Maybe you need a change of scenery from your regular running route or want to vary your terrain. Or maybe you’re just itching to spend more time outside. Whatever the motivation, you’re trading in the asphalt for single track trails and mountain passes.
You’re not alone. Between 2012 and 2015, participation in trail running increased 35.6 percent, from approximately 6 million to 8.14 million trail runners, according to research from the Outdoor Foundation. The American Trail Running Association has seen an increase of 143 percent in the number of trail races over the past 10 years. The reason? Simply put, trail running is fun…and challenging.
“Trail running and ultras is the next step in challenge from running marathons,” says Eric Orton, renowned running coach best known for coaching Born to Run author Christopher McDougall and founder of Eric Orton’s Mountain Running Academy. Plus, the trail running community is low-key. “The emphasis is on adventure, fun and finishing, not speed. This has drawn many runners who are looking for a challenge without having the time comparison like that of marathons or road races,” says Orton. It requires a different kind of athleticism, he says.
Whether you’re a seasoned trail runner or a road runner looking to start hitting the trails, we’ve rounded up 15 epic trail races in the U.S. (listed by date).
The 15 Best Trail Races in the U.S.
1. Jay Peak Trail Running Festival
Best for: Family Fun
Location: Jay, VT
Date: September 3-4, 2016
Distance: 5K, 25K and 50K plus kids’ trail race
If you’re looking for something for the whole family, the Jay Peak Trail Running Festival is the place to be over Labor Day weekend. The festival features a series of races, including three different 5Ks, rated green circle, blue square and black diamond — just like the ski trails at this Northern Vermont resort. There is also a 25K, 50K and a kids’ trail race. Plus, the mountain getaway has something for everyone — runners and non-runners alike — including a giant waterpark, golf course and hiking.
Registration fee: $25-$85
2. Emerald Bay Trail Run
Best for: Alpine Lake Adventurers
Location: Lake Tahoe, CA
Date: September 18, 2016
Distance: 7.5 miles
You’ll feel like you’re running right over Lake Tahoe on this point-to-point course that takes you around stunning Emerald Bay and up the Rubicon Trail to D.L. Bliss Sate Park. The epic views of the High Sierras aren’t bad either. With low-to-moderate climbing, this course is considered fast. And once you cross the finish line at Lester Beach, cool off with a icy dip in the lake.
Registration fee: $56
3. Runner’s World Half and Festival
Best for: Runnerds Wanting to Try Trails
Location: Bethlehem, PA
Date: October 14, 2016
Distance: 3.8 miles
The Altra Trail Run kicks off the weekend festivities at the Runner’s World Half and Festival, hosted by the magazine. The 3.8-mile route winds through Bethlehem’s South Mountain Park on single- and double-track, sometimes hilly, trails under the brilliant fall foliage. The weekend also features a 5K, 10K and half-marathon as well as seminars, speakers, dinner with Runner’s World editors and live music. All in all, a perfect weekend for the ultimate runnerd.
Registration fee: $30
4. Moab Trail Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K
Best for: Canyoneers
Location: Moab, UT
Date: November 5-6, 2016
Distance: Marathon, half-marathon, 5K adventure run
Slickrock, narrow canyons and sandy washes are just some of the rugged terrain in store for you at this event. You’ll wind your way through Moab’s signature red rocks and alongside several arches on the technical marathon and half-marathon course. (This is also the site of the 2016 USATF Marathon Trail Championships!) Feeling like the 5K Adventure Run is more your speed? Expect a winning combo of natural and man-made obstacles. Rock maze, ladders and creek crossings anyone?
Registration fee: $55-$95 (until September 1)
5. Paul Mitchell XTERRA Trail Run Series
Best for: Tropical Adventurers (and Movie and TV Buffs)
Location: Kualoa Ranch, Oahu, Hawaii
Date: December 4, 2016
Distances: 21K world championship course, 10K, 5K and an adventure walk
Looking for a trail adventure in paradise? Head to Oahu for the XTERRA Trail Run World Championships. Don’t worry —there’s no qualifying process and anyone can race. The 21K course on Kuala Ranch, a 4,000 acre working cattle ranch that’s served as the backdrop for movies like Jurassic World, Pearl Harbor and 50 First Dates, is a slice of heaven. You’ll run along lush green mountain ridges and through dense rainforest and open valleys on single- and double-track trails and dirt roads. The event also offers a 10K, 5K and adventure walk.
Registration fee: $60, $40, $30, $30 (through November 4, 2016)
6. Gorge Waterfalls 50K/100K
Best for: Waterfall Chasers
Location: Cascade Locks, OR
Date: April 1, 2017
Distance: 50K and 100K
Don’t go chasing waterfalls…unless it’s the Gorge Waterfalls 50K. As the race name suggests, the Columbia River Gorge course will take you by gorgeous cascades (even running underneath Ponytail Falls!) while gaining 6,000 feet in elevation. Expect picturesque, super green Pacific Northwest old forest trails. Since it’s a popular event, participants are chosen by lottery, which opens October 15, 2016. But be sure to enter within the 10-day window!
Registration fee: To be announced
7. 7 Sisters Trail Race
Best for: Mountain Lovers
Location: Amherst, MA
Date: Early May 2017
Distance: 12 miles
When you think of epic trail running, you might not think of Western Mass but the 7 Sisters Trail Race will change your mind. This 12-mile out-and-back race on technical, single-track trails winds along the ridge of the Mt. Holyoke Range. Including 3,500 feet of elevation gain, it’s considered the hardest trail race in the Northeast. If that doesn’t move you: Proceeds from the race benefit the Friends of the Mt. Holyoke Range.
Registration fee: $50
8. Ice Age Trail 50 Endurance Runs
Best for: Glacier Explorers
Location: La Grange, WI
Date: May 13, 2017
Distances: Half-marathon, 50K and 50 miles
If you thought the only way to travel back to the Ice Age was at the movie theatre, think again. The Ice Age Trail 50 Endurance Runs take you back in time through landscape shaped by glaciers when they retreated from Wisconsin more than 10,000 years ago. You’ll run on cross-country ski and single-track trails along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and through the diverse, primal landscape of the Kettle Moraine Forest. The 50-miler is one of the oldest, continuously run ultras in the U.S.
Registration fee: To be announced
9. Quest for the Crest
Best for: Hard Core Elevation Seekers
Location: Burnsville, NC
Date: May 2017
Distances: 50K, 10K and Straight Up Kilometer
Imagine climbing from the valley floor to the top of the Black Mountain Crest Trail in Mount Mitchell State Park three separate times on technical, single-track trails. (For those keeping track at home that’s 11,300 feet up and 11,700 feet down for a total of 23,000 feet of elevation change.) Add in North Carolina heat and humidity (and sometimes frost) and it’s no wonder Quest for the Crest is dubbed the “Hardest 50K in the World.” If the whole crew isn’t game, race weekend also include both a 10K and a Straight Up Kilometer race.
Registration fee: To be announced
10. The Dipsea Race
Best for: History Seekers
Location: Marin County, CA
Date: June 11, 2017
Distance: 7.4 miles
The oldest trail race in America started thanks to a bet. In 1905, members of San Francisco’s Olympic Club wagered to see who could get from Mill Valley to the newly opened Dipsea Inn in Stinson Beach first. Since then, the race has maintained its quirky character including a handicapping system, which provides runners with a headstart based on age and gender, and a less than conventional entry process with slots allotted based on previous finishes, mail-in applications, a silent auction, bribes and convincing sob stories. The 7.4-mile course is no joke, though. You’ll travel up and down roads, hit trails through Muir Woods and scale three flights of stairs as you make your way to the beach.
Registration fee: $90
11. Loon Mountain Race
Best for: Mountain Diehards
Location: Loon Mountain, Lincoln, NH
Date: July 2, 2017
Distance: 6.6 miles
This isn’t an ordinary trail race. It’s straight up Loon Mountain to the Summit Lodge at the top of the ski resort’s gondola. You’ll gain 2,200-plus vertical feet over a 6.6-mile course, which has been the site of the USATF Mountain Running Championships. While the average grade along the course is 10 percent, by far the hardest part is the ascent up the black diamond trail Upper Walking Boss — a staggering 40 percent incline!
Registration fee: $30 (before March 1, 2017)
12. Mount Marathon Race
Best for: Gluttons for Punishment
Location: Seward, AK
Date: July 4, 2017
Distance: 3.1-3.5 miles (depending on route)
Three plus miles doesn’t sound so bad for a trail race, right? Except when you gain 3,000 feet in elevation while scrambling up cliffs, mud and shale and then back down again. The average slope of the course is 34 degrees and the steepest section is 60 degrees. The race takes place every 4th of July weekend and registration opens January 1, 2017. First-time racers must complete the entire course prior to race day before you can pick up bib.
Registration fee: $35 (registration opens January 1; ends March 31)
13. TransRockies Run
Best for: Team Players
Location: Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, CO
Date: August 15-20, 2017
Distance: 120 miles
Over the course of six days, two-person teams will cover 120 miles from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek along Colorado’s stunning trails. You’ll run through the White River and San Isabel National Forests on a mix of single track and forest roads and gain nearly 20,000 feet of elevation. And at the end of each stage, you’ll be welcomed to a tent city with hot meals and showers. There’s an option to run the race over three days and both races can be run solo.
Registration fee: $1,199-$1,699
14. The Rut
Best for: Thrill Seeking Skyrunners
Location: Big Sky, MT
Dates: September 2017
Distances: 50K, 28K, 11K and Vertical K
If you’re looking for an epic (and unabashedly brutal) race, The Rut’s for you. The extremely technical terrain, which showcases the best of Montana’s rugged mountains, isn’t for the faint of heart — which is why it attracts some of the world’s best trail runners. At times, it will feel like you’re dancing (or slip sliding) over loose rocks above the tree line on the 28K and 50K courses, while the 11K travels along lower- and mid-mountain single track trails.
Registration fee: $55
15. Golden Leaf Half Marathon
Best for: Fall Foliage
Location: Aspen, CO
Date: September 2017
Running through the golden aspen forests and meadows at the height of fall foliage season make this one of the most popular and scenic trail races. (The 2016 race is already sold out.) Starting in Snowmass Village, the single-track trails traverse the mountains on its way to Aspen. Over 13.1 miles, you’ll gain 980 feet and lose 1,712 feet.
Registration fee: $75