Tired of the treadmill? Instead of heading to the gym for your next workout, get out to one of America’s parks, refuges or recreation areas for an experience that is sure to be exhilarating. Public lands offer trails that are suitable for all abilities and interests. Whether you prefer flat, paved paths, or steep, single-track switchbacks, your best run is waiting at one of America’s public lands.
In the Cascade Range, just two hours’ drive from Portland, Table Rock Wilderness Area offers 17 miles of trails through pine forests and mountain wilderness. Accessible from four trailheads situated around the edges of the wilderness, Table Rock is best explored via out-and-back or point-to-point routes. Most trails are singletrack with stretches of steep grades, making Table Rock an exciting challenge for runners looking for a strenuous workout. Though running these trails can be difficult, the long ascents are worth it — runners who reach the top are welcomed with spectacular views of tree-covered mountains and the Molalla River.
Instead of running the same old route through your town this weekend, go for a run among prairie dog towns at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This unique park offers nearly 100 miles of trails varying in length, terrain and difficulty. In addition to these trails, runners are permitted on the Scenic Loop Drive, a paved road that makes a large loop around much of the park’s South Unit. Trails take runners through miles of prairies, badlands and petrified forests with opportunities to see bison, elk and other wildlife. Whether you are looking for steep climbs over rough terrain, or a smooth, easy run to take in the prairie scenery, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a trail for you.
The Grand Canyon carries elite status as a destination for veteran trailrunners seeking to complete the famed rim-to-rim (R2R) journey — a brutal 24 mile excursion through extreme terrain and often harsh conditions. While running R2R requires serious training, other trails at Grand Canyon are not as long or demanding. Runners may access miles of paved trails around the rim of the Canyon, and can also venture down into the Canyon without running the entire R2R. If you do venture on a trail below the rim, be mindful that mules and hikers have the right of way, and be careful for sharp turns and steep descents. In contrast, the trails around the rim of the Canyon are mostly flat and many allow leashed pets, so you can enjoy a nice run with your favorite four-legged friend. Running these trails is best in the morning when crowds are thinner and temperatures are cooler. Even if you are not running in extreme heat, it’s important to stay hydrated at Grand Canyon, especially if you are not accustomed to running at higher altitudes.
One of the oldest national wildlife refuges in the country, St. Marks gives runners access to dozens of miles of trails amid coastal marshes, creeks and picturesque stands of longleaf pines. Trails here are mostly flat, allowing runners to focus on the wildlife rather than catching their breath. Watch for bald eagles, red-cockaded woodpeckers and alligators as you run — you may want to stop to take pictures. While the refuge has miles of trails of its own, it also hosts 43 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, giving runners access to this beautiful and historic 1,300 mile path.
Forest, coastal and mountain ecosystems converge at Olympic National Park, giving runners plenty of options for the terrain and scenery. Across these three ecosystems, Olympic National Park boasts dozens of unique trails spanning hundreds of miles, from the shores of the Pacific to the peaks of the Olympic Mountains. Because Olympic National Park covers such a wide range of elevations, many of its mountain trails are steep and winding. High grades combined with the effects of altitude can make for quite the challenge, so only attempt these routes if you’re conditioned for it. In contrast to the mountain trails, many of Olympic’s coastal trails are flatter and close to sea level, allowing for runners to enjoy the scenery without working too hard.
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has over 46 miles of trails through wetlands, forests and tallgrass prairie on the Minnesota River, just outside of the Twin Cities. Trails here are all fairly flat and range from less than a mile long to over six miles, though loops can be combined to create even longer routes. When running, be sure to keep an eye out for birds. Running along the river or refuge wetlands will provide views of great blue heron, trumpeter swans and a variety of waterfowl. Beavers and muskrats can be seen building homes, and turtles perch on logs to catch heat from the sun. The refuge visitor center is accessible via light rail, so you won’t need a car at all.
Built upon an old line of the Southern Pacific railroad, Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail spans over 25 miles, the first 16 of which traverse through the scenic Susan River Canyon. Runners on the Bizz Johnson pass through two tunnels and cross the river 12 times, all while surrounded by pine forests and rocky cliffs. This dirt and gravel trail makes for an easy and enjoyable run over rolling hills, and is especially scenic in the fall when the leaves change colors.
Get a history lesson on your next run. Near the Canadian border, Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge offers over 10 miles of fairly flat trails through boreal forests on what was formerly a U.S. Air Force Base during the Cold War. With many trails that are less than one mile long, Aroostook is a great place for a short run. Aroostook is an important habitat for many boreal birds and waterfowl, rare plants, and mammals like moose, lynx and otters — so watch for wildlife while you are running. When visiting Aroostook, be sure to check out the East Loring Trail, where you can see several bunkers that are left over from the Cold War.
Shenandoah National Park is a spectacular location for running, with over 500 miles of trails among forests and wetlands. Trails vary dramatically in terms of length and difficulty, and many involve significant changes in elevation — this park is in the mountains, after all. Don’t want to run by yourself? Shenandoah allows leashed pets on many of its trails, making it a great place for a run with your dog. When you finish your run, wade into one of Shenandoah’s many mountain streams to cool off and relax — just be sure to test the water first, because even in the summer, they can be very cold.
Nearly 400 miles of trails traverse ancient forests, glaciers, snow-capped mountains and one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth at North Cascades National Park. Running at North Cascades is best between June and September when most of the park’s snow is melted, though it is not unusual for snow to linger well into the summer — so be sure to check trail conditions before you head out on your run. In addition to North Cascades’ network of trails, two National Scenic Trails pass through the park – the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail – giving runners access to thousands of miles of exciting terrain and scenic vistas.
When running on these trails and any others, please stay aware of your surroundings and be courteous to other trail users. In order to have a safe and enjoyable run, don’t forget to stay hydrated (especially at altitude), check the weather forecast for storms and extreme temperatures before you depart, and bring along a trail map so you don’t get lost. Finally, some of these trails are very challenging and running on them might cause you to become more fatigued than usual — so take breaks as needed. You can tell anyone who passes by that you’re not stopping to catch your breath, you’re just pausing to take in the scenery.