Active SportsOutdoors

The Most Epic Trail Running Races In North America

Trail running is epic, beautiful, challenging, and rewarding. One could argue it’s the best ways to enjoy some of the most amazing natural wonders our country has to offer.

We curated a list of some of the lesser known, epic trail races across the country. We looked for the wild, the weird, and the beautiful races that show off amazing scenery, have unique experiences, and offer challenging courses that confer instant bragging rights.

The Wonderful

Anchorage Run Fest: Anchorage, Alaska is home to a lively running festival every August that has a distance for everyone. The longest race of the festival is the “49K” which celebrates that Alaska was the 49th state to enter the Union. This ultra trail race is mostly flat, running through downtown Anchorage out to shaded trails where you’ll be treated to sweeping views of Chugach State Park.

If you’re looking for something a little more bite-sized, consider the half marathon. Start in downtown Anchorage and head out onto the Coastal Trail on this out and back course. It’s a beautiful, shady route that is mostly downhill for the second half as you head back toward the ocean. Enjoy wonderful finish line festivities in downtown Anchorage.

If one day of racing isn’t enough you can take the “Back to Back Challenge.” Sign up to run The Anchorage Mile on Saturday and any of the race distances on Sunday. The perks include two days of fun and a registration discount!

TransRockies Race: Luxury and trail running don’t often go together, but the TransRockies Run has figured out how to mix the two. This race is entirely supported with meals prepared for you and campsites set up along the way. While this isn’t quite “glamping,” the tents and meals are nice. If you’re really opposed to camping there are hotel options as well.

This is a multi-day, point-to-point race. The three-day event starts just outside Colorado Springs and covers 58 beautiful, mountainous miles. The six-day race starts at the same place and goes to Beaver Creek, covering 120 miles and 20,000 feet of climbing. You can choose to go solo and run the entire distance yourself or do it on a team.

Did we mention that a team of massage therapists and athletic trainers will be waiting for you each day at the finish line? Nothing will motivate you through the tough sections of this race like thinking about the massage and cold beverage waiting for you at the finish. Let your tired legs soak in a refreshing mountain lake before crawling into bed.

The Dipsea Race: This is the oldest trail race in America, run every year on the second Sunday in June. As all good adventures start, this race began in 1905 with a wager among several friends over who could make it to the new Dipsea Inn first. Evidently, the first race was exciting enough that they decided to make it an annual event. More than 100 runners signed up for the first official Dipsea Race.

Aside from a few small changes, the course remains very similar to that first race. Many people consider this 7.4-mile course one of the most beautiful running courses in the world. Don’t let the scenery and history deceive you; steep trails and plenty of stairs keep this race grueling and technical.

Because of its unique handicapping system, men and women of all ages have been crowned victors of this course. Entrants are awarded “headstart minutes” based on gender, age, and a few other factors. The system is based on years of data of times and records of male and female finishers. Most years, the top ten finishers come from different handicap groups, making the race unpredictable and exciting.

The Wild

The Georgia Death Race: If you like precision and predictability, this race is not for you. The race website advertises this race is “70-ish miles”. Some sources peg the race at 71.2 miles while others measure it closer to 74 miles. Either way, the Georgia Death Race is over 70 miles of extremely challenging running through national forests and state parks in Georgia.

There are many ways the race and its organizers play with competitors’ minds. Some runners report aid station signs that lie about the distance to the next aid station. Others bemoan fake aid stations that play music to fool runners into believing they arrived at the next checkpoint when the real station was a mile or two up the trail.

Just when you think you’re “home free,” runners must climb over 800 stairs to the top of Amicalola Falls before navigating the 1.2-mile descent to the finish line.

This race is one of the most competitive races for elite runners because it awards “golden tickets” for entry to the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run to the two male and female finishers. But there are plenty of “Weekend Warriors” and “Average Joes” who take on this unique trail race.

Burro Days “Pack Burro Race”: Fairplay, Colorado has hosted this event since 1949 celebrating the role of donkeys in the old mining days. This festival is always held over the last full weekend in July and one of the headline events is the “Pack Burro Race”. Each racer must cover the entire 15-mile course with a donkey in tow. Each burro must carry a 33lb pack saddle loaded with prospector’s gear—pick, shovel, gold pan, and other gear needed to strike gold.

What’s the twist? You can’t ride the donkey during any portion of the race. Your burro most be led by halter through the course. You and your … umm… steed… must cross the finish line within 15 feet of each other.

The course itself is nothing to sneeze at, with or without a donkey in tow! Choose between two distances. The long course starts in the town of Fairplay and climbs up Mosquito Pass with 13,185 feet of elevation gain over the 28-30 mile course. The short course follows the same route until a turn-around point partway up the pass.

It’s unclear whether you need to bring your own burro to the race but one thing is certain, by the time you finish you’ll have a story to tell! The t-shirt itself might be worth running the race.

2011 Mount Marathon Race courtesy of Lauren Fritz.

Seward’s Mount Marathon Race: Read the full description before signing up for the Seward’s Mount Marathon Race. It’s just a 5K… only 3.1 miles… held every July 4th since 1915. But it’s arguably the toughest 5K in the country. 700 runners start in Seward, Alaska and race straight up the mountain and back. The only rule is that you must circle the big boulder at the top. How you get to the boulder is up to you. There are no rules (except that you have to run, walk, or crawl under your own power).

Doesn’t sound too hard? Did we mention that you will gain more than 3,000 feet in elevation in about one mile and traverse rocky trails, loose gravel, and scree? You’ll definitely earn bragging rights just for finishing this race. People regularly come back with war-wounds and trail injuries but this doesn’t seem to discourage many people—the race is in such demand that there’s a lottery to get a race entry!

The Beautiful

Moab Trail Marathon: By November the scorching desert heat gives way to beautiful 60-degree afternoons and perfect weather for the Moab Trail Marathon. This race leads racers through red rock canyons, past ancient pictographs, and over technical terrain. Runners navigate exposed sections with the help of fixed lines.

The stunning scenery is definitely worth the 3,500 feet of elevation change. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles, lizards, and other wildlife as you navigate old mining trails, single-track, sandy washes, dirt roads, and other terrains. The course takes you over a few water crossings no more than knee deep… unless the local beavers decide to create some extra water hazards.

There’s a reason this course serves as the 2019 USA Track and Field Marathon Championship! It’s fun, technical, challenging, and unique. There is a full marathon, half marathon, and 5K option so there’s a distance for every adventurer.

Whiskey Basin Trail Run: Prescott, Arizona is quickly becoming a mecca of endurance sports and outdoor adventure. The Whiskey Basin Trail Run takes you along the Prescott Circle Trail around the entire town.

While there are several distance options, the full run is about 88 kilometers. The course takes you through desert grasslands, Ponderosa Pine forests, and past pristine lakes. You’ll enjoy panoramic views of Central and Northern Arizona before you cross the finish line with the stunning Granite Dell rock formation as your backdrop.

If you enjoy good pre and post race vibes, this race is for you! Reserve a campsite near the finish line and join the post-race bar crawl through the infamous Whiskey Row. If you tackle the 88K race, be sure to wear your Finisher Buckle for extra bragging rights.

Are you ready to add an epic trail race to your summer adventures list? Which one will you tackle first? If you’re a trail running veteran, what is your favorite race?

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