Trail-running is exploding in popularity, and for good reason. What’s not to like about a sport that requires virtually no equipment—except (maybe) shorts and trail running shoes—and allows you to explore vast mountain ranges and terrain that most people will never experience? Even better, our country has some of the most beautiful and remote lines in the world.
Here are our picks for the best long-distance adventure trail-running routes in the country.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington (93 miles, 24,000 feet of ascent)
It doesn’t get much better than running around the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. The active volcano is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Phase change is visibly and audibly evident as you cross over sculpted valleys and moraines along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. The 360-degree view of Mount Rainier starts at Longmire Visitor Center traveling counter-clockwise to Mowich Lake, then White River Campground before arriving back at Longmire. These are also the vehicle accessible locations where you can drop food and water if you’d prefer to break the route up into manageable chunks. Vast and remote in scope, the well-worn trail—often wide enough to run side by side—traverses through peaceful old-growth forests and subalpine meadows of wildflowers.
The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 20 hours, 53 minutes; September 23, 2006
Zion National Park, Utah (48 miles, 9,000 feet of ascent)
This 48-mile route takes you on a tour of massive red cliffs and lush green valley floors as you run across the entire National Park. Just six years ago, this challenging point-to-point was virtually unknown. Then, two of ultrarunning’s hardmen revived the route and brought it into the sport’s consciousness. Most choose to run west, getting the big climb out of Zion Canyon over with early in their adventure. The views from the West Rim are breathtaking, but what makes this route amazing is its diversity: slot canyons with flash flood potential, switchbacks up sheer cliffs, jagged peaks, expansive sandstone slabs, improbable mounds of earth, sandy creek beds, and valley floors. The trail out of Zion Canyon uses about half of the Angel’s Landing hike, which you should include as an out-and-back add-on because it’s one of the best hikes on earth.
The Fastest Known Time: Mike Foote & Justin Yates, 7 hours 22 minutes, May 26, 2013
Silverton-Telluride-Ouray, Colorado (100 miles, 34,000 feet of ascent)
One race has captured the attention of the best mountain runners in the world—the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. It’s so coveted, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to gain entry (first-time applicants have about a 1.4 percent chance). A popular way to experience the majestic 100-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains is to break it into three days ranging from 28-45 miles—a so-called “Softrock.” This ultra-tour of the iconic towns of Telluride and Ouray averages over 11,000 feet in elevation, with a total of 34,000 feet of uphill. Lacking the requisite oxygen to move anywhere near your sea-level potential (the race’s nickname is the “Hardwalk”), your rewards for the pain are plenty: alpine lakes, alpine meadows, remote mountain passes (Virginius pass is only as wide as a VW bus), gnarly scree fields, and the highest point on the course—14,048 feet Handies Peak. By the time you finish this one you will either swear off ultrarunning or throw your name into the lottery.
The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 23 hours, 23 minutes; August 5, 2008
Arizona (42 miles, 10,700 feet of ascent)
Dropping into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail is a quasi-religious experience. However, the sheer immensity of it all won’t hit home until you arrive at the North Rim—21 miles from where you started—and realize you now have to run back. Running into and out of the six-million-year-old hole has become a rite of passage for North American ultrarunners. There are some miles of mellow flat running along the Colorado River, but this route is defined by its two massive climbs through millions of years of rock sediment. If you under-hydrate or under-fuel the final 4,860 foot ascent will turn into a death-march (and you’ll understand why entire books have been written about deaths in the Grand Canyon).
The Fastest Known Time: Rob Krar, 6 hours, 21 minutes, May 11, 2013
Jackson, Wyoming (34 miles, 8,200 feet of ascent)
Starting at String Lake and following Cascade Canyon the well-maintained trail quickly covers 10,700 foot Hurricane Pass, where you will literally be stopped in your tracks by the view of the South, Middle, and Grand Teton mountains. Circling the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains is not for the faint of heart. The snowy steep descent from Static Peak divide is “no fall terrain,” and this adventure run is almost always a solitary endeavor. Bull moose and black bears will be your only company as you travel over lingering snowfields, past turquoise alpine lakes and paintbrush floral arrangements.
The Fastest Known Time: Evan Honeyfield, 5 hours, 34 minutes, September 17, 2009
Aspen, Colorado (27 miles, 8,000 feet of ascent)
If the three-day Softrock is a bit more than you want to bite off, the Four Pass Loop is a more reasonable portion of big Colorado mountain running. Located just outside of Aspen, in the Elk Mountains, the loop starts at 9,500 feet and is the easily the best one-day ultra-run in all of Colorado. The 27-mile journey is an altitude runner’s dreamscape, with 8,000 feet of climbing and four passes over 12,000 feet in elevation (Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon passes). If you have the lungs, almost every step is runnable (hence the blindingly fast FKT). Those fit enough to complete the loop are rewarded with some of Colorado’s world-class terrain, with impossibly clear lakes, waterfalls, bald mountains, and endless ridges framing the route.
The Fastest Known Time: Sage Canaday, 4 hours, 27 minutes, September 5, 2013
*Lance Armstrong ran the loop in 5 hours, 40 minutes, August 26, 2012.
NaPali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (22 miles, 10,000 feet of ascent)
This 11-mile out-and-back on the northern shore of the island of Kauai feels like you are running along the edge of a deserted island. Dramatic 4,000-foot cliffs shoot out of the Pacific Ocean, covered in nothing but dark green vegetation and broken only by dark brown rock. From the Ke‘e trailhead most tourists only venture as far as Hanakapiai beach, just two miles along the route. Those who continue are treated to three of the seven Na Pali (which means “high cliffs”) valleys, each barricaded from the next by sheer cliffs. When the trail isn’t engulfed in vegetation, it provides stunning views of the coastline. Switchbacks take you from beach, over high cliffs, to high ridges and back again, until you are dropped onto the remote Kalalau beach. There is no road access to this beach, so to enjoy its tranquility you have to earn it on foot (or cheat by boat).
The Fastest Known Time: Max King, 4 hours, 59 minutes, January 22, 2012
Gorham, New Hampshire (26 miles, 9,600 feet of ascent)
What the “Presi-Traverse” lacks in feet-above-sea-level it more than makes up for in rugged rocky terrain. This is “peak-baggin’” at its best, a point-to-point route from Pinkham to Crawford Notch that summits the nine mountains of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The traverse is so technical that it’s hard to get into a rhythm or to feel like you are running for any significant length of time. “Running” through the most extensive above tree line area in the East means conditions can be harsh. Mount Washington, the highest peak on the route (and in New Hampshire) at 6,288 feet, has had some of the highest winds in recorded history, and has killed hikers of hypothermia in the summertime. Although not an official “ultra-distance” this route runs more like a mountain 50k than a trail marathon.
The Fastest Known Time: Ben Nephew, 4 hours, 34 minutes, September 7, 2013
Remember the dire Y2K technological apocalypse predictions? If only they had come true. Without sermonizing, here are 10 ways to disconnect the broadband flow of digitized scheiße that's drowning our souls.
Hey, iPad readers: Do you remember what a book smells like? Especially an old book that everyone in your family has read a few times? As an 11-year-old, I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus The Hobbit, and, verily, even The Silmarillion at least four times. Call me a creep, but sometimes I'd walk by, pick up one of the tattered, coverless paperbacks, and smell it.
I won't attempt to describe the aroma—it's too personal—but it made me feel good. Books are tactile and sensory. Like candlelight, they're intimate and calming. And a book won't knock your teeth out when you fall asleep reading one—if you can sleep at all after reading on an iPad. Experts say the light your iPad or phone emits is jacking with your melatonin. Not so with books.
One of the only smart features I actually use on my phone is the alarm clock. This is a trap. Alarm clocks go next to the bed, so your phone goes next to the bed. My latest software update makes a wee light flash blue (Facebook), white (text), or green (email) every time a message arrives. What's that? Somebody tagged me? Oh, it's an irate reader calling me a douche at 11:00 p.m.
Now I'm angry, or stressed, or annoyed, or distracted, and perhaps worse, I'm looking at a bright white light (more on that later). Recently, I moved my angry alarm phone to the kitchen and replaced it with a large wall clock at my bedside. It ticks like a school clock and somehow reminds me of my late grandfather—and the heartbeats of my sleeping dogs. Studies have found that our constant connectivity affects our mental health and frequent cellphone use can lead to insomnia.
We hire and train a few interns at my office each year. Important parts of the job entail checking facts, connecting with sources, and asking for photo-shoot gear. Invariably an intern—a journalism student, mind you—will enter my office and hopelessly explain that a source hasn't gotten back to them. "Did you call?" I ask. "Uh, no," they reply, shaken by the thought.
It has been reported that the generation currently in high school send upwards of 1,300 text messages a month, and they're seven times more likely to text than to call. Email and text are marvelous tools, but they work best in place of otherwise guttural vocalizations like "got it" and "on the way." Texting while you drive is a thumb stroke away from a negligent homicide charge. A poorly worded email can get you fired. Easily articulated nuances like mirth, sarcasm, facetiousness, or just the right amount of displeasure do not cross over to hastily typed digital communication. Pick up the phone. Unless you're driving. In which case, shut up.
Recent studies have shown that aggregating pixels is not the same as observing and reflecting upon the world. It's called the "photo-taking impairment effect," and although you may feel like you're documenting wondrous existence, mostly you're just operating a chintzy camera and not paying attention.
This means that unless you're carefully framing the subject and noting the light and composition of the impending image, you're not really absorbing the experience into your memory. As Socrates once wrote on a wildly popular Athenian bumper sticker (it bombed in Sparta), The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living. Your daughter's dance recital. Skiing with your son. Mountain biking with friends. Put your camera phone down and be there. Socrates didn't take selfies. #drinkinghemlock
I interviewed a sleep-disorder specialist a few years ago. For the most common form of insomnia, his advice was stupid simple. Don't drink coffee after 3:00 p.m., and get your television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone out of your bedroom. It sounds like hippie science, but biorhythms are real. Staring at a bright box late at night tricks the body into thinking it's morning. The effect is so powerful it can make you hungry for breakfast, which is why it has been linked to obesity. Unless your insomnia is entrenched, it's probably fine to read a book made of paper by a dim light. Otherwise, the bedroom is for sleeping—and "wrestling."
Like art and gym class, handwriting has largely been dropped by our education system—not that adults are writing by hand much these days, either. It's a bigger loss than we thought. A series of studies have shown what we intuitively knew all along. Like creating art, the act of writing lights up the brain in ways that typing decidedly does not. There has even been conjecture that the very act of writing cursive may instill "functional specialization" (focus, control), help us compose our thoughts, and even treat dyslexia. We aren't going to stop typing anytime soon, but when paired with just the right fedora and skinny jeans, perhaps bringing a journal on vacation and a legal pad to a meeting might pass as hip.
The end of the world is coming. Check this box if you'd like to be notified by email or text message. Last winter, I downloaded an NFL app, thinking—as advertised—I would be able to watch a playoff game as I flew to Utah. Naturally, it didn't work. But then, many months later, during the far-superior hockey playoffs, my phone alerted me no less than 20 times about the endlessly fascinating and life-affirming results of the NFL draft, an event that now competes with the birth of a British royal for pure idiotic spectacle.
With the exception of reverse 911 updates, turn off all your phone notifications. Yes, including Facebook. And adjust your computer settings. Do you really need the little pop-up and accompanying chime when an email arrives? Has instant messaging ever benefited you? They seem petty when isolated, but systemic distractions are a big deal. NASA big. There's even a field of research devoted to it called "interruption science." For the humans among us, no matter what kind of work you do, true creativity or even just workaday focus comes in brief bursts. The masterful novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told the Paris Review that, at his best, he could write a worthy paragraph in a six-hour workday—and most of the time he'd tear up those lines the next morning. The breaking news that Johnny Football went to the Browns might have completely derailed him.
I wear a brilliant GPS watch in the backcountry. My mountain bike is kitted out with a touch-screen computer that tells me my location, route, speed, heart rate, and pedaling cadence. My Strava-connected road-cycling friends speak the strange language of power meters. For them, riding isn't about mileage but wattage.
I enjoy my outdoorsy gadgets: The watch once saved me from a night wandering the high country in search of my tent. The bike computer lets me gauge my effort so I don't blow up before the final climb. Power meters have taken the guessing out of training regimens. But sometimes we rely upon tech too much. A map or even just a look around tells me that if I follow the creek, I'll hit the pond. And there are times when you should listen to your body instead of your power meter.
"Athletes sometimes have to separate themselves from their data analysis," says Jason Hilimire, director of coaching at FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. "As coaches, we can spot it in their written comments. 'I'm tired. I'm hungry. I can't sleep.' They're cooked from training or their jobs or their family life. We tell them to unplug and ride with no prescribed goals. Hit the mental reset. Have fun."
Unless it's to notify you that their 27-year-old dog died, nobody goes on Facebook and tells the world about their downfalls: Can't afford new snow tires. The kid has lice! Dead-end job. Drinking too much lately! No, those aren't good posts. Facebook is about gloating and pretense, not the harsh realities of life that actual friends help with. The showing off is especially prevalent with outdoorsy types—and I'm as culpable as anyone. Nothing but sunshine, gleaming choppers, and powder on my page. Nobody's life is that perfect. One small study hinted that the more participants interacted with Facebook, the unhappier they became. Sometimes, when I'm feeling alienated from society and nauseated by being, Facebook makes me feel a whole lot worse. For those days, what we need is a social media site composed of morose French existentialists chain-smoking Gauloises. "We refuse to like your post," they would say. "At the most, we'll recognize that behind the veil of your public presence, you too also suffer."
In Empire of the Summer Moon, author S.C. Gwyne spends a few lines telling the reader how Comanche would wake up singing. That passage resonated with me. And then, last night, my 12-year-old son said he didn't listen to as much music as his peers who spend their days isolated in their private soundtracks. He seemed almost dejected. Music is part of our family life, but earphones and portable music are not. In the car or at home, we listen to music together. We share music, just as I did with my parents and teenage friends. And when we wake up, we wake up singing.
There are certain challenges any surfers worth their salt water have to take on. Some are blissfully isolated, others are crowded but iconic, and several lie somewhere in between. With summertime looming, what follows—in no particular order—are ten must-surf spots that will keep you busy at least until Labor Day, and possibly for the rest of your life.
Few places along this shifting, storm-battered strip of barrier-island sand are as pretty, or offer such a welcome combo of waves and remote escape, as Frisco—which breaks well on south swells and whose Gulf Stream–strafed waters are warmer than beaches to the north—and Cape Point, whose iconic lighthouse beach breaks on any swell. The town of Buxton offers basic services: stop at Scott Busbey’s Natural Art Surf Shop for gear, and at the Orange Blossom Bakery for apple and peach fritters. The Park Service’s Frisco campground is the most secluded, while the Cape Hatteras campground is closest to the waves. Check beforehand for beach-access restrictions, which are dictated by piping plover nesting.
One of the most offbeat beach scenes—and some of the best waves—in the East. During the summer, the area around Montauk’s Ditch Plains teems with crusty locals, hedge fund billionaires, supermodels, fashion designers, celebrities (Jimmy Buffett and Coldplay’s Chris Martin are regulars), and visiting California pros. They’re drawn to the beautiful bluffs, the clear water, and the consistent cobblestone reefs that focus Atlantic energy into everything from mellow longboard waves to punchy beach breaks along Ditch’s inner bay. Summer weekends can be a zoo, midweek days can be pleasant, and in the off-season, Montauk’s a ghost town. Spread out to the south, aiming for the less-crowded beach breaks near Hither Hills State Park, which also has some of the most sought-after camping in the state. At Surf Bar and Surf Lodge (around $300 per night during the summer), you’ll find a perfect representation of Montauk’s interesting Malibu-meets-Manhattan vibe.
The renovation of New Smyrna’s historic Canal and Flagler streets has created a pedestrian-friendly area filled with bars, galleries, restaurants, and shops. And the empty 24 miles of beaches at the Canaveral National Seashore lie right next door. New Smyrna and the Cape’s wide-open beaches break on pretty much any swell the western Atlantic can dish out, from nor’easter-spawned groundswells, to trade wind–driven southerlies, to hurricane-generated eastern swells. The waters are warm, and you’ll find plenty of peaks to spread the crowds. This is also one of the best spots in the world to fish for snook.
Tahoe-blue water, 400-foot-tall dunes, and charming villages that resemble a hybrid between Cape Cod and Newfoundland make this stretch of Michigan’s Northwest Lower Peninsula a little-known American paradise. During late summer and early fall, cold fronts churn up strong southwest-veering north winds, but the waters can still be quite warm. Join wetsuit-clad Michigan freshwater surfers in front of the Platte River Campground, or head to the protected lee of the Frankfort Jetty, 20 miles south. If the waves are flat, this whole area is simply insane for a stand-up paddleboard cruise. Either Third Coast or Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak can get you going.
Wondrous coves of soaring cliffs and craggy offshore islands sacred to the adjacent Quileute Indian Nation make this a must-surf. Pick up a backcountry permit from the Olympic National Park Ranger office for $5. Camping fees are $2 per person per night, and you’ll need to either rent or bring a bear can for camping. Tip: The hike in is a little longer (1.4 versus .7 miles), but campsites along Third Beach offer privacy by way of huge boulders—and there’s a beautiful waterfall at the cove’s south end. The beach-break surf ranges from giant North Pacific monsters to head-high wind swell groomed by downsloping morning offshore winds. The water is damn cold, but the location makes it worth the hike and the paddle.
Though summertime swells come from a tropical source, you’ll be lucky to find water warmer than mid-sixties temps at the gorgeous breaks along the mouth of the Ogunquit River. The river mouth holds a long right- and short left-hand wave. If it gets crowded here, plenty of empty peaks can be found along the broad, sandy beach that runs to the north. This place can especially pump in late summer and early fall, when tropical swells and nor’easters become the norm. Local surfers talk story over morning coffee and pastries at the Village Food Market.
The Beachmere Inn is a classic, beachfront New England retreat that’s been welcoming visitors for more than 70 years.
This five-mile stretch is a SoCal time warp that has some of the most consistent cobblestone reef break and sandy beach break in the state. Trestles begins just south of San Clemente, with juicy left-handers at Cotton’s Point. A few blocks south lie the more fickle Barbwires and the tapered right-handers of Upper Trestles. Another mile south, remarkable right and left A-frames make Lower Trestles one of best (and most crowded) high-performance waves on the planet. But just to the south lie the mellower and more spread-out lineups of Middles and Church’s Point. Further south is San Onofre Beach, a classic, Gidget-style “drive-on” beach replete with woodies, VW vans, barbecues, bocce ball, old-school longboarders, and very friendly vibes. For a secluded beach break, hike down Trail 3, south of the defunct San Onofre nuclear plant. San Clemente abounds in food and nightlife, while San Onofre’s San Mateo Campground is a beautiful mile-long hike or bike to the beach.
A winding 14-mile drive through vintage California ranchland drops you off at this tiny, well-run 22-acre park—one of the few public access points on 40 miles of wild and spectacular coastline. Jalama is wide-open to swells from the south to the north. Waves can range from fun, head-high beach-break peaks to the heaving reef-break A-frame bombs three-quarters of a mile south at a reef called Tarantulas. Recently, Santa Barbara County launched an online reservation system for the campground, and the beachfront campsites are heaven, with #64 offering the most seclusion. From there, it’s an easy shoreside hike down to Tarantulas—or trek northward, along an epic sweep of beach.
Sure it’s crowded, sure it’s touristy, but just the fact that Duke Kahanamoku made this beach one of surfing’s ancestral homes means you need to catch a wave here. Waikiki’s blue-water spots break all year long, but are best on summertime south swells. Queens and Canoes are the easiest for beginners, while the farther-offshore Populars, Threes, Fours, and Kaisers are a long paddle (nearly a half-mile)—and can be filled with experienced locals. Respect for the lineup, a smile, and a greeting can go a long way toward breaking the ice and fetching you a wave. If these “town” spots are too packed, you can often find much less crowded conditions by driving east to the beaches below Diamond Head. It’s more exposed to the breezes and incredibly consistent, thanks to swells generated by the easterly trade winds. Treat yourself to a night at the Royal Hawaiian, the classic, pink landmark that dates back to 1927.
The beaches around Lahaina offer year-round waves from the south and north. Right in town, the Breakwall can offer up fun beginner longboard waves on the inside and rippable-to-bombing rights and lefts on the outside, depending on the swell direction. But it can be crowded. Best summertime bets are the breaks just to the south and west of town like Launiupoko Park and Thousand Peaks, which both offer spectacular, rainbow-bathed views of the West Maui Mountains. Ten miles north of Lahaina, the fantastical, gin-clear right-handers of Honolua Bay reel off against a Tolkien-esque jungle-and-cliff backdrop. If summer trade winds blow very hard, a sneaker wind swell will wrap into Honolua, and you can catch it head-high and empty. Score an after-surf burrito at Ono Tacos.For lodging, consider Puamana, a quiet, beachfront neighborhood along Lahaina’s south side. Plenty of options are available via VRBO.
Chris Dixon is the author of Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth. He’s surfed all over America, but would never drop in at Cortes Bank.