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Run for the Hills: The Northeast’s Best Trail Running, with Tips for Newbies

April 24, 2017
  • The Northeast's Best Trail Running
  • The Northeast's Best Trail Running
  • The Northeast's Best Trail Running
  • The Northeast's Best Trail Running

For a trail-loving runner, the search for a new stretch of off-road running never ends. I’ve lived in towns from Downeast Maine to Philadelphia, and the urge to explore defined many of my runs. In each spot I found a local go-to destination for regular runs, but I also kept looking for new trails, perhaps hidden within an unexplored green patch on a map or just awaiting a fortuitous turn into an opening between some trees.

Each stride down one of these trails is a stride away from hard, unforgiving sidewalk concrete, noisy cars, and the interruption of stoplights. At the same time, each stride draws me closer to a potential new discovery: a hilltop view or a cool stream. Maybe even the flash of a deer or a hare sprinting by. I’m not alone in seeking such escape: By any measure, trail running is booming in popularity.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, which tracks recreation trends in the United States, 8.1 million people participated in trail running in 2015. That’s a whopping 93 percent increase from 2007. During that period, trail running surpassed snowboarding and nearly eclipsed mountain biking in popularity.

Even the sport’s most extreme subgroup has exploded: According to UltraRunning Magazine, the number of U.S. and Canadian races longer than 26.2 miles rose from 183 to 1,473 between 2000 and 2016.

“Trail running is something that folks inherently enjoy when they’re exposed to it,” says Bryon Powell, who launched the ultrarunning blog iRunFar in 2006. “Exposure was the limiting factor for a long time.” The trail running boom coincided with the growth of the internet and the spread of social media, and print publications caught on as well. Of particular note, the 2009 book Born to Run spent more than four years on the New York Times bestseller list. Powell says traffic to his site has gone up more than 2,000 percent since he began working on it full time, in 2009.

Fortunately for those of us on the East Coast, there are plenty of great trails to meet the growing need. The nine runs on the following pages represent a mix of personal favorites and expert recommendations, lung-burning climbs and strolls in the park—in short, a cross-section of the best running trails around. Have a favorite you don’t see here? E-mail us at amcpublications@outdoors.org.

BRADBURY MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
Pownal, Maine
When I pulled up to the gate at Bradbury Mountain State Park on a late fall day, the ranger gave me some surprising news: A few of the trails had just been cleared with a leaf blower. That isn’t the level of grooming I expect at a park, but on this cold, wet day, I was happy to avoid an unnecessary slip. I could see why this 800-acre spot is a magnet for runners in southern Maine.

Another reason: the varied, 18-mile trail network. A paved road splits the reserve in two, with a campground and forest to the east and the park’s namesake “mountain” dominating the parcel to the west. Don’t be intimidated: At 485 feet, Bradbury is really a big hill, with 6 miles of trails circling and climbing it.

Stick to the mix of packed dirt and exposed granite trails on the hill’s slopes; Boundary Trail, around the property’s perimeter, is a bit rough for running. The direct Switchback Trail and gradual Tote Road offer contrasting routes to the summit, where the view reaches all the way to Casco Bay. Or follow the Terrace or Northern Loop trails for a moderate climb. Each trail is short enough that you may find yourself circling back around for more. If that’s still not enough, head to the east side of the park, where 14 additional miles of trail await.

Run It Yourself: Park admission is $4 for Maine residents, $6 for nonresidents. A local club, Trail Monster Running, hosts trail maintenance days and a race series. For park information, see the park’s websitedownloadable map (pdf), or AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast (AMC Books).

MINUTEMAN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK: BATTLE ROAD
Concord, Mass.
What Battle Road lacks in classic New England rocks, roots, and hills, it makes up for in historical ambiance—and a nearly perfect running surface. The multiuse, gravel trail winds 4.7 miles along the route marched by British troops on April 19, 1775, the first day of the American Revolution.

Unlike the more technical trails of Penwood State Park or Wissahickon Valley, Battle Road is wide and hard-packed. (It’s also open to bikes and strollers, so I’d advise running early in the morning to avoid the crowds.) You can settle into a rhythm and zone out, if you want, although there’s plenty to look at. Between the parking areas just off Interstate 95, at the trail’s eastern end, and Meriam’s Corner, at the western end, you’ll pass through a series of forests and fields punctuated by preserved period homes, farms, and businesses. Watch for great blue herons in the marshes and look for small Union Jacks, marking memorials to fallen British soldiers, stuck in the ground along the trail.

Run It Yourself: Park at the eastern or western end of the trail for an out-and-back long run, or pull into one of four additional lots off Route 2A. For park and trail information, see the park’s websitemap, or AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston (AMC Books).

PENWOOD STATE PARK
Bloomfield and Simsbury, Conn.
For those in search of a rugged New England trail running experience, Penwood’s terrain tests the ankles and the lungs. Here, a 5-mile section of the blue-blazed Metacomet Trail—part of the 233-mile New England National Scenic Trail—climbs quickly from the parking area to the top of a ridge. It’s a fittingly quad-burning start to a challenging run that rises and falls repeatedly from traprock ridge into forest and back again, with loose rock covering the steep hillsides and roots rising from the packed dirt.

Several views of the Connecticut countryside open up to the east and west before the trail re-enters the trees, heading northbound toward Massachusetts. The Metacomet’s junctions with a yellow-blazed trail in the middle of the park and an orange-blazed trail at the northern boundary provide two options for making a loop out of the 8.5-mile network.

Run It Yourself: Penwood hosts the annual Traprock 50K each April. The popular ultramarathon makes multiple loops along the park’s blue, orange, and yellow trails. For park hours and more information, visit its website and download a map (pdf).

PALISADES INTERSTATE PARK
Closter, N.J.
The parking lot at State Line Lookout fills quickly on weekend mornings. Birders cluster nearby, scanning the sky for peregrine falcons and other raptors. But for hikers and runners, the fun is just beginning. From here, Long Path winds through ridgetop forest to the George Washington Bridge, which links New Jersey to Manhattan 10 miles to the south.

The setting is the star here. The park spans 12 miles of Hudson River shoreline, with precipitous, 500-foot cliffs rising from the banks and providing a stark contrast to the Yonkers, Riverdale, and Upper West Side communities on the opposite shore. Short spur trails connect Long Path to a series of dramatic lookouts; a peek over the edge reveals the lower trail, which traces a parallel route far below. Several side trails link these upper and lower paths. For one of the most gradual descents, follow the rocky dirt road located at the park headquarters, 4 miles south of State Line Lookout.

The riverside return trip north follows soft singletrack, with waves lapping against the adjacent rocks. But don’t be lulled into submission. One daunting challenge looms: a stone stairway, rising 500 feet in a quarter-mile, back to the top of the ridge. Once you conquer that, it’s just a half-mile back to your car to complete the 7.2-mile loop. Want more? In total, 30-plus miles of trail run above, below, up, and down the Palisades’ iconic cliffs.

Run It Yourself: For park hours and more information, see the park’s websitedownloadable map (pdf), and AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near New York City (AMC Books).

WISSAHICKON VALLEY PARK
Philadelphia
Full disclosure: “The Wiss” is a sentimental pick for this story. The afternoons I spent training here in college with my cross-country teammates were a chance to forget about pace and mileage and to simply have fun. We chased each other along the park’s narrow trails, up and down both sides of the valley, and—on hot days—right through Wissahickon Creek. The park was just big enough to get lost in but not so big we couldn’t find our way back to the school van. It’s where I fell in love with trail running.

Wissahickon Valley cuts a broad, deep, and steep path across the northwest corner of the city. In total, more than 50 miles of singletrack crisscross the valley, with the creekside Forbidden Drive, a 5-mile dirt road that’s closed to motorized traffic, bisecting the park along the bottom of the valley. Trails are accessible via the park’s main entrances, at its north and south ends, but routes also empty out into neighborhoods on all sides.

Run It Yourself: For park hours and more information, visit the Friends of Wissahickon websitemap (for purchase), and AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia (AMC Books).


SIDEBAR: GOING UP
Trail running inevitably means hill running. Sometimes it even means mountain running, so you want to be prepared to get up and down as efficiently and safely as you can. We asked a couple of AMC’s most avid trail runners for advice on how to handle hills, starting with Doug Mayer on the uphill leg.

Mayer lives in Randolph, N.H., and trains in the White Mountains. When he isn’t home, he’s often leading trail running tours in the Alps. So Mayer knows hills. “The first thing is to broaden your scope of what trail ‘running’ is,” he says. “Trail running can include plenty of fast uphill hiking.” Whatever your pace, these simple techniques can help you to the top.

  • Quicken your cadence. There’s no floating uphill with long, loping strides. Shorten your stride and speed up your turnover.
  • Stand tall. The steeper the climb, the greater the urge to bend forward. Resist that urge! Keep your torso upright and your hips forward.
  • Keep your breath. “You want to be nowhere near out of breath,” Mayer says. That means settling into a sustainable pace. He uses a heart rate monitor to find that zone, but experience will also teach you what that perfect pace feels like.
  • Try trail-running poles. Mayer started using these in Europe, where light, collapsible trekking poles are common. “It engages your upper body,” Mayer says, estimating he gets an extra 10 percent push-off.
  • Find a rhythm. Play with these variables to find your sweet spot: a pace that’s sustainable and will get you to the top as fast as possible. “I know I’ve found it when my mind wanders,” Mayer says. “It’s almost a form of meditation.”

SIDEBAR: GOING DOWN
“It’s almost like a playful jungle gym,” Debbie Livingston says of downhill running. The Connecticut-based ultramarathoner and member of AMC’s board of advisors loves the challenge.

In a race, Livingston uses whatever she can to stay upright on a downhill, landing on rocks and grabbing branches, but also dodging slippery patches of moss and leaves: “What can I swing off of? Bounce off? Leap off?” Going fast but not too fast requires a delicate balance. Follow her tips to ensure a rapid but safe descent.

  • Look ahead. “Look maybe 10, 15 feet out rather than 2 feet in front of you,” Livingston says. Identify where you’ll step a couple of strides before you reach that point. “It’s like a puzzle.”
  • Lean forward. Bend slightly into the downhill and let gravity help you. Leaning back will slow your descent, but your legs will absorb more of a pounding.
  • Bend your knees. They’re your shock absorbers, so keep them bent to cushion your landing on each stride.
  • Let go. “People who are slow on the downhill are slow because they’re fearful,” Livingston says. “Letting go of that fear a little bit will help.”
  • Stretch. Maintaining flexible muscles and joints is a good idea for any kind of running, but especially for unforgiving downhills. Livingston practices yoga and recommends balancing poses, as well as those for ankle and hip flexibility.

Want to get out on the trails? Join ultramarathoner Debbie Livingston for a weekend of running and instruction at AMC’s Highland Center in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch, August 18–20, 2017. Get details and register here.


SIDEBAR: THE EXTRA MILE

If you like: Mountain running
Try: White Horse Ledge and Moat Mountain Trail
North Conway, N.H.
Already popular with hikers, the Moat Mountains offer some of the nicest trail running in New Hampshire. White Horse Ledge Trail, accessible from North Conway via either Moat Mountain Trail or from Echo Lake, makes a nice, short loop (4 to 6 miles, depending on the route you choose), with expansive views of the White Mountains. For a grander adventure, follow the 9.5-mile Moat Mountain Trail along the exposed ridge connecting North, Middle, and South Moat mountains. More info: WMG Online or White Mountain Guide (AMC Books).

If: You’re in Boston
Try: Middlesex Fells and Blue Hills reservations
Malden, Medford, Stoneham, Melrose, and Winchester, Mass.; Quincy and Milton, Mass.
Boston is surrounded by great trail running, and Interstate 93 links two of the best: Blue Hills Reservation to the south of the city and the Middlesex Fells to the north. Together they offer more than 200 miles of trails, ranging from dirt carriage roads to rocky single-track. In the Fells, follow the white-blazed Skyline Trail for a 6.9-mile loop with stunning views of downtown Boston. The Blue Hills’ most iconic route shares the same name: The 9-mile point-to-point Skyline Trail delivers a challenge akin to a run in the mountains. More info: Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreationdownloadable map (pdf), or AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston (AMC Books).

If you like: Getting lost
Try: Patapsco Valley State Park
Elkridge, Md.
Pack a map when you venture into Patapsco Valley. This trail running gem in Baltimore’s western suburbs covers 16,000 sprawling acres. More than 200 miles of trails traverse forests and meadows, cross streams, and climb hills. It’s the kind of variety that will keep you exploring for years. More info: maryland.govdownloadable map (pdf), or AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C. (AMC Books).


 

 

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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour is the senior editor of AMC Outdoors.