10 of the Best Trail Races for Fall

Fall is prime time to tackle a trail race.
Fall is prime time to tackle a trail race. Rock/Creek
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Trail races trade in urban skylines for panoramas showcasing mountain peaks and lake vistas, interspersed with close-ups of trees and wildflowers as you speed past. Fall trail races up the ante even further: With summer temps cooling, previously un-raceable desert terrain (at least for the mere mortals among us) becomes welcoming again, ushering in a season of routes brimming with red rocks and mesa-filled views. With autumnal color spreading across hills and valleys, it’s prime time for mountain races, too. Lace up your trail running shoes for 10 of the best fall trail races from coast to coast.

1. Golden Leaf Half Marathon; Aspen, Colorado

Even if you aren’t a gold-medal runner, this Rocky Mountains foot race delivers golden glory, with gilded aspen trees lining the challenging 13.1-mile Golden Leaf Half Marathon. The course begins in Snowmass Village and beats a punishing track up 1,000 feet to Government Trail. Once you hit the high point, on West Government Trail, the terrain rolls beautifully past expansive mountain views, across streams, and through gorgeous aspen copses to Aspen. Founded in 1978, the race marks its 40th anniversary in 2018 and usually sells out, so be sure to sign up early.

2. Powisset Farm Trail Run; Dover, Massachusetts

Mark Walter founded the Powisset Farm Trail Run to give athletes a wooded run through New England’s fall foliage in full color. Runners start and finish at Powisset Farm, a bucolic destination 30 minutes outside of Boston. Offering several distance options (8.3 miles, 5.6 miles, 3.1 miles, and 1.5 miles), the course follows the scenic Meadow Loop trail, which serves up views of the farm, rock walls, and numerous feeding boxes that attract native and migrating birds. One of the race’s signatures is ascending Noanet Peak, which overlooks Boston. Post-race activities include farm tours, pumpkin painting, and cider donuts, and top finishers also receive farm-fresh gifts, like eggs, kale, and garlic. The race is part of the Barn to Run Trail Race Series, with several events held in September and October.

3. Rock Creek Stump Jump; Chattanooga, Tennessee

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The Stump Jump has grown into the primer 50K ultra trail race in the Southeast. Rock/Creek

Matt Simms founded Rock Creek Stump Jump in 2001 when the budding ultra-runner discovered there were few trails in his hometown. That first year, around 70 competitors raced; since then, it’s earned a reputation as the premier 50K trail race in the Southeast, with a field of some 500 ultra racers. (It also offers a 10-mile distance.) The course follows mostly single-track on a lollipop route atop Signal Mountain and Walden Ridge, cruising through thick hemlock and rhododendron forests and over stream bridges to offer awe-inspiring Tennessee River Gorge views. The trail mixes flat, rolling, and climbing terrain, and can be quite technical at times—be sure to watch out for the acorns! They’re like running on marbles and have caused many a twisted ankle on the trail.

4. Ghouls & Fools Nighttime Trail Race; Reading, Pennsylvania

Ghouls & Fools Nighttime Trail Race kicks off the seasonal spook factor with a nighttime forest run. Runners are encouraged to bring headlamps for the race, which is also known as the “Frantic Fartlek Through the Firs.” Even with that bit of light, it feels as though ghosts and goblins—or perhaps just a friendly Bigfoot—could be awaiting around every turn. Halloween-decorated aid stations and a post-race beer garden make this 10K run especially festive.

5. Jay Peak Trail Festival; Jay, Vermont

In September, the two-day Jay Peak Trail Festival takes over Jay Peak Resort in the Green Mountains of upstate Vermont. On Saturday, runners can take on strenuous, mid-grade, or (relatively) easy 5K routes; the most challenging route climbs over 1,100 feet of elevation, while the other races have shorter ascents. Or competitors can play Goldilocks and try each for a combined 15K. The Sunday course is a single 11-mile loop that climbs 3,000 feet. Runners can complete one lap or aim for legendary status and complete it three times for an ultra-distance.

6. Moab Trail Marathon; Moab, Utah

Moab may be stunning, but sizzling summer temperatures turn its landscape into inhospitable terrain. Fall brings perfect running conditions for the popular Moab Trail Marathon. The marathon course includes 3,500 feet of elevation gain and loss through an extraordinary route up canyon rims and descending into their sandy bottoms, and crossing slickrock, creeks, and dirt roads. With several distances on the docket (kid’s dash, 5K, half-marathon, and marathon distances), nearly every runner can join. However, this race has a competitive field: In 2018, it doubles as the USA Trail Marathon Championship and a qualifier for the World Long Distance Trail Championship.

7. Catalina Island Half Marathon; Avalon, California

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Sublime views of the harbor and Pacific Ocean can be found at every turn of the Catalina Island Half Marathon. Everett Carrico

You have to take a trek to do this trek: It’s set on Catalina Island, a stunningly gorgeous island reachable by ferry off the coast of Newport Beach, California. The half-marathon and 10K courses offer spectacular Pacific Ocean views and chances to spot the island’s wildlife, including—believe it or not—a free-ranging buffalo herd. The course climbs the island’s rugged trail and fire-road systems, delivering steep climbs of 1,600 feet in elevation that pay off with crazy fast descents. The route passes through Catalina Island Conservancy lands, so the race tries to keep its footprint small. It’s also a cupless race, so all registrants receive a lightweight, collapsible, and reusable cup to use along the route.

8. Trails For Glory; Las Vegas, Nevada

There’s lots more to Sin City than the glitz and glamour of the Vegas Strip, including the rolling single-track of Cottonwood Valley, home of the Trails for Glory Race, which features a range of distances from two to 42 miles. Each one offers stunning views of the sandstone bluffs of the Red Rock Escarpment, but be sure to pay attention to your feet, too, as the rolling terrain crosses desert scrub, sand, and slick rock. This environmentally conscious race provides water at aid stations, but it’s B.Y.O.B.—bring your own bottle—to limit trash left along the trails. Your entry fee goes to a good cause, too: It benefits Refuge for Women Las Vegas to fight human trafficking.

9. Emerald Bay Trail Run; Lake Tahoe, California

During this seven-mile point-to-point race, runners spend quality time with Big Blue—one of the largest and deepest alpine lakes on the planet. The Emerald Bay Trail Run begins at Eagle Point, then traces the edge of its namesake body of water. It then follows the Rubicon Trail to D.L. Bliss State Park and finishes at Lester Beach, where a dip in the frigid lake offers perfect post-run recovery. Although the route is mostly single-track with moderate ascents and descents, it has a few technical sections, including one with granite steps. But you’ll be rewarded with panoramas of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe and views of the High Sierras.

10. XTERRA Trail Run Series; Oahu and Maui, Hawaii

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This trail series offers several distances for runners of all skill levels on two beautiful Hawaiian islands. Brian Lauer

Two races of this three-race-series are held in October, and you really can’t go wrong with either: Both offer Pacific Ocean views and routes through lush tropical landscapes. The Gunstock Ranch Trail Run, on Oahu, has half-marathon and 5K routes through a private ranch, so the race is a rare chance to experience the trail near the legendary North Shore. The Kapalua Trail Runs kicks off at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, on Maui. The route follows the same 10K route as the XTERRA World Championship, though runners can opt for the entire course or shorter 5 or 3.3K options.

Written by Ashley M. Biggers for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

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