Good running trails are like children. They give you ups and downs and just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s something major to stumble over. They tire you out and push you beyond reason and yet, you always wake up and do it again next day. Why? Because nothing worth doing isn’t a little tough during the doing of it.
So how does one pick between children or narrow down their flock? Answer is, you don’t. For me there are thousands of completely worthy trails I’ve yet to make the acquaintance of and I can’t objectively say the ones below are tops; it’s like saying my family’s Thanksgiving recipes are better than yours (which they aren’t, trust me). Comparing your passion to another’s is sacred and slippery ground.
But I’ve also run on enough different kinds of terrain that I can take a shot at a list such as this. I know what works for a trail run and I know what keeps me coming back. Here then, the criteria I used for this list:
- It has to be a trail I’ve run before. I know, I know—that should be obvious, but how many of these type pieces do you read and think to yourself, “that guy has CLEARLY never been there”?
- It has to be a trail close to something great. Mountain vistas, exploding ocean waves, a fun bar or brewpub near the trailhead—whatever. I’m not going to recommend a trail here that’s just, you know, a trail.
- It has to be a bit off the beaten path. Every running community has its hidden spots and though I’ve kept a couple just for me, below are some trails you might not have heard of or run before.
Also, sure to put your faves in the comments below.
10) Amasa Back Trail—Moab, Utah: Long a mountain bike Mecca, I spent a weekend in Moab with a bunch of the knobby two-wheel sect with nothing but my Salomons and Feetures! Elite Ultra Lights. Turns out between the off-road vehicle guys, the crank junkies and the random Utah hiking family (see: Von Trapps but wearing Patagonia instead of curtains), the Amasa Back, on the “free” side of Arches National Forest, was crowded but harmonious. Reason being, the trail system is so massive and comprehensive (if not beyond comprehension: how does one rock balance on another just so and why am I running underneath it?) that it’s really really easy to lose yourself amongst the red rock. Combine that with moderate temperatures and landmarks that look, um, similar and my first three-mile get-to-know-you turned into a 20-mile day-long affair. To get there, drive from downtown Moab along the south side of the Colorado River to Kane Creek or till the asphalt turns to chalky red. There are a handful of turnouts/parking lots along the way. I suggest you take the road as close to the trailhead as weather and people will allow.
Recommended sock: High Performance Ultra Light Crew — Kept the sweat and cakey dirt at bay and the extra length gives an extra layer for those shins. Careful on those creek crossings!
9) The 431 “Out-and-Back”—Incline Village, Nevada: If there’s a formal name for this trail, I’ve yet to find it but many locals refer to it as the out-and-back. About a mile above Incline Village from the intersection of Country Club Drive and Highway 431 is a small blink-and-you’ll miss it pull out (dirt on the right side of the freeway as you drive toward Mt. Rose summit and paved on the left). The trailhead crosses a half-dozen creek tributaries which all run down through Incline and into the lake. Late-spring and summer melt can make for rushing rivers to cross but since it hasn’t snowed enough to build a mini-Frosty in the past four seasons, these would-be rapids are merely a ripple. This run offers everything: panoramic vistas of Lake Tahoe, granite boulders to scramble up and enjoy a moment of tranquility and at the turnaround point, the swaying chairlifts of Diamond Peak ski resort. The trail is about seven miles “out-and-back”. Or, if you do a shuttle, it’s an even 10 mostly downhill miles from the launch point to a dip in the lake and a cold one from the cabana bar at the end of the Hyatt pier. Cheers!
Recommended sock: Elite Merino+ No show tab sock—Absorbs the granite and the roots underfoot with comfort and ease, also moves well with your foot over the aforementioned.
8) Hazard Canyon—Los Osos, California: Take the Los Osos Exit from Highway 101 and follow Los Osos Valley Road 10 miles to the forgotten Central California surf town of the same name. Once through town (you’ll pass a Ralph’s and Vons and a statue of a bear) drive 2.5 miles on Los Osos Valley Road until the entry to Montaña de Oro State Park. From the entrance sign, continue 1.6 miles to a large parking lot on the right. Start looking for the trailhead after you’ve passed a cluster of 4Runners and F-150s with empty surf racks parked under a canopy of Eucalyptus (one of California’s most local and legendary surf breaks is there just over the dunes. Shhh.) The canyon itself is a structure of about a half-dozen serpentine trails which lead up to Hazard and Valencia peaks, the prior about a 1,000-foot ascent and the latter just over 1,300. The lower part of Hazard is garnished with sandy coastal groundcover. That combined with moderately humid temperatures evokes the Hono’Onapali trails in Kauai but by the time the summit is in sight, the direct sun and high-desert brush and shale take over. There is nowhere on California’s coast more untouched.
Recommended sock: Elite Merino Ultra Light Quarter—Need a little ankle protection for the sandy spots on the run. There’s also sharp shale that definitely can crumble underfoot. I used to get blisters on this climb every time because of the change in terrain...that’s no longer the case with these on my feet.
7) The 06/Sawtooth—Truckee, California: Access to the Sawtooth trail system is from the FS06 fire road off of Thelin Drive in the Sierra Meadows neighborhood which is just south of downtown and overlooks the mighty Truckee river. Park in the gravel pullout on the right hand side of the road. The 06 was training ground for my dog and me for about a half-decade, through constant sun and rain and snow and whatever that sleety, melty, muddy stuff is called that happens in May. Like the Amasa Back, this trail is liberally used by mountain bikers, but there’s plenty of room for the gregarious runner who can often speed through switchbacks, skip over the baby heads and splash through creek beds with grace and speed instead of having to unclip every four seconds. The mostly flat run is also fartlek and speed workout-friendly and don’t forget to make a sharp left as you return to the gravel lot—a shortcut to the Cottonwood Restaurant for a pint and a sampling of some local sounds.
Recommended sock: Elite Merino+ Heavy Cushion Crew—This sock was made for Truckee and Truckee was made for this sock. This to me is an all-seasons, all-weather go-to. And since you can start a run in the Sierras in the fall and end in spring, this length and cushion is the perfect sock to get you through winter.
6) Potomac Overlook—Arlington, Virginia: A buddy of mine got married in Arlington about five years back and now, sadly, he’s buried there. When I make the pilgrimage to pay him a visit, I always bring my running gear. A Green Beret, his personal motto was, “I run, but it’s always for a reason.” The Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington barely qualifies as trail (it’s more bikepaths and the occasional single-track) but it’s almost 100 acres of wooded stands, manicured gardens and waterfront vistas. It’s a place of tranquility and in the context of being on the shores of our Nation’s Capital as well as just a stone’s skip from the resting place of our finest and bravest, there is no better reason I can think to do this run than to honor those who’ve come before us.
Recommended sock: High Performance Ultra Light No-Show Tab—This is a fast and gorgeous run and this is a fast and gorgeous sock.
5) Sundance-Sourdough Loop—Bozeman, Montana: I’m partial to Bozeman. From its frontier-style downtown now rife with breweries, boutiques and small-plates eateries to the feeling that one can lace ‘em up from anywhere in town and be in the wilderness within five minutes, it is the ultimate runners’ respite in the West. And the urban/wild interface is what keeps me coming back and extending my boundaries further each time. My introduction to running there was upon recommendation of one of the editors of the hometown paper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is always my first stretch-your-legs jaunt out of the plane or the car: From South Avenue, go east on Kagy Boulevard to the Sourdough Trailhead. Sourdough is an old logging road which runs along Bozeman Creek and babbles and bubbles in tune to it. Frequented by Nordic skiers in the winter and cyclists/runners in the summer, users can venture on one of its many offshoots to get well away from the populated city center within minutes. I recommend taking a right onto the Sundance Trail then heading back to South Third Avenue. Another right on the Gallagator Trail around the stadium loops back to South Seventh. From city to country and back again in less than a 10k, that’s Montana.
Recommended sock: Graduated Compression Light Cushion Knee High—Bozeman is hard to get to unless you’re from Bozeman. I always pack a couple compression socks in my carry-on for just this reason. These runs will get your blood moving quickly and I’m as likely to put on a second pair when having beers and a bite to keep it flowing so I can get up and do it again the next day.
4) Pinebrook Trails—Park City, Utah: When I moved to Utah, I wanted to live in Park City but work in Salt Lake. Moving to Pinebrook, about a mile west of the Kimball Junction exit toward the ski resorts and Main Street, was the perfect compromise. Little did I know the Pinebrook trails would host some of my favorite runs anywhere. Though expansive homes dot the base of the trailheads, soon runners work themselves into the endless groves of Aspen which explode in October and November. The dense fauna keeps it cool in Northern Utah’s sometimes stifling summers and the air stays mountain fresh above the smog line of the Salt Lake basin. The shaded trails, always well-used in winter by resident snowshoers, hikers and fat tire bikers, provide year-round tackiness. While there is a Pinebrook homeowners’ trail map (that they do not like strangers...or renters to get their mitts on) the main trails are well-marked with fun names like Jekyll and Hyde and Moose Byway. Take the Mid-Mountain trail to its apex and there’s a ski-lift-chair-turned-memorial bench that awaits. Sit there and survey all before you for that runners’ moment of Zen. Worth the round-trip ticket from wherever you lay your head to SLC. Trust me or maybe just take it from one of the handful of Olympians you’re bound to run into on a typical Pinebrook Tuesday.
Recommended sock: Elite Merino+ —Same reasons as with the Incline Village run but even more so here as there’s also stickier, muddier parts, slick tracks of glossy leaves in the fall and the occasional snowflake here or there.
3) Luce Line State Trail—Hutchinson, Minnesota: During The Depression, my grandmother was sent on the train from the farm in Minnesota to live with an aunt in California at age 10. While she grew a new branch of our family tree out West, her roots have never left the land of 10,000 lakes. A recent family trip back on the cusp of her 90th offered plenty of time to explore a bit. I was pleasantly surprised to find 63-mile railroad grade which has been re-established for biking, hiking, Nordic skiing and, of course, running. The Luce Line State Trail can feature variable surfaces of limestone, crushed granite or gravel or gras, dirt—and, yep, snow, snow and more snow. The trail helped me explore and know Minnesota, from the endless wind-whipped fields to the hidden bridges to the even more secluded lakes to the tall grasses of spring and summer and finally to the city gates of Minneapolis. I now know why my grandmother still feels her home state’s call.
Recommended sock: High Performance Light Cushion Quarter—These trails can get a little dirty and a little slick. from mud specks to grass cuttings, I choose the light sock with the quarter length as sort of an all-purpose go-to. So comfy I almost forget to take them off when I dip my toes in the lake water.
2) The Ruby Crest Trail—Elko, Nevada: A good number of Lake Tahoe friends this drought-stricken Sierra winter have loaded up the Outback and pointed wagon’s east to the Wasatch in search of snow. When driving that lonely stretch of 80—past OJ Simpson’s current federally subsidized home in Lovelock or the downtown lights of the Model T Casino in Winnemucca—I always recommend a daytime stopover in Elko, not just for the Basque cuisine or cowboy poetry, but for the ridiculous amount of unblemished running trails. The Ruby Mountains are Elko’s backdrop and it’s a must-do for any bedraggled traveler. The trailhead at Lamoille Canyon is about a half-hour southeast of Elko setting up near National Forest Road 660 at the base of the Rubies. Note: This is trail running for the solitary trail runner; an area so secluded and nature-filled you may want to bring a friend...or three. Oh, and leave the copy of Deliverance at home. I always find my imagination gets a little more active on long runs and the solitude out here is deafening. Just over a mile from the trailhead are the Dollar Lakes with the Liberty and Snow Lake peaks looming overhead. A three-mile climb to Liberty Pass reveals views of the most accessible pinnacle, Wines Peak. Nearby Furlong Creek is the last water source for nine miles and if you do end up summitting Wine’s (10k feet) you will be rewarded with the company of mountain goats and Bighorns, not to mention views for days—or at least two time zones. The descent will take runners through the grassy flats and sagebrush and eventually back toward Elko for a much-deserved meal of beef tongue and Chianti. The trip up the Rubies is this top-10’s bucket-lister.
Recommended Sock: Therapeutic Light Cushion Quarter/Plantar Fasciitis Sleeve Ultra Light—You’re going to want a little something extra for this run that’s why I like my therapeutic socks with the Plantar Fascitis Sleeve. Even if you’re not a PF sufferer, you’re going to want something a little extra to get you up and down the mountain. I also carry a pack with some water, gels and an extra pair of dry socks on this one.
1) The Ashland Watershed Trails—Ashland, Oregon: Lithia Park is a 93-acre wilderness haven in the middle of downtown Ashland just steps from—among other Shakespeare-related attractions, art galleries and small-plates restaurants— Caldera Tap House (as well as it’s new Brewery), but more on those spoils in a minute. LIthia Park’s winding jogger-stroller-friendly creekside trails lead up to the Ashland Watershed trail system and can be taken all the way to the 7,500-foot summit of Mt. Ashland. The pedestrian pathways soon end up hooking up with the PCT and away you go. The system, known by locals as the creek-to-crest, is a series of single-track climbs through stands of legacy Ponderosa Pine, Douglas-fir, Black Oak and Pacific Madrone. It’s as if a Bob Ross painting exploded on your face. Ashland doesn’t have the same precip as farther north and many of its summer days can swelter and winters can carry more than just a little chill. In any season, it makes sense to layer up if you’re making the trail runners’ pilgrimage to Southern Oregon, where you just might get a peek at ultra running champ Timothy Olson tromping around this legendary Siskiyou and Cascade single track. Whether you summit or go for an easy 10, you’ve surely earned a foamy tour at Caldera where 1,200 cans per minute of a trail runners’ best post-run snack are produced!
Recommended Sock: Plantar + Calf Sleeve Light Cushion Knee High—Another good run to double-up on, but I like to wiggle my toes a bit especially when they start to get a little colder at altitude. Keep the sleeve on for when you sit down at that bar stool, you’ll be walking back to your accommodations like Frankenstein if you don’t.