Trail Runner’s Top Towns of 2016 Ryan Spaulding and Chris Noesser run through Buttermilk Country, a series of hills and granite peaks at the edge of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, near Bishop, California, with Mount Humphreys looming above. Photo by Ken Etzel

Trail Runner’s Top Towns of 2016

Eight great mountain towns for trail runners, from Juneau, Alaska, to Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Meghan M. Hicks and Eric Senseman September 1st, 2016

A fascination with mountains seems inherent to our species. There’s just something about cranking your neck upward and gazing at a massive mountain range that inspires awe, love and a sense that we are little people on a great big earth.

From the Alaskan Panhandle to the Southeast’s Black Mountains, from New York’s Adirondacks to the boreal forests of Québec, we sought out eight trail meccas—towns of varying size, history and culture—which all share the common denominator of being engulfed by the mountains. We hope this sampling inspires you to climb high and explore some of our continent’s most prized country.

1. Bishop, California

A Big Backyard

Nestled between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the White Mountains on the east, the Owens Valley offers all the mountain amenities.
Nestled between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the White Mountains on the east, the Owens Valley offers all the mountain amenities. Photo by Michael McDermott

Bishop locals like to joke that they have a big backyard, and that is probably an understatement.

“The Owens Valley could be coined the Chamonix Valley of the Eastern Sierra,” says trail runner and physical therapist Tim Tollefson, who lives just uphill of Bishop in Mammoth Lakes, at the eastern margin of the Sierra Nevada. “The valley floor sits at 4,000 feet altitude, and the corridor is lined by 14,000-foot peaks along its east and west sides. With such huge vertical relief and no shortage of trailheads, the valley provides a lifetime of exploration and challenges.”

To Bishop’s west looms the hulking, snaggle-tooth Sierra Nevada, while the equally impressive White Mountains rise to the east.

The diverse region proves a study in visual contrasts. While the heavily traveled Sierra Nevada’s glacier-polished white granite abuts turquoise lakes, the White Mountains’ arid moonscapes remain devoid of most living things, including other trail users.

White or turquoise, a tourist haven or a range of solitude, arid or not, this is a backyard worth exploring.

2. Black Mountain, North Carolina

A Southeastern Haven

For the biggest mountains east of the Mississippi, Black Mountain is the place.
For the biggest mountains east of the Mississippi, Black Mountain is the place. Photo: iStockPhoto

Black Mountain rests at 2,405 feet in the foothills of its namesake Black Mountains, and in the shadow of 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Boasting 3,000-foot climbs from town and rugged, steep and scenic trails, Black Mountain serves up brutally challenging runs.

But the constant uphill and downhill isn’t monotonous. Just ask local trail runner Shaun Pope: “Up in the higher-elevation areas, close to Mount Mitchell, you might feel like you’re in the Canadian Rockies, yet you’re only a quick downhill trot from the town of Black Mountain. The moss, trees and even the bird species are very different atop the 6,600-foot mountain compared to that around the 2,405-foot town.”

Race director Sean Blanton has helped the running community blossom with the addition of the Quest for the Crest 10K/50K a few years ago (see below).

“These trails are brutally steep and gnarly technical,” says Blanton. “If you were blindfolded and got dropped off at Mount Mitchell, you would think you were in British Columbia.”

3. Hood River, Oregon

A Multi-Sport Mecca

Hood River is renowned for its windsurfing, but the area's trail running is on par for quality.
Hood River is renowned for its windsurfing, but the area’s trail running is on par for quality. Photo by Colin Meagher

Hood River sits at the confluence of the Columbia and Hood rivers, and is in the middle of the massive Columbia River Gorge, which has been carved to a depth of 4,000 feet in places. The town is also within spitting distance of Mount Hood, the 11,250-foot volcanic behemoth. All this together provides appropriate water-, land- and sky-scapes for mountain biking, kitesurfing, skiing, windsurfing, kayaking and, of course, trail running.

Says Oregonian trail all-star Max King of Bend, “The nice thing is there are just a ton of trails close to town. All of the Gorge’s trails are awesome, and you can access the Mount Hood National Forest trails as well.”

Brian Shortt, owner of local running store Shortt Supply, notes that there are “two mountains, three national forests, five rivers and 40-plus annual running events within a 60-minute drive of Hood River.”

4. Jackson, Wyoming

Wild Country

Krissy Moehl in the Tetons. Photo by Fred Marmsater
Krissy Moehl in the Tetons. Photo by Fred Marmsater

As glam as Jackson, Wyoming, tries to be with its high-end shops and hotels in town and behemoth Jackson Hole Ski Resort nearby, these trappings of civilization are blips on the radar of a massive and wild landscape. Stepping out of Jackson, you immediately enter the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a large and almost-intact ecosystem that encompasses nearby Grand Teton National Park and thousands more square miles of wild country.

We’re talking thousands of miles of trails and views that end only when the earth curves away. We’re talking remote places where you’ll go days without seeing another human. We’re talking open spaces filled with charismatic megafauna and big predators. We mean “wild” in every sense of the word.

Therefore, the trail running around Jackson should be approached with caution. Much of it is intermediate to advanced level, entailing remote terrain where mountain skills and wildlife savvy are essential.

Says Jay Batchen, a local trail runner and co-owner of Dreamchaser Outdoor Adventures, which puts on trail and road races, “Living in Jackson Hole, we commonly see moose both in our front yard and on the trails. And you’ll typically see many varieties of scat—bear, elk, mountain lion—on the trails near town. Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray can be as important as carrying fluids!”

5. Juneau, Alaska

Surf and Turf

Juneau offers hundreds of miles of open ridgelines, with commanding views from mountains to the sea
Juneau offers hundreds of miles of open ridgelines, with commanding views from mountains to the sea. Photo by Geoffrey Roes.

If there’s a single word that describes Juneau’s geography, it might be “diversity.” The Gastineau Channel, which separates mainland Alaska from its just-offshore islands, meets the Alaskan Panhandle in riotous fashion in Juneau. Mountains rise directly from the sea to elevations over 4,000 feet, glaciers calve with freight-train roars into ocean waters, marine life abounds and high-on-the-food-chain creatures amble the landscape.

Diversity doesn’t end where civilization starts, either. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the Alaskan state capital thrives in unusual fashion. In the winter, town is a quiet haven for locals with not too much daylight, thanks to its high latitude. In summer, the city’s character changes drastically as it swells with cruise-ship-based tourism and fishing operations.

“Treeline is between 1,500 and 2,000 feet, so you can run just a couple miles up dozens of different trails that lead to hundreds of miles of open ridgelines,” says local trail-running icon Geoff Roes. “And there are many trails that stay lower in the forests—great on rainy days.”

6. La Malbaie, Quebec

A Town in a Crater

Get off the beaten path in La Malbaie, "the country of the moose, the beaver, the wolf and the whale."
Get off the beaten path in La Malbaie, “the country of the moose, the beaver, the wolf and the whale.” Photo by Francis Gagnon

Where the Laurentian Mountains of the Canadian Shield yield to the mighty Saint Lawrence River lies the small resort town of La Malbaie, Québec. La Malbaie offers national and provincial parks, the Mont Grand-Fonds ski area with downhill and Nordic skiing and a 1,700-plus-square-mile UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

“This region of Québec has a long history of hospitality,” says Sébastien Côté, the Ultra-Trail Harricana de Charlevoix race director. “But our hospitality is for tourists and not trail runners—we are in the country of the moose, the beaver, the bear, the wolf and the whale, with truly tough trail running in one of the wildest regions of Canada.”

From the fascinating story of a massive meteorite striking and shaping the region’s landscape millions of years ago to the unusual boreal forest of this higher latitude to its glacier- and water-sculpted landscape, La Malbaie is indeed unique.

Where the Laurentian Mountains of the Canadian Shield yield to the mighty Saint Lawrence River lies the small resort town of La Malbaie, Québec. La Malbaie offers national and provincial parks, the Mont Grand-Fonds ski area with downhill and Nordic skiing and a 1,700-plus-square-mile UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

“This region of Québec has a long history of hospitality,” says Sébastien Côté, the Ultra-Trail Harricana de Charlevoix race director. “But our hospitality is for tourists and not trail runners—we are in the country of the moose, the beaver, the bear, the wolf and the whale, with truly tough trail running in one of the wildest regions of Canada.”

From the fascinating story of a massive meteorite striking and shaping the region’s landscape millions of years ago to the unusual boreal forest of this higher latitude to its glacier- and water-sculpted landscape, La Malbaie is indeed unique.

7. Lake Placid, New York

An Adirondacks Portal

Jackie Arevalo running on the Pitchoff Traverse in the Adirondacks
Jackie Arevalo running on the Pitchoff Traverse in the Adirondacks. Photo by Louis Arevalo

At 6.1 million acres, Adirondack Park houses more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, 2,000 miles of trails and all of the Adirondacks’ High Peaks—the 46 peaks originally believed to rise 4,000 feet or higher above sea level. (Four actually weren’t that tall and one that wasn’t included should have been, but the name stuck.) In an unusual format for an American park, Adirondack Park is also composed of about half private land and more than 100 towns, including Lake Placid.

For most people outside the region, the town of Lake Placid was put on the map as a result of being a two-time Winter Olympic Games host, in 1932 and 1980. These days, the Adirondack Mountains are home to outdoor recreationists of all kinds, including a growing number of trail runners.

Says Jan Wellford, the Whiteface Sky Races co-race director, “Between Lake Placid and its neighboring towns of Keene Valley and Wilmington, trail runners have access to all of the most classic High Peaks trails, beautifully maintained mountain-bike trails and many miles of scenic dirt roads.”

In addition to the plethora of extant trails in the area, the Barkeater Trails Alliance continues to develop multi-use trails in Lake Placid, and the Whiteface Sky Races in nearby Wilmington draw national-class mountain runners each summer. The secret is, thus, emerging: Lake Placid is a portal for Adirondacks trail running.

8. Telluride, Colorado

Boom Town

The "boom town" of Telluride has it all: trails, festivals, natural beauty.
The “boom town” of Telluride has it all: trails, festivals, natural beauty. Photo: Grant Ordelheide/Tandemstock.com

Telluride’s remote location hasn’t kept the mountain town from booming over the years. Explorers of yore first flocked to the region after gold was discovered in 1858. The subsequent mining rush helped Telluride’s population blossom to 5,000 residents—more than double the present-day population—and lured in the likes of Butch Cassidy, who robbed the wealthy San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889. The Wild West town has since been tamed and developed into a thriving ski resort, and boasts an extensive summer festival schedule.

But the no-frills trail-running scene helps keep this year-round outdoor-sports mecca refreshingly low-key. Telluride Mountain Run race director Dakota Jones believes his race captures the essence of trail running in Telluride, saying, “I want it to be one way to express a sense of authenticity in the sport.” Try Telluride’s trail running and experience this boom town’s latest boom.

This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.

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