50 Trail Runs of North America
There is a book titled 50 Classic Climbs of North America which was published by Allen Steck and Steve Roper in 1979. There is even the guidebook 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, published by Art Burrows, Chris Davenport, and Penn Newhard in 2010 (and made popular recently by Cody Townsend and the “Fifty Project”). There still is not an agreed upon list of ‘classic’ trail runs.
I’m not claiming to be the expert here; most of these runs I have not done myself. However, these 50 trail runs highlight some of the best that North America has to offer.
To keep the list accessible to a majority of the trail running population, I laid out the following requirements for a route to make the list:
- No Class 4 or 5 scrambling (i.e. no technical rock climbing or significant rock scrambling)
- Less than 100 miles
- Must have been done before by others (i.e. cannot be a “first”)
- No glacier travel
- Must be at least 50% on trail
*Note the order of these trail runs is random and in no way a representation of their priority
**Note that ‘North America’ has been limited to USA and Canada
The entire list can be found mapped out here, on Caltopo, where the runs will be loaded with their GPS coordinates.
The list of 50 will be divided into the following sections:
- Eastern US
- Mountain West — Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona
- Western US — California, Washington, Oregon
The highlighted routes in the Eastern US bring you above treeline to admire the rolling hills of New England, the Smoky Mountains, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fall colors make these runs even more spectacular, with greens, reds, and yellows popping all around you.
- Presidential Traverse, New Hampshire
- Pemigewasset Loop, New Hampshire
- Katahdin, Maine
- Great High Peaks Traverse, New York
- Old Rag Mountain Loop, Virginia
- Art Loeb Trail, North Carolina
- Foothills Trail, South Carolina/North Carolina
- Great Smokies Loop, North Carolina/Tennessee
- Georgia Loop, Georgia
The Mountain West region highlights the alpine, rugged nature of the Rockies, and the expansive plateaus of the desert West. Panoramic vistas, jagged mountain peaks, and deep canyons are the bread-and-butter of the Mountain West. Travel to some of the wonders of the American West in the Grand Canyon, Tetons, and Rocky Mountains.
- Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming
- Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R), Arizona
- Skyline Trail, New Mexico
- South Rim Loop + Emory Peak, Texas
- Boulder Skyline, Colorado
- Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop, Colorado
- Zion Crossing, Utah
- Maroon Bells 4 Passes Loop, Colorado
- James Peak Skyline to Rollins Pass, Colorado
- Cirque of the Towers Loop, Wyoming
- Uinta Highline Traverse, Utah
- Alice Toxaway Loop, Idaho
- Gunsight Pass, Montana
- Highline Trail Loop, Montana
- Bridger Traverse, Montana
- Ruby Crest Traverse, Nevada
- Great Basin Traverse, Nevada
- Seven Devils Loop, Idaho
The West Coast will bring you through rainforest, high alpine, and the foothills of sweeping glaciers. From Yosemite Valley in California to the footsteps of Mount Rainier, the routes on the West Coast feature long climbs broken up by awe-striking nature. Don’t be fooled though, none of these will come easy.
- Wonderland Trail, Washington
- Timberline Trail, Oregon
- Grand Loop (Olympic National Park), Washington
- Little Giant-Spider Gap Loop, Washington
- Backbone Trail, California
- Desolation Wilderness Loop, California
- Trans-Catalina Trail, California
- Tuolumne to Mammoth Lakes (JMT Section), California
- Loowit Trail, Washington
- Rae Lakes Loop, California
- Clouds Rest, California
- Enchantment Lakes Traverse, Washington
Alaska is the ‘Last Frontier’ for a reason: it’s pure, raw wilderness. The selected routes below will bring you into that powerful nature briefly and make you forget you even started at a trailhead.
- K’Esugi Ridge Trail
- Penguin Ridge
- Lost Lake Trail
Hawai’i’s volcanoes and dramatic coastlines are on full display in the two routes below. Escape the beach for a day or two and run through steep, undulating terrain and explore the mountains above. Then you can enjoy your relaxing times soaking up the sun!
- Kalalau Trail
The selected routes for Canada are solely in British Columbia and Alberta, as the country is too big to see all of. These runs will bring you through dramatic post-glacial valleys and mountain ranges. The selected routes are relatively easy to access and close to major cities, so you can plan a trip out to visit.
- Yoho Iceline Trail
- Rockwall Trail
- Howe Sound Crest Trail
- Sawback Trail
- Panorama Ridge
- Sunshine Coast Trail (sections…since it’s just over 100 miles)
*Table values have been rounded to nearest mile and 500’ of elevation
Color Coding Legend
- <20 = GREEN
- 20-40 = YELLOW
- 40 – 60 = ORANGE
- >60 = RED
- <5,000’ = GREEN
- 5,000’ – 10,000’ = YELLOW
- 10,000’ – 12,000’ = ORANGE
- >12,000’ = RED
The Final Word
The routes mentioned in this list are a great sampler of terrain across North America, from high alpine meadows to dense forests to rocky ridgelines. They include some of the more ‘famous’ trail runs like the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, the Wonderland Trail, and the Presidential Traverse. But there’s also some lesser known routes that will bring you into new terrain, from the Bridger Traverse to the Grand Loop to the Art Loeb Trail.
Don’t want to bite off some of the larger runs? Try using them as inspiration for creating a shorter loop or an out-and-back! In no way is this list totally comprehensive, but it will help you put some ‘dots on the map’ for destinations for your next vacation!
And don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly! I’m always happy to provide my experience and thoughts. Reach out to me at [email protected].
About the Gear Tester
Sam Chaneles is an avid mountaineer and backpacker, climbing peaks in the Cascades, Mexico, Ecuador, and Africa, as well as hiking the John Muir Trail and off-trail routes in Colorado. He has climbed peaks such as Aconcagua, Mt. Rainier, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Kilimanjaro, and many more. Sam graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech. During his time there he was a Trip and Expedition Leader for the school’s Outdoor Recreation program (ORGT). He has led expeditions to New Zealand, Alaska, Corsica, France, and throughout the United States. Sam is based in Issaquah, WA just outside of the Cascade Mountains. You can follow Sam and his adventures on Instagram at @engineeredforadventure, or on his website at www.engineeredforadventure.com.