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Scenic races you’ll want to travel for
Note: We originally published this article at the beginning of 2015. All races have been updated with their 2016 dates.
Between work, family and running, it can be hard to travel to races, vacation with family and still find time to hit all the famously scenic destinations on your bucket list. So why not combine all three? Here are 21 trail races in gorgeous destinations across the United States that runners and non-runners alike will want to visit. Cross a few off your bucket list this year.
(For more great trail races in the U.S. and around the world, check out Trail Runner‘s Race Calendar.)
Photo by Paul Nelson
1. Smith Rock Ascent
Smith Rock State Park, OR
May 7, 2016
Held among the pine forests and dramatic basalt cliffs of central Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park, a well-known destination for rock climbers, this 15-mile race gains over 3,000 feet. If you can handle the vert, you’ll be well rewarded with panoramic views of the Three Sisters from the top of Gray Butte and a nice long descent.
2. The Dipsea Race
June 18, 2016
Mill Valley, CA
Held near-annually since 1905 in the rolling forests outside of San Francisco, the Dipsea is the oldest trail race in the U.S. and arguably one of the quirkiest. There are no male, female or age-group champions: the race’s staggered start is handicapped based on age and sex, and senior citizens battle it out with 20-something speedsters to finish the hilly seven-mile course first. (The elders hold up pretty well, it should be noted: Diana Fitzpatrick, 56, has won Dipsea the last two years.)
The application process for Dipsea is about as convoluted as its handicapping, a combination of first-come, first-serve; a lottery; “bribes” in excess of the entry fee (the proceeds go to the nonprofit Dipsea Foundation); convincing “sob stories”; and an auction two nights before the race. Nonetheless, for trail-running history buffs, Dipsea’s a must.
More on Dipsea:
- Decades of Dipsea: Trail running’s holy grail celebrates 100 years
- Handicapped: An even field on an uneven course
3. Mount Marathon Race
July 4, 2016
Like all good impossibly brutal trail runs, the Mount Marathon Race began as a drunken bar bet, when a man named Al Taylor accepted a challenge to run up and down a 3,000-foot mountain outside of Seward, Alaska, in under an hour. (He missed the cutoff by two minutes.) A few years later, in 1915, Taylor’s round-trip run became an official event, and has been going strong since.
The 3.2-mile Mount Marathon Race is not for the faint of heart: In 2012, one runner went missing, and two others suffered serious injuries after falling on the highly technical course. But the challenging nature of the race will put it on many a mountain-running masochist’s bucket list.
More on the Mount Marathon Race:
- (Not) A Runner’s Story: The author follows in his mother’s 1969 footsteps to run Alaska’s renowned Mount Marathon Race
Photo by Scott Stolarz
4. Catalina Island Eco-Marathon, Half Marathon and 10K
November 19, 2016
For a family-friendly island getaway accessible from a major airport, head to Southern California for the Trail Venture Weekend on Catalina Island, which consists of a marathon, half-marathon, 10K and kid’s race. Starting from the beachside town of Avalon, the races follow singletrack trails and dirt roads into the island’s interior, exposing runners to a variety of wildlife—including, potentially, buffalo, bald eagles and seals—and views of the Pacific Ocean on either side.
Photo by Aric Becker / XTERRA
5. XTERRA Worlds
December 4, 2016
The XTERRA Trail Run World Championship seems designed for runners who find themselves craving warm, sunny weather by the time December rolls around each year. The 21K (world-championship course), 10K, 5K, kids’ race and adventure walk take place amidst the dense rainforest, broad valleys, white sand beaches and verdant cliff faces of Kualao Ranch, a working, family-owned cattle ranch on Oahu Island, Hawaii, about an hour outside of Honolulu.
As if the lush volcanic greenery and the consistently competitive field weren’t enough to put the XTERRA Worlds on every runner’s bucket list, movie and TV aficionados will delight in running against literally cinematic backdrops: Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Five-O, LOST and other big- and small-screen hits have filmed scenes at Kualao Ranch.
More on XTERRA:
Rockies and Southwest
Photo by Rick Keith
1. Big Bend 50M, 30K and 10K
Big Bend Ranch State Park, TX
January 17, 2016
The Big Bend 50, consisting of a 50-miler, 30K and 10K, takes place in the Big Bend region of far West Texas, one of the emptiest quarters of the United States. It’s anything but desolate, though. After starting in Lajitas, a resort town on the Rio Grande, Big Bend 50 runners follow a mostly singletrack lollipop loop through a shrubby Chihuahuan Desert landscape against a backdrop of limestone cliffs and ragged peaks. “It’s different than the Sonoran Desert; it’s different than the other five deserts in the U.S.,” says race director Carroll Voss. Be sure to stay overnight: the dark Big Bend sky offers horizon-to-horizon starscapes.
Courtesy of the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run
2. Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 100M, 50M, 50K and 30K
June 17, 2016
The Bighorn Mountain Wild & Scenic Trail Run takes place in Wyoming’s Bighorn Range. A mix of singletrack trails and dirt roads takes runners past wildflower-studded meadows, expansive mountain vistas and unique geological features like the Eye of the Needle, pictured above, at elevations up to 10,000 feet.
Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer
3. The Rut 50K, 25K, 11K and Vertical K
Big Sky Resort, MT
September 3, 2016
Want to see what Euro mountain running’s all about, without the jetlag and expensive airfare? Head up to Big Sky Country for The Rut 50K. Inspired by the European Skyrunning circuit, The Rut includes beastly scrambles up and down talus fields, a course that’s one-third above treeline and with a total elevation gain of 10,000 feet. In other words, as co-race director Mike Foote told Trail Runner for our June issue, it’s “a fun Montana experience.”
More on The Rut 50K:
Courtesy of Danelle Ballengee
4. Moab Trail Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K and Kids’ K
November 5, 2016
The Moab Trail Marathon is set in Moab’s spectacular Kane Creek Canyon, where singletrack trails and slickrock routes go up, down and between the area’s imposing golden-red canyon walls, with views of the Colorado River.
The Moab Trail Marathon, which served as 2014’s USA Trail Marathon Championship, draws a competitive field, but that doesn’t mean it’s a speedy race. The well-marked course gets technical enough in places to be roped, so forget about your marathon PR and enjoy the view.
Photo by Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography
1. Free State Trail Run 100K, 40M, Marathon and Half-Marathon
April 16, 2016
The Free State Trail Run is a loop course of roughly 20 miles held in Lawrence, Kansas, a college town just outside of Kansas City. “Some folks are surprised about the technicality of the trails,” says race director Ben Holmes. “It’s Kansas, so how tough could it be? After all, there aren’t any mountains here.” But the rocky singletrack and wooded lakeside trails at Clinton State Park, where the Free State run is held, prove that a race doesn’t need mountains to be tough or scenic.
Photo by Ali Engin
2. Ice Age Trail 50M, 50K and Half-Marathon.
La Grange, WI
May 14, 2016
One of the oldest trail races in the country, the Ice Age Trail 50, held each May in Wisconsin’s Southern Kettle Moraine Forest, follows the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, through ever-changing terrain created when the last glaciers pushed through Wisconsin more than 10,000 years ago: drift ridges, undulated countours, short and often steep hills, flats, dips and depressions, with kettles, ponds and lakes often visible through the pines and hardwood forests. Remnants of early pioneer life are nearby and the ultra courses cross over Bald Bluff, a site revered by Native Americans, and the location of the last major Indian War in Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy Jeff Crumbaugh
3. Grand Island Trail Marathon and Half-Marathon
July 23, 2016
Following the perimeter of Michigan’s Grand Island, in Lake Superior, the Grand Island Trail Marathon treats runners to the best the Great Lakes have to offer: spectacular stretches of beach, 300-foot cliffs of striated sandstone, hardwood forests and, of course, the lake itself, which one participant, Bonnie Algera, called “as clear and aqua blue as the Caribbean.” The race takes place on singletrack, doubletrack and dirt roads, and includes some exposed cliff sections with a cool breeze coming off the lake.
Photo by Jacob Waddingham Photography
4. Mines of Spain Half-Marathon, 10K and 5K
August 6, 2016
If you were plunked down in the middle of Dubuque’s Mines of Spain Half-Marathon course, with its long, steep climbs along river bluffs, technical singletrack, ski trails through prairies, creek crossings and some 2,000 feet of climbing, you’d never guess you were in Iowa. But the little pocket of the Midwest where Dubuque is located—at the junction of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin—has a distinct topography of hills, bluffs and ravines, thanks to the glaciers that flattened the rest of the region having passed it by. To go with its unique topography, Dubuque has a growing trail-running scene: just two years old, Mines of Spain sold out in 2014.
Photo courtesy of Bob Becker
1. Everglades Ultras 50M, 50K and 25K
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, FL
February 20, 2016
In February, as the rest of the country trudges its way through slushy gray snow, the Florida Everglades are just hitting their dry season, perfect for wetland trail runs like the Everglades Ultras. Taking place on trails and trams (raised wooden paths through marshland, the legacy of the area’s logging history) in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, part of the vast Everglades ecosystem, the Everglades Ultras serve up a mix of swampland, prairie and hardwood forest—and a chance to see orchids, birds, alligators and the various other plant and animal species the Everglades are known for.
Photo courtesy of Rock/Creek
2. The Rock/Creek River Gorge Trail Race
March 26, 2016
The well-known Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K takes place outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the Southeast’s most bumping trail-running scenes. For runners who want a taste of the course without having to run an ultradistance race, the Rock/Creek River Gorge Trail Race condenses the best of the StumpJump’s challenge and beauty into a manageable 10.2 miles.
“With incredible bluff views of the Tennessee River Gorge and a lush forest landscape featuring giant hemlocks and thick rhododendrons, this is one of the most beautiful runs in the area, complete with plenty of cascading streams, moss-covered rocks and gnarly roots,” says race director Brian Costilow. “Come prepared for unpredictable spring weather, the potential for slick footing, and the most fun you’ve ever had in the woods!”
Photo courtesy of Susan Howell
3. Cloudsplitter 100M, 100K, 50K and 25K
October 1, 2016
Elkhorn City, KY
The Cloudsplitter takes place on a little-known mountain deep in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, on the Pine Mountain Trail. The Pine Mountain Trail follows a geological fault line along the Kentucky-Virginia border high above the raging Russell Fork River. The rough and rocky pioneer roads and meandering singletrack trails traverse dense rhododendron thickets, cross vast rock outcroppings, pass by enormous sandstone boulders and pioneer homesteads and offer spectacular views of Kentucky and Virginia from rugged cliff lines. At the finish line, runners are treated to a spot of delicious local color: hog roast with soup beans, ham and cornbread.
More on the Cloudsplitter:
Photo by Ben Kimball
1. 7 Sisters Trail Race
May 8, 2016
The 7 Sisters Trail Race, a 12-mile out-and-back along the ridgeline of Massachusetts’s Mount Holyoke Range, offers views of the picturesque Pioneer Valley, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, the Connecticut River and Northampton. 7 Sisters makes you earn those views, though, with 3,700 feet of climbing along the frequently technical singletrack trail littered with sharp wedges of the basalt that comprises the elevated ridge. “Those attempting the race for the first time are likely to find their time to be comparable to their marathon time,” says race director Fred Pilon.
Photo by Steve Gallow
2. Lucifer’s Crossing
August 21, 2016
The Cayuga Trails 50 outside of Ithaca, New York, is one of the Northeast’s most competitive trail ultras. As with the Southeast’s StumpJump, Cayuga 50’s race director decided to create a shorter companion race that would highlight the course’s most memorable section. The result is the seven-mile Lucifer’s Crossing race, which ascends on singletrack and Conservation Corp staircases past multiple waterfalls and through old-growth forests, emerging at Lucifer’s Falls before a slick, fast singletrack descent to close the loop.
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Posner
3. Shawangunk Ridge Run/Hike 74M, 32M and 20M
September 17, 2016
Shawagunk Ridge Trail, NJ/NY
DIY adventurers in the market for a hands-off trail race may look to the Shawagunk Ridge Trail Run/Hike, a self-supported trail race in the Shawangunk Mountains (or “Gunks”) of New Jersey and New York.
“The Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT) is a magical and mysterious path that runs through rolling hills, past New York’s largest wetlands, along white conglomerate cliffs with stunning vistas across the Hudson Valley, over and under waterfalls, through rock squeezes and up rock scrambles,” says event organizer Kenneth Posner.
Run-hikers can elect for 20 miles, 32 miles or the full 74-mile length of the SRT. Unlike most ultras, the SRT Run/Hike created its cut-off times with thru-hikers as well as trail runners in mind, and there are no aid stations or course markings beyond the already blazed trail. “This course demands greater self-reliance and mindfulness then a typical trail race,” says Posner. “The reward is a greater connection with the land.”
Photo courtesy of Jay Peak Trail Running Festival
4. Jay Peak Trail Running Family Festival
Jay Peak, VT
September 3-4, 2016
Set on Labor Day weekend in northern Vermont, the Jay Peak Trail Running Family Festival promises a weekend of trail-running fun for the entire clan. On Saturday, there are three 5Ks, as well as a trail race for kids 11 and under (kids are allowed to run the grown-up 5Ks, too, if they choose). Sunday’s big event is a 25K trail race that summits then circles 3,800-foot Jay Peak, providing views of three states and Canada. Runners have the option to do the loop twice for a 50K with more than 9000 feet in elevation gain.
While mom or dad is running, the rest of the family can take advantage of the indoor water park, climbing wall, indoor ice rink, tram to the top of Jay Peak or a number of restaurants.
Photo by Scott Livingston
5. NipMuck Trail Marathon
A Northeast classic, the NipMuck Trail Marathon takes place on Eastern Connecticut’s Nipmuck trail. NipMuck hews to the low-key aesthetic it’s followed for the past 31 years, eschewing big-race festivities, timing technology and large crowds (the field’s capped at 150). If it sounds like a relaxing Sunday-morning stroll through the woods, though, it’s anything but, with rocks, roots and a hilly second half.