9 Incredibly Rewarding Trail Runs Across the United States

According to the American Hiking Society, there are over 200,000 miles of trails in the United States. In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to choose a Top 9. But if there’s one thing trail runners love, it’s a challenge, right?

So, here’s our attempt at rounding up some really awesome trail runs. Some are internationally recognized, others more regionally known, still others might only be known by the loyal band of locals who pound their dirt daily. Some have life-altering scenery and others are more of the backyard “Mr. Reliable” type. Some are ultra-marathon distances, others less than 5-miles.

Organized East to West, here are some must-run trails in the United States that all share this one defining attribute: they’re incredibly rewarding.

East

Presidential Traverse - 22 Miles

A landscape view of a forest-covered mountain range(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)

In a word, this run is “burly.” Photo by Marie Nouvellon

A notch on any New England trail runner’s belt and arguably the most scenic 20-mile section of the entire Appalachian Trail, the Presidential Traverse is a slog of monumental proportions. Along this point-to-point route in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, trail runners embark on a trek that pits them against highly technical trails, merciless winds, 4,000-foot peaks, and 9,000 feet of elevation gain. To complete the traverse, one must begin at either the northern or southern terminus and traverse a string of seven peaks (named after US presidents) before ending at the opposite end. What trail runners sacrifice in terms of beaten and battered legs, they’re rewarded for with stunning panoramas and big-time bragging rights.

Mullens Cove Loop - 10 Miles

Named Outside Magazine’s Best Town Ever in 2011 and in 2015, it’s safe to say Chattanooga, TN has established itself as an elite trail town. The oft-referenced “50 trailheads within 30 minutes” is one of the mountain town’s main metrics of fame. And of these trails, perhaps the very best is Prentice Cooper State Forest’s 10-mile Mullens Cove Loop. What makes this trail great is a triple whammy of reasons: First, it’s a loop, which every runner knows is a great blessing for offsetting some of the inherent repetition of running. Second, Mullens Cove is home to the Bad Beard Events River Gorge Race—one of the best mid-distance trail racing events in the Southeast. Third, the scenery along this loop is some of Tennessee’s finest, traveling through hardwoods and hemlocks, alongside babbling creeks lined with mountain laurel and moss, and atop bluffs overlooking the “Grand Canyon of Tennessee.”

Appalachian Trail Smokies - 71 Miles

A trail surrounded by trees on all sides, creating a tunnel of forest surrounding the trail(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)

East Coast mountain running at its finest (and hardest). Photo by Wes Hicks

It takes a special breed of trail runner to complete the 70-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that stretches through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The distance alone is one thing. But the near-vertical steepness of certain portions of this route adds an altogether loftier challenge that can break even the hardiest of runners. Throw in unpredictable weather, the most biodiversity of any US national park, and downright distracting beauty around every turn, and you’ve got yourself one helluva rewarding challenge.

Midwest

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - 10 Miles

Think of a Caribbean paradise. Now throw in a dash of some far-off fantasy world where waterfalls spill over multicolor cliffs and bald eagles encircle over dense white birch forests and shipwrecks and 19th-Century lighthouses that dot the shoreline. That’s pretty much what trail running in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is like. One trail in particular, the 9.7-mile Chapel Loop, takes runners for a vertigo-inducing, roller coaster of a run that hugs the sandstone bluffs high above the aquamarine waters of Lake Superior.

Mountain West

Teton Crest Trail - 40 miles

Two people running on a trail, with mountains in the background and trees on the right, with patches of snow throughout the landscape

Running towards the Tetons along the Crest Trail. Photo by Ry Glover

For a sheer “stunning” factor, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more epic than Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail. This 35-45 mile trail (depending on the route) travels through the very best of Grand Teton National Park. Highlights include gigantic basins and cirques, staggering 10,000-foot peaks, ocean-sized meadows of wildflowers, shimmering glacial lakes, impenetrable fir forests, and more than a fair share of grueling ascents and leg-shaking descents. This trail is the poster child for Rocky mountain running.

Mt. Sanitas - 3 Miles

A landscape view of a cliff side on the right, and a valley to the left

Sunrise from Sanitas. Photo by Ry Glover

Boulder’s Mt. Sanitas doesn’t make the list because it’s the most epic or beautiful trail in Colorado—far from. It makes the list because it’s a tried-and-true staple among Front Range runners. It’s the after-work special, the pre-brunch sweat session, the quick-hit backyard trail run, the girl or boy next door. It’s a trail that is always there for folks, begging to be scaled and then bombed down. The 1.3-mile climb up the rocky and technical Mt. Sanitas Trail is a lung-busting grunt, and the descent down the smooth, sandy Sanitas Valley Trail on the opposite side is an exhilarating lesson in downhill sprinting.

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Trail - 42 Miles

A person running on a trail through a desert landscape, with a red rock mountain in the distance(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)

Into the belly of the (canyon) beast. Photo by Brian Erickson

The mack-daddy of aspirational trail runs, this fixture on many-a-masochistic’s bucket list goes from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other, and back again. You know what that means: lots and LOTS of ups and downs. About 11,000-feet to the canyon floor to be exact! Virtually straight down, then straight up. Then down and up again. Even if you’ve got sherpa legs and Lance Armstrong lungs, there are still other things you’ve got to worry about: high sun exposure, dehydration, stream crossings, technical trails, and the unpredictability of the desert (like rock slides, flash floods, and more). It’s a grueling trek, but hands down one of the most rewarding in the world.

West

Matt Davis Trail - 8 Miles

Here’s the thing about choosing a favorite trail in California: it’s impossible. But one rather random, even if carefully considered, pick is San Francisco’s Matt Davis Trail. Spiraling down Marin County’s legendary Mount Tamalpais, the Matt Davis Trail showcases a compact snapshot of Northern California’s best assets. Runners initially weave through smooth and speedy singletrack along a golden grassy hillside often bathed in sunshine (unless Karl the Fog is out to play). From here, the trail zigzags down a series of switchbacks through a primordial forest of ferns and redwoods before spitting out runners at the edge of the ocean at Stinson Beach. Then it’s back from whence you came, up about 1,400-feet in 4-miles.

Angels Rest - 5 Miles

A sweeping view of the Columbia River Gorge in the distance, with a forested trail in the foreground(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)

The Columbia River Gorge is the PNW’s pride and glory. Photo by Bill Automata

The Columbia River Gorge is the glittering crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest—a region positively studded with polished gems. Perhaps the best trail to witness the Gorge in all its majesty is the Angels Rest Trail. This out-and-back route gains 1,400-feet in 2.5 miles, traveling through evergreen and maple forests, past a couple of waterfalls (classsssic Oregon), and up a series of talus slopes and switchbacks. The highlight isn’t so much the running itself—as the trail is known to get crowded sometimes, especially on weekends—but the precipice of Angels Rest. From here, you can enjoy the best views of the Columbia River Gorge, which is one of North America’s most breathtaking natural landscapes.

Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Brian Erickson(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)

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