Excited for your next run? Whether that’s due to the fact you just treated yourself (finally) to new running gear or because you’ve got a new workout buddy who makes even the most grueling fartleks more enjoyable, all runners know one truth of the road: Not all trails are created equal. And we’re not just talking about gravel quality or the shady wonder of trees. We’re talking boggle-your-mind spectacles, major technical bragging rights, and fascinating histories that make trails worth planning a trip around. For 15 of the best trails in the country, keep reading. For unforgettable foot-to-earth memories, take those vacation days already.
1. Discovery Trail in Long Beach Peninsula, Washington
Southwest Washington is a veritable mecca for runners. We can’t think of a better place to launch your adventures than on Discovery Trail, an 8.5-mile asphalt expanse (except for one unpaved steep section) that’s mostly parallel to the beach. Here, it’s well worth waking up early for your trot. You can savor the solitude, a misty or foggy backdrop, and perhaps a bald eagle or two. Most of the trail follows the curves of the sand dunes, which buffer winds off the Pacific Ocean. You’ll appreciate the parts of the trail under the blissful shade of scrub pine. File this under neat: The trail traces the path of Captain William Clark. Here, he ventured over the headlands to set foot for the first time on the western edge of the continent in what’s now known as the Long Beach Peninsula. You can read excerpts from the journals of the Corps of Discovery (a special unit of the United States Army for the Lewis and Clark Expedition) at interpretive markers on the trail. A bronze sculpture of a life-size windswept pine tree marks the north end of the trail. It takes the place of a real tree that stood for over 100 years after Second Lieutenant William Clark carved his initials and date in it.
2. The Carriage Trails in Moses Cone Memorial Park in Blowing Rock, North Carolina
This 25-mile network is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway (which is part of the National Park Service). The gravel trails are well-maintained and wide, giving you access to a large area of protected Blue Ridge Mountain land with picture-perfect views of green pastures and highland meadows (and, yes, plenty of epic mountain vistas). In terms of elevation gain, it’s comfortably gradual. Even if you choose a straight shot from the lowest point to the highest, you’re looking at a 1,200-foot gain over the course of 5.5 miles. This area is so beloved by runners, these very trails are what inspired the founders of ZAP Endurance to establish their running camp here, which currently provides training to Olympic hopefuls and long-distance runners, as well as running vacations with the Carriage Trails as your home base. While you’re in the area, be sure to journey to Flat Top Tower at the top of Flat Top trail. Here, the fire tower boasts some of the best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the highest vantage point in Moses Cone Memorial Park.
3. Chocorua Mountain Trail in Chocorua, New Hampshire
There’s perhaps no better place in the world to build a campfire and treat yourself to a hot dog on a stick than New Hampshire’s White Mountains. And perhaps no better time to treat yourself to said feast than after conquering this uber-difficult trail. To orient yourself, this scene-stealing portion of the state contains Mount Washington Valley, which puts 700,000+ acres of national forest, 48 4,000-foot peaks, and a big chunk of the Saco River at your disposal. This particular trail pick comes courtesy of the Rockhopper Races organization, which creates challenging courses by working closely with the United States Forest Service, conservation organizations, and private landowners to host unique events. Expect soul-restoring views and 5,000 feet of climbing with an elevation that builds over the course of 14 miles. You’ll start with a 2.5-mile climb before descending to the bottom of the mountain, then climbing up to the summit. Warning: It’s very rocky, and only strong hikers and runners should attempt this beast of a trail.
Located near Lincoln City, the Drift Creek Falls Trail is pleasantly verdant. It’s lined with ferns, alder trees, and vine maple that weave through a rain-drenched coast range forest of hemlock and fir. Runners looking to take it easy will thoroughly enjoy the jaw-dropping landscape on this 3.2-mile jaunt. You’ll especially marvel at the suspension bridge. It’s held up by two giant towers and bolts in the rock, but still gives you that tightrope feel and a major adrenaline rush 100 feet above a rocky gorge.
5. Bowl and Pitcher Trailhead at Riverside State Park in Spokane, Washington
This sprawling park (more than 9,000 acres) is just outside of the city’s downtown along a delightful stretch of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers. With 55 miles of hiking trails, it’s hard to pick just one, but one of the top trails has got to be the Bowl and Pitcher. It’s an excellent choice for any level of runner in the spring, summer, and early fall (when snow comes, try snowshoeing here). Our favorite spot on the trail is soaring across the suspension bridge, where you’ll definitely want to slow down and take in the scenery. History buffs, the wood and wire span was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941, and you’ll see parts of the CCC’s old stone buildings and camps along the route. A Discover Pass is required to park, and kiosks to pay for day parking are also available at the Bowl & Pitcher Trailhead.
6. Colorado Trail via Molas Pass Trailhead in La Plata County, Colorado
About a half-hour outside Durango, this is a superb trail for runners with well-maintained grounds and fairly flat terrain that rewards you with picturesque scenes of the San Juan Mountains and Molas Lake. As part of the Colorado Trail system, the run length is up to you and operates like an out-and-back route, so you don’t have to worry about being winded in the middle of the woods. While it’s great for spring and summer runs, our vote is for fall outings thanks to the golden aspens brimming with radiant tones along the trail.
7. Sugar Pine Trail in Twain Harte in Tuolumne County, California
With Tuolumne County being the home to Yosemite National Park, epic views are a given. The Sugar Pine Trail is a must. Expect beautiful water features, panoramic mountain views, and plenty of gorgeous trees (which also provide welcome shade) along the 4.7-mile round-trip trail. The wide gravel path is dog-friendly should you decide to bring your canine companion.
On this 13-mile path from Columbus to Worthington, you’ll experience cityscapes and bucolic suburbia. You’ll see Ohio State University, charming neighborhoods, and the Whetstone Park of Roses and Antrim Park. Be sure to take note of The Shoe, the horseshoe-shaped football stadium where the Buckeyes play. If you’ve got your dog along for the fun, make a pit stop at Antrim Lake so your pet can cool off.
9. Monterey Coastal Recreation in Monterey, California
This 18-mile waterfront trail from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south has coastal views as heart-pounding as your PR pace. If you want to stop along the way, there are several joints to get a bite to eat and drink on the trail. Or, bring your own victuals and set up a picnic on one of the many grassy areas. Bonus points if you spy a sea lion or sea otter in the bay. Converted into a trail in the 1980s, a good portion of Monterey Coastal Recreation sits where the Southern Pacific Railroad once ran.
10. Chief Standing Bear Trail in Beatrice, Nebraska
You can get a history lesson at kiosks along the 22.9-mile crushed limestone rail-trail between Beatrice and the Nebraska/Kansas Border (there, it converges with the Blue River Trail, which continues on for another 11.7 miles to Marysville, Kansas). Suitable for all levels, try timing your visit to late September or early October, when the air is cooler and the foliage is at its peak, a colorful contrast to the glassy river. Parking is available in Beatrice at the trailhead right off Hwy 77, just south of Perkins Street.
11. James River Park Trail Loop in Richmond, Virginia
With more than six miles along this urban trail loop, it’s got something for everyone. The main sections of the loop are the Buttermilk Trail on the south side of the James River (when milk was delivered to people’s homes, the milkman would store buttermilk in a cool well that’s still located on the side of the trail—hence the name) and North Bank Trail on the north side. The North Bank offers top-notch views of the James River. However, if your experience allows, our vote is heading to the off-road trail. There, you’ll find rolling hills mixed in with a few steep climbs, creek and river crossings, and multiple access points and trailheads on either side of the river.
Maine. Glorious, wild Maine. This forest boasts nine stellar trails encompassed within 680+ acres of wildlife habitats (home to ever-elusive black bears, white-tailed deer, coyotes, and more) and forest. With ample trail options depending on your level and/or desired intensity, run along peat moss or packed gravel in one of the most phenomenal nooks of the Pine Tree State. The boardwalk section, Orono Bog Boardwalk, is one of our personal favorite cool-down spots, a roughly one-mile easy trail that goes through the wide reaches of an ancient bog.
13. Ridge to Rivers Trails in the Boise Foothills, Idaho
Yet to hit the road in the Gem State? You’re missing out—especially when it comes to the superb Ridge to Rivers trails. The interconnected system comprises 190 miles of trails in the Boise Foothills, just outside the city. Whether you crave a recovery day jog on flat land or a more challenging session, there’s no shortage of options. Many prefer visiting in spring when wildflowers are in bloom and shroud the hills in pink, yellow, and blue hues, but we’re partial to summer at the higher elevation trails closer to ski area Bogus Basin, where you can escape the heat and enjoy much cooler temperatures. If you’re in it for the wildflowers, head to Central Ridge Trail, a two-mile loop with sweeping views of downtown Boise. This particular trail is located in the Military Reserve, a 734-acre natural area that’s named for Fort Boise and the associated military maneuvers that were performed there between the 1860s and 1940s.
14. Hidden Falls Regional Park in Placer County, California
Trail maps don’t lie, these parts mean business. This picture-perfect park near Auburn provides 30 miles of multi-use trails for running, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. It spoils guests with impressive vistas of the Sacramento Valley and the Sutter Buttes mountain range. When you head to these oak woodlands, carve out at least a few minutes to see the two observation decks to scope out some waterfalls and river scenes. The grounds are also home to a quarter-mile of concrete ADA-accessible trails. And while it’s open year-round, nothing beats catching the California poppies and other wildflowers in springtime. There are sheep, goats, and cattle roaming around the park, so be kind to your running buddies. Worth noting: A new 30-acre expansion will bring the entire trail network up to 60 acres.
15. Sugarloaf Trail at Carolina Beach State Park, Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Biology enthusiast? The rare Venus flytrap is native to Carolina Beach State Park. In fact, it only grows within a 60-mile radius of Carolina Beach. Now for the trail specs: Sugarloaf Trail is a three-mile loop along the Cape Fear River. The trail winds along coastal evergreen forest, fringe sandhill forest, tidal cypress-gum swamp, and longleaf pine savannah. It culminates at Sugarloaf Dune, a 50-foot-high forested sand dune, perched near the bank of the Cape Fear River. The scenery is so captivating you’ll almost forget you just cranked out three off-road miles. As long as they’re on leash, dogs are welcome. Once you’ve checked Sugarloaf Trail off your list, there are seven other trails to explore at the 761-acre park.