5 Most Underrated Run-cations
Where to go to kickstart your training!
Ask any runner to name the best places to go run and the top-5 best running cities will flow forth without fail: Boulder, CO; Flagstaff, AZ; Mammoth Lakes, CA; Asheville, NC; and the beautiful Bend, OR. If we eschew the places that receive votes through pure numbers (NYC & Chicago, e.g.) we ask ourselves what are the 5 most under-rated towns in America for distance running?
The criteria are simple – accessibility to travel, quality of trails and routes for road runners and trail runners alike, predictability of weather, and availability of entertainment for your non-running family members. We evaluated many locales to arrive at this list where you should hit up for a week of running when you’re ready to peak, reconnect with yourself, or jump-start your love for the sport.
View from the trails outside South Lake Tahoe, CA. Photo: RunningLane
Here is where you should plan your next running vacation:
- South Lake Tahoe, California
Escape the urban circus of San Francisco to head east across the Central Valley and check in at our top rated running town that doesn’t get its due recognition. Known for excellent skiing and the year-round attraction of North America’s largest alpine lake, the tiny South Lake Tahoe is a gem for running and outdoor activity.
With hundreds of miles of trails in the region around the lake you cannot find boredom, no matter how long you look. The town of South Lake Tahoe, in particular, features about 20 miles of trails in the floodplain of the lake. This means minimal elevation change as you roll along soft-dirt trails in stands of protected ponderosa pines and aspens. If you desire to crank up the climbing gears, head east along the lake to the Lake Tahoe State Park where you can run for days on some of the continents best trails.
If you love to ride you can hit the trails on the mountain bike or ride the roads around the lake. If you circumnavigate the lake you’ll rack up a 76-mile ride with about 4000 ft of elevation change. For stunning lake views on the ride or the run, there’s a continuous greenway all the way around!
In addition to the training venues you’ll find fine dining, a wealth of brew-pub options, outdoor entertainment including a summer Shakespeare festival, and the flash of casinos on the Nevada side. A family-friendly town, South Lake Tahoe should be on your list.
Best race-day vacay: Lake Tahoe Marathon, Western States Endurance Run
Elevation: 6225 ft.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
At the southern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains you’ll find the best kept run-fun secret in the eastern United States. The revitalization of Chattanooga has created one of the most vibrant scenes you’ll find. On the riverfront you’ll find an embarrassment of riches for the culturally-inspired.
Featuring a symphony, a list of museums, exploring caverns, fine dining, world-class shopping, and the annual Riverbend Festival there will be no shortage of entertainment while you recover from your runs. Not to mention the general happiness of spouse and family.
Now for the training – the surrounding area features the venerable Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, and Raccoon Mountain, as well as the Chickamauga Battlefield and numerous state parks. A fine source for running options is provided here by our friends at Roots Rated.
The running community has long benefited from the work of the Chattanooga Track Club, and recently has flourished with the help of 501(c) non-profit Wild Trails. Their collective work has built miles of trails and improved the quality of resources for the running community in an amazing way. Visit Chattanooga and run your heart out. And “See Rock City.”
Best race-day vacay: Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race
Elevation: 676 ft.
- Durham, North Carolina
Here is our dark horse entry to the conversation. We’ll be clear, this is a list of places to go run for a week. With that in mind it’s hard to overlook the expanse of eastern pines and gravel roads you’ll find in Durham.
The Duke University campus features a rolling golf course with a 3 mile traffic-free gravel foot path around the outside. That little sparkle abuts the Duke Forrest which brings you another 20 miles of gravel roads through towering pines and soft needle beds. In the region you’ll also find 15 miles of trails in the Eno River State Park, and a fine network of trails around the Tobacco Road area.
During the day, take in the Nasher Museum of Art, a Durham Bulls baseball game, or the Carolina Theatre. You’ll also find annual film festivals, music festivals, and a resurgent downtown dining district. While Durham is up for discussion as an item on our list, it’s an economical choice. You’ll have great training and ample entertainment. It doesn’t carry the cache of our other entries but focus on the running and you won’t be disappointed.
Best race-day vacay: Tobacco Road Marathon
Elevation: 404 ft.
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
The greatest distance runner you’ve probably never heard of was marathon champion Tony Sandoval. Do yourself a favor and read about him. He made his home and trained in Albuquerque on the Colorado Plateau and the surrounding Sandia Mountains.
The high plateau of the New Mexico desert means you can run for days without having to climb big hills if you don’t want to. The nearly perfect climate of cool winters and warm summers help a lot too! For a flat run, set out on the Paseo del Bosque 16-mile bike path along the Rio Grande river. For spectacular views and the chance to “get away from it all,” head to the Sandia Mountains and the Cibola National Forrest. A network of desert-vista trails await you with the most spectacular sunrise and sunset views you’ll ever see.
Featuring a deep array of architectural and historical sites you can easily fill your day site-seeing. You can also enjoy fine dining and a growing micro-brewery culture. For a great family day, visit the Albuquerque Bio Park – a botanical garden and zoo complex that overlooks the Rio Grande River.
Best race-day vacay: Run for the Zoo, La Luz Trail Run
Elevation: 5312 ft.
- Colorado Springs, Colorado
Home to the imposing Pike’s Peak, you’ll find the high-tech Colorado Springs delivers both urban arts and comforts, and beautiful outdoor adventures. With a temperate climate and the excellent Sante Fe Regional Trail which extends from Colorado Springs to Castle Rock 20+ miles to the north, you’ll feel good about your training.
The impressive network of trails in the Springs are highlighted by the Garden of the Gods and the infamous Incline Trail. Bring your big-kid shorts if you plan to run either of those venues, however, as they offer some of the most unique challenges you’ll face. For the less adventurous, a 100+ mile network of rail-trails and more tame classic trails abound such as the 14-mile Rampart Reservoir Loop. Visit the Boulder Running Company and they’ll point you where you need to go!
For the family you’ll enjoy the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The Springs is also home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center which is a must-see for anyone who enjoys athletics. Finally, you can eat yourself silly in the plethora of fine restaurants around the city.
You may wonder why a high-altitude running mecca such as Colorado Springs, with its historic trails and vibrant entertainment scene, is not listed higher. We’ll be honest: Traffic. The city is such a wonderful place that it’s experienced unprecedented growth over the last two decades, driven by its strong technological base. As a result it suffers a little in infrastructure and the whole area feels too urban for our taste. But it’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. In that case, the Springs is your place!
Best race-day vacay: Pike’s Peak Ascent and Marathon
Elevation: 6035 ft.
We're interested to see what other people think about the list. Please, leave your comments!
Honorable Mentions: Ogden UT, Austin TX, Mill Valley CA