So you want to run a trail race. The dirt, the adventure, the uncharted territory. It all sounds like more fun than another half-marathon on a flat paved road. And it certainly can be.
Fortunately, there are more trail races than ever: From local 5Ks to ultra-marathons, it’s just a matter of deciding where to start. While there are countless famous international trail destinations — Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (known as UTMB), the Tarawera Ultramarathon in New Zealand, new routes opening up to the public across Patagonia — there are also dozens of amazing and famous trails in the U.S. — many more than would fit on this list.
Often trail races overlap with ultra-running races — any distance longer than a marathon — but that doesn’t mean you have to start with a 100-miler. Try the shorter options at these events if you’re just starting out or put some of these one-of-a-kind races on your bucket list to build up to. Many of these trails can also be run at your leisure, not just in a race. But where’s the fun in that?
1. UA MOUNTAIN RUNNING SERIES
Multiple Dates | Killington, Vermont; Copper Mountain, Colorado; Mt. Bachelor, Oregon
If you’ve never run a trail race, the Under Armour Mountain Running Series is a good place to start. Set in classic trail locations like Colorado’s Copper Mountain and the Appalachian mountains around Killington, each event in the series has multiple distances: from 5K–50K. While the 50K races can be highly competitive, with prize purses attracting some of the top pro runners, you could also just enjoy the Deschutes National Forest around Mt. Bachelor, for example, at your own pace. Although new on the scene, this series has already become a favorite for the vacation-like settings and post-race relaxation.
2. MOUNT MARATHON RACE
July 4 | Seward, Alaska
In theory, it doesn’t sound that hard; it’s just a 5K. But the Mount Marathon Race, which has taken place annually on the Fourth of July since 1915, is considered the toughest 5K in the country. Starting in Seward, 700 runners race straight up the mountain and then back down. The only rule is you have to circle a boulder at the top. How you get there is up to you. But be warned: There is no easy route. You’ll gain more than 3,000 feet in elevation in a mile and have to scramble across scree and rocky trails. Beware: People regularly get injured and one runner tragically disappeared during the race a few years ago. If you want a shot at this local Alaskan classic, the lottery is open from March 1–March 31.
3. CATALINA ISLAND MARATHON & AVALON 50K/50-MILER
Multiple Dates | Catalina Island, California
Catalina Island, off the coast from Los Angeles, has long been a popular tourist destination for boating, fishing and hiking. Just 22 miles long, the island is known for its reefs, rugged mountains, ocean views and herd of wild bison. The island has also made its trails home to a number of popular races, from the Catalina Island Marathon — a historic trail race that celebrates its 41st running this year — to the Avalon 50K and 50-miler, which lets you cover the entire island by foot. Because of the location, Catalina races require a ferry ride and some logistics, but are worth it once you’re out on the car-free trails.
4. THE DIPSEA
June 10 | Mill Valley, California
Another closely guarded local favorite with no set route, the Dipsea is the oldest trail race in the country. Starting in the small town of Mill Valley, just outside San Francisco, runners head up and over the mountains before ending at the Pacific Ocean in Stinson Beach. What makes this race unique — besides the scenic views — is the age- and gender-based head start system. The fastest men go last; the first person across the finish line wins. Some years that’s an 8-year-old girl and other years it’s a 60-year-old man. If you don’t want to fight it out through steep shortcuts, you can run or hike the Dipsea Trail through the national park and Redwood forest any other day of the year. The race lottery opens in mid-March.
5. MOAB TRAIL MARATHON
November 3-4 | Moab, Utah
There’s a reason the Moab Trail Marathon has been picked as the USA Trail Marathon Championships last year and again this year. The sunrise over the famous sandstone arches as you start is enough to make up for however much your legs will hurt later from all the climbing and single-track. The marathon course runs through sand and canyons to give you a full desert experience. While you can explore the famous trails in Moab at any time, this is a marathon like no other. If you don’t want to run 26.2 miles, there’s also half-marathons on Saturday and Sunday and a 5K that will give you a feel for the beauty of Moab.
6. WESTERN STATES
June 23-24 | Squaw Valley to Auburn, California
The granddaddy of U.S. trail races, Western States isn’t something you just decide to do on whim. The race — which travels from the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, up and through the Sierras and across multiple rivers, before ending in the foothills outside Sacramento — has been around for so long it pre-dates the “wilderness” designation of much of the land it crosses. As such, the event was grandfathered in with the number of runners it had at the time: just 369. Since there are now nearly 5,000 applicants for those 369 spots, entry requires you to run a qualifying race and enter a complicated lottery draw. But if you get in, you’ll be part of epic trail running history. Finish in less than 24 hours and get a coveted belt buckle. Of course, if that sounds like too much of an undertaking, there are Western States training runs and training camps throughout the year to give you a feel for the trails. Or, the Way Too Cool 50K covers a portion of the same route without as much of the grandeur — though, it too has a lottery to get in.
7. TAHOE RIM TRAIL
July 21-22 | Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada
The full Tahoe Rim Trail crosses six counties and two states, but you don’t have to cover all of it at once if you don’t want to. Circling the ridges above Lake Tahoe, the 165-mile trail is maintained by a nonprofit association, which provides trail maps and suggestions for your self-guided running (or hiking) adventure. There are, of course, also a number of trail races (of varying distances) on the rim trail throughout the year — the most popular of which are the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs. Choose the 55K, 50-miler or 100-miler for views of the largest freshwater lake in the country and the snow-capped mountains around it. Or, go all-in on the 200-mile race that circumnavigates the whole thing.
8. GORGE WATERFALLS 50K/100K
Date TBD | Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
There are few places prettier than the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. And the Gorge Waterfalls 50K travels right along that Oregon and Washington border, taking runners by, over or under more waterfalls than they can keep track of. (How many exactly depends on the rain each year.) Unfortunately, fires last year wiped out many of the trails around the Gorge, and the race for 2018 has been canceled. The race organizers put on a number of other events showing off the beauty of Oregon, including the popular Orcas Island 50K, which requires a lottery to enter and the Secret Beach 50-miler and 100K, which travels remote trails along the coast.
August 14-19 | Colorado Rockies
If you want to cover that sort of distance, but not all at once, then the six-day, 120-mile Transrockies Run might be for you. Inspired by the TransRockies mountain bike race, the run is a multi-day, point-to-point route. The six-day option goes from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek with 20,000 feet of climbing. You can opt for either the solo run or do it as a team event. The three-day version also leaves from Buena Vista, outside Colorado Springs near the Gunnison National Forest, but only covers 58 miles. Because the event is entirely supported with meals prepared and camp sites set up for you along the way, it can be pricey. Of course, all you have to worry about then is running.
10. HURT 100
January 19-20, 2019 | Honolulu, Hawaii
HURT actually stands for “Hawaii Ultra Running Team,” but it seems appropriate that this 100-mile race is typically simply referred to as the “HURT 100.” Run on adventure-filled, rainforest-y loops on the island of Oahu, this is a race for the experienced trail runner. It’s also a Hawaii classic. The group HURT also puts on a number of other grassroots, laid-back Hawaiian trail races, all in the original adventure-seeking, fun-filled spirit. There’s even a movie, called “Rooted: The Story of HURT,” to put you in the mood. You’ll need a crew to help you through this endeavor, so start planning now.
READ MORE > 5 REASONS TO LOVE TRAIL RUNNING