There are so many beautiful, breathtaking destinations across the world that it’s nearly impossible to narrow down the very best trail runs you need to try before you die. But hey, we’re going to give it a shot anyway. We’ve scoured the web, read the reviews and recommendations, and have even been on some of these ourselves in order to compile this list. From treks across the Grand Canyon (and back!), through Civil War battlefields, and along picturesque paths on the Hawaiian coast, we’ve got a stack of runs that’ll leave you breathless both literally and figuratively. Here are our top 14 trail running adventures you’d be crazy not to try (listed alphabetically by state).
Best Trail Running Destinations
Location: Grand Canyon, AZ
Distance: 24 miles Rim to Rim, 48 miles Rim to Rim to Rim
When to Go: Late April-early May, late October-early November
They say you haven’t really seen the Grand Canyon until you’ve been below the rim. Running the fabled Rim to Rim trail is the perfect way to get a one-day overview of the dizzying heights, monstrous rock formations, and endless displays of sedimentary rock walls. Start at the South Kaibab (7,200 feet above sea level) trail and set off to your first pit stop: the Phantom Ranch Cantina on the Colorado River, where you can load up on food and water (even a beer if you want). Then finish the last 14 miles up the North Kaibab (8,200 feet above sea level). If you don’t want to worry about the logistics of driving back to the South Rim, you can always double back and cross the Rim to Rim to Rim run off your bucket list.
2. Long Canyon
Location: Sedona, AZ
Distance: 7 miles (round trip)
When to Go: March-May
Sedona is known as a gateway to the Grand Canyon, but its Long Canyon shouldn’t be ignored. The 7-mile round trip takes runners deep into the canyon, where the cacti fades into greener shrubs and the walls offer shade from the desert heat. After a few short, steep scrambles, they’ll find themselves a ledge above that canyon’s canopy that marks the turnaround point. This location is perfect for photo ops or runners can choose to continue on over the rim and to a mesa where elk and antelope occasionally gather.
3. 9 Trails
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Distance: Up to 35 miles
When to Go: High season is May-August, but there’s really no bad time to visit
As its name suggests, Santa Barbara’s 9 Trails system lets you choose your own adventure, mixing and matching the area’s nine routes to adjust your distance. You’ll grind up switchbacks to run up amidst the peaks and cruise through the valleys of Los Padres National Forest. If you’re up for it, choose to blast through all the trails for a 35-mile out-and-back run. A bit too intense? There are loops throughout that let you cut back and log however many miles you can handle.
Location: Marin County, CA
Distance: 9.5 miles (round trip)
When to Go: March-May, September-November
The most scenic section of Marin County’s famed Dipsea Trail begins at the Muir Woods trailhead, winding down through wildflower-dotted coastal hills and picturesque sights of Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Francisco Bay. Said to follow the inland Native American’s original trail to the coast, the Dipsea Trail features single-track, fire roads, a few brief paved sections, and the (in)famous corkscrew stairs before concluding at Stinson Beach.
Location: Leadville, CO
Distance: 100 miles
When to Go: August 20, 2014
Long regarded one of the premier ultrarunning races in the world, the Leadville 100 takes participants on a 100-mile running tour of some of the most beautiful yet difficult terrain that Colorado has to offer. With elevation ranging from 9,200 to 12,600 feet above sea level as runners cross Hope Pass, some elevation training is recommended. There are 11 aid stations that keep racers fueled up so they can beat the 25-hour cutoff time and earn the respect of trail runners everywhere.
6. Palmer Park
Location: Colorado Springs, CO
Distance: 25 miles
When to Go: March-May, September-November
With easy access from Colorado Springs, Palmer Park offers distinctly Western views from its 25 miles of trails. Sandstone bluffs, cacti and the occasional equestrian can make a runner feel like he’s journeyed back into a John Ford Western. The trails vary in distance and difficulty with options ideal for runners from the beginner to advanced level. Make sure your eyes stay peeled for sporadic mountain bikers and the occasional pile of horse…evidence.
Location: Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, ME
Distance: Up to 2,179 miles
When to Go: March-September
If you’re looking to achieve trail running immortality, it’s as simple as running 2,000 miles. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is on almost every hiker’s bucket list, but running it can only be attempted by the most elite (or masochistic) runners. The iconic runs along the eastern side of the United States from Georgia to Maine, giving runners an exhaustive overview of the Appalachian Mountain Range. If you’re not game to jog the whole thing (and we definitely don’t blame you), we’d recommend the 101-mile section in Shenandoah National Park for its ridgeline views and access to burgers and beer at Big Meadow Lodge.
Location: Kennesaw, GA
Distance: 1-17 miles
When to Go: March-July
It’s not every day you get to run through a historic battlefield. The site of the Atlanta Campaign, this park’s nearly 2,965 acres present over 17 miles of trails for runners and cyclists, with lengths ranging from one to 16 miles. We recommend hitting up the visitor’s center and grabbing some info on notable areas like Cheatham Hill, one of the bloodiest combat sites in Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. It’s like running through time.
Location: Pine Mountain, GA
Distance: 23 miles
When to Go: March-April
Runners get a passing tour of Georgia’s natural beauty on this 23-mile trail in F.D. Roosevelt State Park. Waterfalls, streams, rock outcroppings and scenic viewpoints break up the bucolic forest setting. Not up for a long run? No problem. Seven loops offer shorter runs, including the 6.7-mile Wolf Den Loop, which runs by waterfalls and beaver dams, and the 4.3-mile Dowdell’s Knob route, which offers views of the valley below.
10. Kalalau Trail
Location: Kauai, HI
Distance: 11 miles (22 miles out and back)
When to Go: Mid-May to early October
Located on Kauai’s scenic Na Pali coast, the Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile (one way) path offering stunning panoramas of waterfalls, the Pacific Ocean, and of walled terraces that offer evidence of historic Hawaiian agriculture. Considered one of the most difficult trails on the Hawaiian islands, the hilly trail crosses over sea cliff and continues through verdant valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach, where runners can enjoy a well-earned cool-down swim in the ocean.
11. Indiana Dunes
Location: Chesterton, IN
Distance: Up to 70 miles
When to Go: May-September
Unique for its mix of rocky trails, sand dunes and views of Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes offer a running experience that you won’t find anywhere else. Visitors can plan out their unique routes and distances along the 70-plus miles of trails available. For a quick sweat session, try trail 10. Known as one of the more challenging trails, it incorporates grueling sand dune hill climbs and deep forest sprinting into a six-mile loop.
12. Dale Ball Trails
Location: Santa Fe, NM
Distance: 22 miles
When to Go: September-November
Easily accessible from Santa Fe, the 22-mile Dale Ball Trail system offers landscapes of both the city behind and the wilderness ahead. The well-marked trails loop through the rolling hills just outside of Santa Fe, with switchbacks and steep climbs for runners to get in a quick workout. The 6.3-mile Dale Ball Central Trail has short, steep climbs, while the Dale Ball North Trail offers an easier 3.7-mile loop for those just starting out.
Location: Eugene, OR
Distance: 26 miles (one way)
When to Go: May through October
With waterfalls, lava fields, clear lakes, and 300-year-old growth forests, Eugene’s McKenzie River Trail crams a mind-blowing amount of eye candy into its 26 miles. The view can present a hazard, though: you’ll need to pay attention to keep your feet in order to navigate the trail’s exposed tree roots and the handmade log bridges that span the streams and rivers crossing the trail. Plus, watch out for mountain bikers, as well: Bike Magazine named it one of the best mountain biking trails in America, in case you need a post-run pedal session.
14. Eagle Rock Loop
Location: Sisters, OR
Distance: 5.6 miles
When to Go: March-May, September-November
Looking for something short, but sweet? The 5.6-mile Eagle Rock Loop gives takers a view of the Three Sisters mountains, but its challenging features ensure that runners will have at least one eye on the trail. Rock hurdles, bridge crossings and Squaw Creek all serve to keep athletes on their toes (so to speak). Want to go farther? Tack on miles by running through the town of Sisters to get to the Eagle Rock Loop trailhead.
Have you run any of these trails? Share your favorites in the comments below.