge through murky marshland. Accept the mud, there’s no avoiding it.
Swallow Cliff Woods, a steep bluff area that cuts into Sag Valley near Chicago, provides direct access to an 800-acre preserve full of hilly, forested trails. From the north entrance, you’ll climb 125 limestone stairs up to a short connector trail that eventually splits off into brown and yellow tracks. Go for the yellow, which runs about eight miles extending west to Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve and east to Palos Park Preserve. You’ll cruise through wetlands, prairies, and meadows, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the park’s songbirds. The best part? It’s open year round, so snow shouldn’t stop you from getting in your workouts.
Mesa Trail, a 6.7-miler (one way), serves as the main artery to most trails in the Flatirons and forested foothills near Boulder, Colorado. The semi-technical single-track trail runs north to south between Chautauqua Park and Eldorado Springs, and hovers around 6,200-6,300 feet above sea level. Though it doesn’t gain much elevation overall, it dips up and down frequently—prime for interval work. And at overlooks you can catch striking views of the eastern plains. If you’re feeling frisky, take an offshoot trail up Green Mountain or Bear Peak for a lung-busting workout. This adds distance and if you summit, you’ll break the 8,000-foot elevation barrier.
The 3,082-acre Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park covers most of the Issaquah highlands outside Seattle, Washington. In the park, there’s a 36-mile network of gently rolling, crisscrossing trails adaptable to any workout. Start from one of the park’s four main trailheads, and get creative with how far you go from there. Trails loop around and intersect throughout the park at vistas of the Cascade Mountains, Lake Sammamsih, and the Seattle skyline, and it’s tough to get lost. Hard-core trail runners who cover a lot of ground will catch the best of the park’s natural beauty: waterfalls, lush forest floor, glacial boulders, and running creeks.
The 24-mile Berryman Trail, east of St. James, runs through Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. Though it’s traditionally a backpackers’ paradise, the rocky single-track is also ideal if you’re up for a long, challenging trail run. Switchbacks take you from low creek bottom to high windy ridges through oak and pine forest. You’ll have to cross a few streams without bridges so heavy duty trail running shoes will come in handy, and even then you might get your feet wet. Perfect for the guy who likes to hack it in the woods.
The 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail System shoots through New York’s Catskill Mountains and offers hundreds of awesome single and double track carved between 11 lakes south of Lake Ontario. Run any section and you can’t go wrong, but perhaps the best running terrain in the network exists near Seneca Lake. The Finger Lakes National Forest borders the lake and has over 30 miles of off shooting trails that crisscross through small canyons, cascading waterfalls, wide meadows, and heavily wooded forest. If you want a well-marked section go for The Interlaken Trail, a 12-miler that takes you past two ponds. Otherwise, be inventive.
Don’t let Atalaya Trail’s short distance fool you into thinking it’s easy. The arid desert surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico sits around 7,500 feet above sea level and only gets higher — and tougher to run — from there. Atalaya begins at Wilderness Gate, an entry point to the 22-mile Dale Ball Trail Network. Follow the wide, dusty double track that scales a couple steep, rocky watersheds and then converts into a series of switchbacks. You’ll climb (seemingly forever) up to Atalaya Mountain’s crest, but the vistas of sprawling red-clay valley and shrubbed foothills are worth it. Plus, going down never felt so good.
Bishop, California, has front row access to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and John Muir Trail — the west coast answer to the Appalachian Trail. But runners who don’t want to screw around dodging hikers should bypass the Muir and head north from Bishop to Inyo National Forest and the Little Lakes Valley Trail. It’s a 9.9-mile lesser-known gem that tops out above 10,000 feet high in the Sierras. You’ll wind through a string of glacial lakes and wildflower meadows and it’s relatively flat but challenging for the lungs at its high altitude. You can park at Mosquito Flat Trailhead off Rock Creek Road near Highway 395 and pick up the Little Lakes trailhead from there. No permit required.
Location: North Carolina Distance: 16.3 miles fs.usda.gov
Looking for a run ideal for two? Opt for Shut-In Trail outside of Asheville, North Carolina. It stretches for 16.3-miles between the Parkway entrance and the parking area at Mount Pisgah. You’ll hug a series of ridgelines along the French Broad River, climbing 3,000 feet over rocky, technical single-track lined with rhododendron and laurel thickets. Ask a buddy to run with you. Leave one car at the base of the summit at Buck Spring Gap Overlook connected with the Pisgah parking area. Drive your other car to begin the run at the paved parking spot at the Parkway’s entrance near NC-191. When you finish, you can collect your beginning vehicle. Take it easy to avoid sprained ankles—this one’s not for the fainthearted.
This beast of a route vies for Holy Grail status of all Colorado trail runs, and if you bag it, you’ll be revered among all serious endurance athletes. Over 17 grueling miles, you’ll climb over 5,000 feet in elevation on a dirt road from Ouray to the crest of Imogene Pass in the 14,000-foot-high San Juan Mountain range. At the top, gasping for breath and likely light headed, you’ll drop down Tomboy Road past the Tomboy ghost town through alpine basin back to forest and finishing at Telluride. If you want a crazy challenge and something to train for, sign up for the annual race that takes place at the beginning of September.