Golden Leaf Half Marathon, Photo: Palmalyn K. Simich
The big appeal of trail running is the amazing terrain and the stunning views. Sure, the challenge, social scene, personalities and unique bits of schwag are all great, too. But courses that show off raw, natural beauty only accessible by trails is what’s most memorable. Here’s a look at some of the country’s best off-road races
RELATED: 5 Pro Tips on Moving Up to Ultras
Orcas Island 25K
Jan. 28, Orcas Island, Wash.
This 25K course takes runners around gorgeously green Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington State. Mount Constitution, at 2,410 feet, stands between you and the finish line (but hands you epic views with the climb).
Catalina Island Marathon
March 11, Catalina Island, Calif.
Now it its 40th year, this is the oldest trail marathon in California. Similar to the Catalina Eco Marathon held in November (and organized by the same race group), this race sends runners on the rugged dirt fireroads and trails of Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The races—a marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K and kids’ run—climb up in the hills of the island, providing 360-degree views of the surrounding Pacific.
Gorge Waterfalls 50K/100K, Photo: Glen Tachiyama
Gorge Waterfalls 50K/100K
March 25 or April 8, Columbia River Gorge, Ore.
There are other scenic races in the state of Oregon, delivering on dense forests, soft trails, moss, ferns and more. But these races—both the 50K and the 100K—serve up the added bonus of passing by numerous waterfalls to offer a truly unique experience. The route skirts the base of the Cascade Mountains above the mighty Columbia River.
XTERRA Oak Mountain Trail Runs
May 21, Pelham, Ala.
Pristine singletrack nestled within Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham welcomes runners to this trail running race festival, with three distances to choose from—.20K, 10K or 5K. The course meanders along a lakeshore and dips into densely wooded forest.
Sehgahunda Trail Marathon
May 27, Mount Morris, N.Y.
If your idea of beauty lies in focusing your attention on the gnarly, rooty, rocky trail before your eyes and passing over numerous gullies, then this race in Upstate New York is your ticket. The course runs through the Genesee River Valley (known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”) in Lechworth State Park, old stomping ground of the Seneca People. Not sure you can handle the full marathon? Consider running it as a relay with some of your running buddies.
June 17, Mill Valley, Calif.
The Double Dipsea doubling the scenery of the legendary Dipsea, along with the distance. The 14.1-mile course climbs and descends through dense forests lined with firs, and pines, and delivers on views of the Pacific Ocean, if you can see straight after a couple monster climbs. The Double course hits the beach and heads back up.
Crow Pass Crossing
July 22, Girdwood, Alaska
Run amid the Alaska wild in late July, this race is takes place on the rugged Crow Pass National Historic Trail in Chugach State Park, north of Alyeska and southeast of Anchorage. This challenging 22.5-mile race offers up a tour of the Eagle Glacier, forging across the Eagle River partway through and ends at the Eagle River Nature Center.
Jupiter Peak Steeplechase
July 29, Park City, Utah
Park City in the summer—bright sun shining on deep green trees, breezes making the aspens flitter. The massive climb and descent (3,000 feet) of this 16-mile race means a hearty dose of pain, but it also means massive views of the Wasatch mountains. Park City’s Mid Mountain Marathon is held in September and also ridiculously scenic.
Tahqua Trail Run
Aug. 5, Paradise, Mich.
Run along the Tahquamenon River to the famed North Country Trail and past the lower Tahquamenon Falls before finishing near the Upper Falls in the 25K. The 10K starts at the Lower Falls and finishes near the Upper Falls (it’s a one-way course). Both routes pass through dense old-growth forests.
Ragnar Trail Appalachians
Aug. 11–12, Bruceton Mills, W.V.
This relay-format race pits teams of eight or four against each other, all based out of a camp home base at Big Bear Lake to refuel and hang out by a communal bonfire, with music and all. Runners take turns of 14.6 or 29.2 miles hitting soft and pristine trail loops through dense forests in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
Aug. 26, Breckenridge, Colo.
Summit County, Colorado serves up some impressive high-mountain trails and views of surrounding peaks and valleys, and Breck Crest captures all of it. The Marathon stays high for miles, while the Half climbs and descends—but not before a huge dose of Rocky Mountain high.
The Rut, Photo: Ian Corless
Sept. 1–3, Big Sky Resort, Mont.
This three-day mountain running event isn’t just another a goofy fun run. It’s part of the Skyrunner World and USA competition series—the terrain is super challenging. It includes a 50K, 12K and a Vertical Kilometer amid big mountains and big skies. But the race maintains a sense of humor too, advising spectators that “an orange camo vest and nothing else” is acceptable on-course attire.
Emerald Bay Trail Run
Sept. 17, Lake Tahoe, Calif.
There’s an increasing number of great trail running races in the Tahoe area, but this 7.5-mile one takes the cake for beauty with its point-to-point course. The trail undulates alongside crystal blue Lake Tahoe and by breathtaking Emerald Bay before finishing on the sandy shore.
Golden Leaf Half Marathon
Sept. 23, Aspen, Colo.
A one-way course in the Colorado high country during prime leaf-peeping season? It’s enough to keep the Golden Leaf Half Marathon on our list two-years running. This past year’s race was cancelled due to snow and mud, so racers will be champing at the bit more than usual this year.
Trapp Lodge Mountain Marathon
Oct. 14, Stowe, Vt.
It’s hard to beat fall leaves in Vermont. The mid-October timing of this marathon and half delivers on beauty in spades, and the gorgeous trails of the Green Mountains both challenge runners and make the miles fly by. Add to all that the hub of the race: the Trapp Lodge (yes, of the family Von Trapp), and this race is a winner.
Xterra Kapalua Trail Runs, Photo: Xterraplanet.com
Xterra Kapalua Trail Runs
Oct. 21, Oahu, Hawaii
Based out of the Ritz Carlton on gorgeous Kapalua Beach on Maui’s west shore, this one-day race festival with a 10K, 5K, 2.5K and a “Keiki K” for the little ones climbs to 700 feet with views of nearby islands Molokai and Lanai. The combination of a sandy beach, ocean and island views, and running through Hawaiian forest trails is hard to beat.
Moab Trail Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K Adventure Run
Nov. 4–5, Moab, Utah
The headliner—the marathon—here serves as the USATF Trail Marathon National Championships, but it’s the rugged and adventurous course that’s the star. Traversing Moab, Utah’s desert landscape, with slick rock, dusty washes, and all that comes with the wild of the desert, the races don’t disappoint.
Nov. 4, Lynchburg, Va.
This hearty 50-miler sends runners over hill and dale, and hill again throughout rugged and beautiful trails between Lynchburg and Montebello, Virginia. Trails wind through the George Washington National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains, serving up a mix of dense forest terrain and epic eastern mountain views.
Surfing Madonna Run
Nov. 5, Encinitas, Calif.
Yes, a sandy beach counts as a trail. This event, which includes a 10-miler, a 10K and a 5K, is run entirely on the sand in Encinitas, north of San Diego. November weather is like it is most days in the San Diego area: usually in the 70s and sunny. The race’s start time changes each year to coincide with low tide for plenty of flat, hard, sand-running surface.