There's running, and then there's trail running. Both involve the same activity, but only one can guarantee the promise of stunning scenery and the opportunity for a relaxing retreat into the wild.
From rugged dirt paths deep within the forest to rolling hills along the sea, the U.S. has a wide range of terrains for off-road enthusiasts to choose from. It's a good thing too, because runners can be pretty particular. If you're picky about sneakers and spandex, we bet you're just as selective when it comes to your running routes.
Maybe you enjoy the obstacle-course-like challenge of a tree-rooted trail, or perhaps a sandy desert path is more your style. And we can't forget about elevation either. Would you rather take on the demands of a mountainous uphill climb, or do you better enjoy the ease of flat, consistent turf?
Whatever type of terrain you like best for your off-road adventures, there's a trail out there that fits your oh-so-specific style, and with the help of a few experts we rounded up a list of the very best.
Our panel of top trail runners includes:
Nancy Hobbs: Founder and Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, and chairperson for the Mountain Ultra Trail Council. An avid trail runner since the late 80s, Hobbs has long served as one of the sport's leading pioneers.
Joe Grant: An elite trail and mountain ultra-runner and the founder of Alpine Works; a venue that he uses to provide "avenues and inspiration for people to explore wild places on foot," as well as coaching programs for ultra-distance mountain and trail running events.
Meghan M. Hicks: The Senior Editor at iRunFar.com and a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine. Hicks frequently competes in trail and ultramarathon-distance running races and is a self-described adventurer whose perfect day would consist of "an adventure run in a genuine wilderness." She blogs at meghanmhicks.com.
Nick Clark: A well-recognized elite mountain runner from Fort Collins, Colo. Who blogs at irunmountains.blogspot.com.
Liza Howard: A competitive ultra-runner and mother of one from San Antonio, Texas. Howard is a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School and an instructor at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. She blogs at lizahoward.com.
The following 12 trails are a compilation of our panel's top picks. From the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains to the stunning vistas of California's coast and the rugged wilderness of Vermont to the classic, much-loved landscape of the Grand Canyon, our list is representative of almost every type of terrain and offers options for every kind of runner.
Berry Picker Trail- Colo.
Hobbs says that this trail is great for a short distance up Vail Mountain. About 3 miles long, the Berry Picker is a winding single-track route that connects with many other trails on the mountain. "The wildflowers in the late summer are incredible and the leaves changing in the fall are spectacular," says Hobbs. Plus, hungry runners will be happy to find a restaurant at the top and the Vail Recreation District hosts a series of races here from May to September.
Aleyska Mountain Trails- Alaska
Hobbs recommends the Aleyska Mountain trails because their proximity to the Aleyska Ski Resort makes them easily accessible and the routes here offer grand views of the Chugach Mountains. But easy access doesn't mean runners shouldn't be prepared for rugged, backcountry terrain and wildlife encounters. Before attempting these trails, Hobbs recommends that runners learn about bears and moose and what to do when running in the remote areas.
Vermont Long Trail- Vt.
Clark calls this gnarly trail "quintessentially New England." The oldest thru-trail in the country, it covers 270 miles and is one of Clark's favorite multi-day options. But runners beware: according to Clark this route "serves up quite a beating."
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