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America’s Premier Trail Races

Try any or all of these off-road adventures this season.

Try any or all of these off-road adventures this season.

Racing on trails is a liberating gift that allows runners to move beyond the comfortable realm of consistent splits, well-practiced routes, and tried-and-true race routines. In trail racing, even on familiar routes, you never really know what’s around the corner. Heat, cold, sun, shade, rain, ice, snow or dry conditions all play into trail run-ability and overall race experience, as do elevation gain and loss and congestion on the course (both human and wildlife).

So what’s a curious road racer to do? Trust your fitness and tune into nature to experience the sights, sensations, smells and sounds as you push yourself to new, often dizzying, heights!

We’ve cleaned up 12 of the country’s best trail running events, guaranteed to challenge your abilities, dazzle your senses and get you dirty. Adventure is the name of the game when it comes to these top trail races.

Rock/Creek Scenic City Trail Marathon & 1/2 Marathon

April; Chattanooga, Tenn.

Run on the mountain bike trails at  Raccoon Mountain — Scenic City’s rolling hills and Tennessee Valley views make a friendly transition for road racers looking for a trail event. A short section of asphalt at the start gives racers time to space out before hitting the singletrack, loop course that’s peppered with just enough twists, turns, roots and rocks to keep beginners and elites on their toes.

7 Sisters Trail Race

May; Amherst, Mass.

Don’t let the low-key race scene deceive you. What the race lacks in fanfare, the course makes up for in quad-crumpling terrain. The 12-mile, out-and-back route is rife with loose rocks, mud, steep climbs and seemingly steeper descents. Racers run a portion of the New England Scenic Trail, making their way along a ridgeline series of basalt rock knobs (the seven sisters, plus some) from Mount Holyoke to Mount Hitchcock.

Don’t Fence Me In Trail Run

May; Helena, Mont.

All three distances (5K, 12K and 30K) start and end on the road in Helena but quickly transition to pristine trails for a day of rollicking good runs on the South Hill trail systems that runners climb to get panoramic valley views. This includes runs up and down Mt. Helena and Mt. Ascension, but plenty of switchbacks help to make the ridgeline heights attainable.

Dipsea Race

June; Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, Calif.

The oldest trail race in the U.S. delivers a winning trifecta of a challenging course, awe-inspiring scenery, and a quirky vibe. First run in 1905, the route includes climbs up steep steps, rolling trail through redwood and fern forests, tight singletrack and a roller coaster–esque descent to the finish line. Due to course limitations, only a lucky 1,500 entrants get to run the race each year (registration opens in late March and will fill quickly). Podium contenders are anybody’s guess due to a unique handicapping and starting wave system that sends the slowest runners off first and the fastest runners last. This race also accepts “sob stories” from runners eager to be accepted.

Loon Mountain Race

July; Lincoln, N.H.

Running 5.5 miles with 2,200 feet of vertical gain will definitely make you question the sanity of running up Loon Peak instead of skiing down it — especially on the black-diamond ski run portion, where racers navigate a 40-percent incline. Front-runners dance up the grass ski slopes, dirt trails and service roads like mountain goats. The race has been selected as the 2014 USATF Mountain Running Championship, so you can expect to see some of the best mountain runners in the country pushing the pace.

TransRockies Run

August; Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colo.

Yes, it’s a race. But the six days of running through high-alpine deserts, over craggy peaks, and amid wildflower meadows and forests filled with dappled light is also a fully supported running adventure. Historically organized as a team event, this year marks the first time solo participants are welcome to cover 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain through the Colorado Rockies, enjoying catered meals, gear transport, hot showers and a tent city for every stage.

Golden Leaf Half Marathon

September; Aspen, Colo.

Timed to coordinate with the annual fall color explosion — remember, the changing of the leaves, much like the weather, can be a fickle thing — the course always delivers a rollicking good time. After enduring an initial climb up Snowmass ski mountain, racers ride a route, full of twists, turns, rocks and stream crossings, on Government Trail, across Buttermilk ski mountain and through grassy meadows before ending in Aspen’s Koch Park. This event marks the last glimmer of summer, making for a celebratory post-race party vibe that trickles through the ski town.

Shut-In Ridge Trail Run

November; Asheville, N.C.

Built by George Vanderbilt for his hunting hikes up Mount Pisgah, this trail continues to prove the East isn’t easy with almost 5,000 feet of climbing over the 17.8-mile, technical route. Switchbacks, expansive views and lots of rocks are part of the experience as racers endure the challenge of the point-to-point course from Bent Creek up to the Mount Pisgah parking lot. And the rumors are true — the last two miles are the steepest, with most running slowed to a crawl. The Blue Ridge Parkway parallels much of the route, making it easy for friends and family to give cowbell support.

Moab Trail Marathon

November; Moab, Utah

Red rock, sand — lots of it — rocky ascents, and a few obstacles thrown in for the fun of it (after running 23 miles, climbing a ladder is going to take you longer than you think!) make this race a popular desert draw. Moab’s slickrock trails are a cyclist’s paradise, but the rock is just as fun to traverse by foot — make sure your trail runners have a sticky grip for fast scrambling. Half-marathoners experience much of the same challenging, singletrack, Jeep-and-dirt road course.

Living History Farms Off-Road Race

November; Urbandale, Iowa

Every fall for 35 years running, 7,500 runners gather at a 500-acre outdoor museum of rural farming life, just outside of Des Moines, for the largest cross-country race in North America. Deep creek crossings (waist deep!), hills, muddy slopes and obstacles are all part of the harrier experience, with many runners completing the 7-mile course in creative costumes to up the fun factor.

XTERRA Trail Running World Championships

November; Oahu, Hawaii

Traveling to Hawaii probably doesn’t take much convincing, but adding the opportunity to run on private trails at Kualoa Ranch makes the trip a must for cold-weather averse dirt lovers. Runners from beginner to elite (the world championships are open to all levels) experience the best of the island with slippery, narrow singletrack through tropical rain forests, ridgeline trails framed in Pacific views, fast doubletrack, dirt roads and grassy meadow crossings. Even though trails are open only on race day, don’t be surprised if the lush setting looks familiar — Kualoa Ranch has appeared in many movies, including “Jurassic Park,” “Battleship” and “Pearl Harbor,” as well as many scenes from the TV show “Lost.”

The North Face Endurance Challenge

December; Mill Valley, Calif.

Soft, rolling trails, staircase-steep descents, relentless climbs, Pacific and San Francisco Bay views, salt-breeze-swept grasslands and redwood forests with “Jurassic Park”-sized ferns are just some of the eye-candy treats that keep runners going during this end-of-season, running hurrah. (There are four other locations planned for Endurance Challenge events in 2014.) Pick your pleasure — 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, marathon relay, 50K or 50-mile — and grab some friends for unforgettable trails, uplifting camaraderie and a yummy post-race cookout.