Trails are as different and individual as the humans who run them. Some are in extraordinary settings, others exist as snaking oases in the midst of urban sprawl. What makes a trail especially worthy of a run depends on what criteria you consider important. Do you prefer dusty canyons? Wildflower meadows? Lush forests? Mountain ridges? You’ll find all of these options, and many more, in this curated collection of America’s best trail running destinations.
1. McKenzie River Trail
This twisty 27-mile trail follows the McKenzie River as it winds through ancient forestland in the heart of the Cascade Mountains. The route includes smooth single-track trails, log bridges, hairpin turns, and steep climbs and descents as it traverses over former lava fields, under fallen trees, and past hot springs and blue pools. The trail’s diverse beauty is a big reason the early September McKenzie River Trail Run 50-K sells out quickly, and why this has also been hailed the number-one mountain biking trail in the country.
2. Ice Age National Scenic Trail
Once completed, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail will be a 1,200-mile route across Wisconsin, highlighting the state’s vast quantity of geological features created by ancient glaciers. In the meantime, some of the best places for runs on the 600 miles of existing segments are through the rolling terrain of the Kettle Moraine State Forest near LaGrange, where you’ll find a mix of evergreen and deciduous groves interspersed with prairies, ponds, marshes, and kettles left behind by long-ago ice floes. Another good access point is just south of Madison, where the trail coincides with the Sugar River State Trail and meanders through wetlands, shaded forests, and remnants of ancient prairies.
3. Laurel Highlands National Scenic Trail
The Laurel Highlands Trail is a 70-mile, continuous dirt footpath stretching across the Laurel Ridge in southwestern Pennsylvania. As it winds from Ohiopyle to Seward, the trail occasionally emerges from the forest to grant excellent views of the twisting Youghiogheny River. It’s also the setting for one of the older ultra-distance trail races in the U.S., the 70.5-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra Race, which dates back to 1980.
4. Appalachian Trail
Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine
Spanning 2,179 miles and passing through 14 states, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail–known as the AT–is perhaps America’s most celebrated trail. It gets notoriety from elite ultrarunners who run the AT from end to end (the current record is under 48 days), but it’s also a daily stomping ground for millions of runners up and down the eastern U.S. Best yet, the AT is easily accessible to several large populations, with great running sections near Knoxville, Tennessee; Roanoke, Virginia; Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
5. Kalalau Trail
No postcard can do justice to the experience of running the Kalalau Trail, the only land access to the spectacular Na Pali Coast on the northwest side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. First built in the late 1800s, the 11-mile trail begins at Ha’ena State Park and traverses five lush valleys before reaching its terminus at Kalalau Beach. Along the way, the trail offers up towering sea cliffs, remote waterfalls, white sand beaches, and guava trees, as well as ancient Hawaiian ruins. It takes a strenuous effort to complete an out-and-back run, but a truncated version to Hanakapi’ai Beach (2 miles out) or Hanakoa Valley (4 miles) still offers plenty of Na Pali grandeur.
6. Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park
Every urban area should be blessed with a trail running sanctuary as sublime as Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. Preserved in 1983 by King County, the 3,100-acre park on the outskirts of Seattle boasts 36 miles of soft, rolling trails that meander through the lowest and westernmost of the “Issaquah Alps” highlands. Starting from one of the four main trailheads, a creative trail runner can link a variety of twisty-turny loops to create a run of just about any length and difficulty, though all are certain to include cascading waterfalls, lush fern undergrowth, foot bridges over bubbling creeks, massive glacial boulders, and several scenic viewpoints (and perhaps also long-closed mine shafts, Cold War missile silos, bobcats, and black bears).
7. Lower Nanamocomuck Trail
North Conway, New Hampshire
Two hours north of Boston, and just outside the mountain playground of North Conway, the Lower Nanamocomuck Trail is a classic New England backcountry trail–beginning, appropriately, at a restored covered bridge. This 7.5-mile point-to-point trail starts as gravel road that eventually merges into a sublime (and sometimes quite muddy) singletrack that follows the Swift River. There’s minimal elevation gain, with some rocky features, and a few narrow log bridges over creeks and marshy sections.
8. Poison Spider Mesa
The Utah desert outpost of Moab is known more as a mountain biking mecca, but the region’s crackled Navajo Sandstone slickrock trails make it just as much a trail runner’s paradise. Assuming you have a hydration pack to help you endure the often intense heat, you could pick just about any trail and not go wrong. Our choice is the 13-mile loop that encompasses Poison Spider Mesa west of town and has a variety of technical features, plus amazing vistas of jagged red rock topography in all directions, as well as the snowcapped La Sal mountains in the distance.
9. Palos/Sag Valley Trail Systems
Palos Park, Illinois
A hidden gem on the outskirts of Chicago, these adjacent forest preserve parks offer more than 30 miles of dirt trails through thick deciduous forests and deep ravines, past wetland lakes and marshes, and across wide-open meadows. Among the best routes are the hilly 12-mile Maple Lake loop and the nearby 6-mile Swallow Cliff Woods loop, which encircles a series of morainal hills created by retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago. The Chicago area is known for its network of flat, crushed gravel rail trails (including the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path and 31-mile Des Plaines River Trail), but the rolling single-track trails in Palos are carved out of a secluded natural setting that belies the trails’ close proximity to the bustling city and suburbs.
10. Double Oak Trail
This 17-mile rolling single-track loop in Alabama’s largest state park winds around a large lake and through lush green hardwood valleys, with several punchy climbs that ascend to pine-studded ridges. Rocky terrain, large roots, and other technical features make for a tough but rewarding run.
11. Mesa Trail
The running republic of Boulder is one of the country’s top trail towns, serving up more than 200 miles of routes in close proximity to the city. Perhaps none is more universally appealing than the 7-mile Mesa Trail, a mildly technical singletrack route that connects a network of trails beneath and around the iconic Flatirons mountain facades, and which can lead to rugged runs to the top of 8,144-foot Green Mountain or 8,461-foot Bear Peak. World-class ultrarunners, marathoners, and triathletes use Mesa as a staple of training, but it’s an equally invigorating route for anyone who enjoys an epic run.
12. Berryman Trail
Situated in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest, the Berryman trail is a rocky single-track that winds through the low shoulders of the Ozark Mountains. This 24-mile trail offers a rewarding roller coaster ride as it traverses classic lower Midwestern forests, alternating between shaded woodsy creek bottoms and ridgetops with cheek-chapping winds.
13. Maah Daah Hey Trail
Medora, North Dakota
With its colorful rock formations, scenic big sky vistas, and seemingly endless grasslands (where wild horses still roam freely), the Maah Daah Hey is a geological timepiece in the rugged North Dakota Badlands. This former Native American trade route (the name is a Mandan Indian phrase that means “been around for a long time”) connects the north and south units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and, at 96 miles, is one of the longest single-track trails in the U.S. One of the best running sections meanders from the south trailhead in Sully Creek State Park in Medora through the Petrified Forest inside the national park.
14. Tahoe Rim Trail
Incline Village, Nevada
Completed in 2001, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail passes through two states, three national forests, and three wilderness areas as it circumnavigates Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America. The trail is broken into eight segments ranging from roughly 12 to 33 miles, with one of the best runs being the 15.3-mile section from Big Meadow to Echo Summit on the southeastern side of the loop. It’s the most secluded section of the trail and offers only occasional views of the lake as it veers through wildflower meadows, fragrant conifer stands, and shimmering groves of aspen. Near its 9,000-foot high point, the trail merges with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and curves around the granite-lined shores of Showers Lake.
15. Finger Lakes Trail System
Hector, New York
Including the main Finger Lakes Trail as well as dozens of spur and loop trails, this system across south-central New York offers more than 950 miles of options. Arguably the best terrain for runners can be found in the 16,000-acre Finger Lakes National Forest, nestled between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. It has more than 30 miles of interconnecting trails that traverse gorges, ravines, pastures, woodlands, and the site of the revered Finger Lake Fifties trail races every July.
16. Alafia River State Park
Set on the site of a former phosphate strip mining operation, Alafia River State Park offers some of Florida’s most diverse trail topography. The rolling, multiple-loop trails weave around swamps, ponds, hills, and rock formations on beginner and intermediate single-track trails that include almost a dozen creek crossings adjacent to the South Prong of the Alafia River. The park is rich with red maples, swamp tupelo, and water hickory trees that provide welcome shade on many sections of the trail.
17. The Long Trail
Touted as the oldest long-distance trail in the United States, the Long Trail was built by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930. The 273-mile route runs the length of Vermont, from the Massachusetts state line to the Canadian border, crossing the state’s highest peaks and densest forests as it follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains. Runner beware: Just about any run on the Long Trail will require steep uphills and abrupt downhills. A few hearty souls have run the entire trail in under a week (Jonathan Basham, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania carpenter, did it in four-and-a-half days in 2009), but most of the better sections for running are in the milder southern portion of the trail, including the first 10 miles from the Massachusetts border to Congdon Shelter near Bennington.
18. El Moro Canyon Loop
Laguna Beach, California
Escaping the gridlock of Los Angeles and its environs can be a challenge, and that’s exactly why Crystal Cove State Park, home to this trail, is such a cherished refuge. The El Moro Canyon Loop is an 8.5-mile route that snakes through canyons and along ridgetops of the San Joaquin Hills, which rise 1,000 feet from the Pacific coastline.
19. Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Running in Palo Duro Canyon State Park is like dashing across a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro–120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 800 feet deep–is the second-largest canyon in the U.S. The state park encompasses just a small portion of the northernmost part of the canyon, but the 11-mile Givens, Spicer & Lowry Trail gives a sampling of its awe-inspiring grandeur (as do the trail races held in the park every October). That would include deep canyons painted in a palette of southwestern colors, gnarled red rock buttes and spires, bubbling coldwater creeks, and dusty meadows teeming with prickly pear cactus and aromatic juniper and mesquite trees.
20. Colorado Trail
Denver to Durango, Colorado
Short of spending a summer on a dude ranch, there’s no better way to experience the Rocky Mountains than by running a few sections of the Colorado Trail. It starts on the fringe of Denver and winds 483 miles in a southwesterly direction to Durango through eight mountain ranges, seven national forests, and six wilderness areas. The trail climbs and descends frequently, and much of it, including the high point of 13,334 feet at Coney Summit in the San Juan Mountains, is above tree line. Historic mining towns, old railroad tunnels, a world-class ski resort, and endless fields of wildflowers are among the memorable attractions on the 28-segment trail.
21. Dale Ball Trails
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Dale Ball Trails include 30 miles of looped single-track routes lined with juniper, pinion pine, and mountain cedar trees in the rolling foothills outside the New Age-y artists’ enclave of Santa Fe. The terrain ranges from easy to difficult, with a mixture of hard rock and soft dirt surfaces. The trails were funded by an anonymous donor and a private foundation, and are named after a longtime Santa Fe resident who spearheaded the movement to build them.
22. Shut-In Trail
Asheville, North Carolina
This 18-mile trail was built by industrialist George Vanderbilt in the late 1890s as a means to link his hunting lodge below the summit of Mt. Pisgah with his famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Now it’s a hearty test for the passionate population of off-road runners in Asheville, with 3,000 feet of climbing on rock-strewn technical single-track to a parking area just below Mt. Pisgah’s 5,700-foot peak. The trail was named for the tunnels of rhododendron and mountain laurel through which it passes in the summer months, giving a runner a rather “shut-in” feeling.
23. Cumberland Trail
When completed, the Cumberland Trail will traverse a series of high ridges and deep gorges across the eastern third of Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau. To date, about 175 miles have been finished in 10 sections, with some of the best running found on the 10.2-mile Mullens Cove Loop Trail just outside of Chattanooga. This mostly single-track section is cut out of the bluffs of Prentice Cooper State Forest and includes rocky terrain, several creek crossings, and magnificent vistas of the river and the city below.
24. John Muir Wilderness
The tiny Sierra settlement of Bishop is a trail running haven nestled high in the Sierra Nevada that offers remote access to the 212-mile John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite National Park to the 14,505-foot summit of Mt. Whitney (it’s possible to run from the edge of Bishop to the top of the Sierras in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness without ever touching asphalt). Foremost among those runs is a section above the tree line to the saddle on Piute Pass, and an effort here is rewarded with a bounty of wildflower fireworks and dozens of tranquil high-alpine lakes.
25. Potawatomi Trail
This 17.5-mile mostly single-track loop in the Pinckney State Recreation Area, 20 minutes northwest of Ann Arbor, twists and turns around kettle lakes and bogs and undulates between lush forested lowlands and along the high crests of glacial-formed ridges. Known locally as the “Poto,” the hard-packed dirt trail has plenty of technical terrain features, including several creek crossings, steep climbs and descents, and many sections with gnarly roots. Not surprisingly, the Potawatomi plays host to some of the best trail races in the Midwest, ranging from 5 miles to a full marathon.