The Most Iconic Trail Races in the United States

Trail races become legendary for many reasons. Perhaps a race establishes itself as a proving ground for future giants of the sport. Perhaps a run becomes renowned for the stunning scenery you get to enjoy along the way. Sometimes a trail marks itself out as a real tough, nasty son-of-a-bonk.

Whatever the reason, we all dream of running in the most iconic trail races in the United States. We’ve assembled the cream of the crop below to help you aim for the top.

1. Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

Trail runners on the Western States 100
Trail runners on the Western States

There’s something about the Western States 100 Mile that makes athletes into legends. It’s where Scott Jurek crossed the finish line in first place every year between 1999 and 2005. It’s where Ann Trason became iconic for winning no fewer than 14 times. These are some of the biggest names in trail running, making the Western States 100 Mile one of the biggest trail races of them all.

This is the run that truly launched the sport in the United States, and its location is fittingly epic. The Sierra Nevada is as grueling as it is dazzling. It makes you feel like you’re participating in something bigger than yourself when you run this race.

2. Appalachian Trail

Sunset on the Appalachian Trail
Beautiful sunset on the Appalachian Trail

Although not technically a race, the Appalachian Trail is one of these outdoor landmarks that you have to visit at least once in your lifetime. It doesn’t get more intimidating than the Appalachian when it comes to trails of terrifying proportions. The full distance is 2,190 miles, so you can just pick a starting point, and set up your own challenge! If you’re not feeling queasy yet, get this: in 2016, it was completed in a world-record time by a Red Bull-chugging Karl Meltzer. Incidentally, the time was 45 days, 22 hours, 38 minutes.

Scott Jurek also battled with it and wrote about his experience in his book North (there’s also footage of him in the Netflix documentary about vegan athletes, The Game Changers.

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a heck of a way to spend a couple of months.

3. Xterra Kualoa Ranch Trail Runs

Kualoa Ranch Hawaii
Kualoa Ranch

If you fancy a change of scene after Appalachian, these trail races include 5K, 10K, and 21K and take you through the gorgeous Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii. The tropical landscape makes this a very different running experience from most U.S. mainland trail races, and it’s a wise idea to spend some time getting used to running in Hawaiian conditions if you want to compete there.

While cooling off in the Pacific always feels like a great idea after a run, you should also be sure to check which areas are safe to swim in: there are strong currents around the island.

4. Leadville Trail 100

Rob Krar at the Leadville Trail
Rob Krar at the Leadville 100

Heading back to our land of rocks and mountains, Colorado’s Leadville 100 is truly one of the great iconic trail races. Running at elevations that hover around the 10,000ft mark is no mean feat. Elevation training is essential for this race, lest you become one of the 50%+ of runners who fail to complete the course each year.

There’s also the chance that you’ll be overtaken by what appears to be a bigfoot, but don’t worry. It’s probably just a shirtless and wild-haired 2-time winner Anton Krupicka doing his rounds.

5. Mount Marathon Race

Mount Marathon Seward Alaska
Mount Marathon, Seward, Alaska

Confusingly, this isn’t a marathon but a 5K. Now, 5K always sounds like a breath of fresh air compared to some of the trail races we’ve mentioned. But the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, will make you sorely reconsider.

This is one of the nastiest trail runs in the U.S., and people get seriously hurt every year. It’s even seen fatalities in the past, so under no circumstances should you take this race lightly. However, completing this race is a feat to tell the grandkids.

6. Moab Trail Marathon

Arches National Park in Moab, Utah
Arches National Park in Moab, Utah

The Moab Trail Marathon takes you through the otherworldly terrain of Moab, Utah. This marathon is famous for its staggeringly beautiful views, and although it’s a very harsh run, it isn’t as hot as you might expect, as the race usually takes place in winter.

Of course, you can try it in the 100-degree heat of July if you’re, you know, one of those athletes (we appreciate you!).

7. Crow Pass Crossing

Crow Pass
Crow Pass Trail, Alaska

If it’s the wilderness that drew you to trail races, try the Crow Pass Crossing run in Alaska. It’s nominally 22.5 miles, but this is kind of up to you: athletes find their own route through the Chugach Mountains, so you could easily end up running a few extra miles if you’re not prepared.

8. The Dipsea

Dispea Trail
Dipsea Trail, California

No list of iconic trail races would be complete without the oldest of them all. Located in California, it’s an achingly beautiful run and one we recommend that every trail runner in the U.S. should try at least once in their lives.

Also, don’t let the cuddly-seeming 7.4-mile length fool you. This location attracted those early runners because it’s treacherous and extremely challenging, even if you’re well-prepared.

Conclusion

We all come to this wonderful sport for our own reasons, but there are a few reasons every runner has in common:

  • The thrill of the challenge
  • Love of incredible scenery
  • Pushing our limits further and further.

These races have all of these qualities in spades. Get training, book your travel plans, and prepare for the time of your life.

Have we missed your favorite trail? Please share it in the comments!

Kevin Le Gall

Kevin is the founder and editor of Runner's Lab. He started running in 2015 and completed his first marathon in Rotterdam in 2016. He's also worked for Under Armour from 2016 to 2018 and helped launch their running collection in Europe (in particular the HOVR shoes). In addition, Kevin is a 300-hour certified yoga teacher (Sivananda) and uses this experience to run more mindfully with a focus on well-being over performance.

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