Pacific Northwest Trail Runs: The Cradle of Running

Our minds can’t escape the beautiful Pacific Northwest trail runs. So we couldn’t resist creating a top five list of trail runs that never disappoint and the views to back it up.

We’re betting that trail running started in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, San Franciscan’s might point to the Mill Valley based Dipsea race over Mt. Tamalpais that started in 1905 but our money is on Lewis and Clark racing each other to the mouth of the Columbia River a hundred years earlier. And we suspect that the mighty Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest were making tracks on the trails much, much earlier. For all of you latecomers to the sport, we’ve rounded up our five favorite running trails in the great land of Cascadia (some of us are downright separatists, but we won’t go into that now.). Just lace up your shoes, grab some water, and don’t forget sun-blocking clothing; even though it rains a lot here, you can still get sunburned.

SEE ALSO: Trail Running: The Essential Gear

Wildwood Trail, Forest Park, Oregon
This 5,157-acre park in Portland, Oregon is the biggest urban forest in the country. It stretches southeast (paralleling the Willamette River) and includes some beautiful patches of old growth Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. Plus, in the spring, there are beautiful wildflowers—our favorite being the giant, colorful rhododendrons that are easily the size of a Volkswagen bus. You might catch a glimpse of the hairy woodpecker or northern pygmy owl—there are more than 100 species of birds living in the park and the Audubon Society of Portland maintains the trails as a wildlife sanctuary.

There are about 70 miles of trail in the vast park—you can run end-to-end on the Wildwood Trail—the bird’s eye distance is only about nine miles, but because of switchbacks and jogs to avoid geologic features (and big trees) the running distance is a whopping 30 miles. Take a quick detour to the Lower Macleay Trail and check out the 242-foot Douglas fir tree–the tallest tree in Portland. You can get lost in Forest Park—so, like for any adventure, let someone know your destination and estimated return time. And, just a hop and skip away is the Portland Japanese Garden, which just reopened after the first phase of a $35 million expansion. After your run, head over to Atuala for Spanish tapas (near the Lower Macleay trailhead), or the new McMenamins Bottle Shop.

McKenzie River Trail (about 45 minutes east of Eugene, Oregon)
You’ll pass waterfalls, cross log bridges, and see some of the most beautiful forest country in the world. The trail is 26 miles but you can easily run out-and-back sections. This is the site of Oregon’s oldest Ultra (dating back to 1988) and one of Runner’s World top two trails in the world. You can sum up this run in one word—beautiful. You’ll encounter hikers and mountain bikers, but the forest is so quiet, you can hear people coming. Make sure you stop at the beautiful Sahalie and Koosah falls, and take time to swim in Clear Lake. The trail has moderate elevation gain, and traces the mighty McKenzie River. Our fav lunch spot? The aquamarine mountain oasis of the Tamolitch pool near the Trailbridge Reservoir. Insider tip: There are several great hot springs in the McKenzie River area. Use one as a basecamp and take shorter day runs followed by a good soak!

olympic national park

Seven Lakes Basins Loop, Olympic National Park, Washington
We love this trail for the gentle terrain and beautiful rainforests, but have to admit that it’s the picturesque Sole Duc hot springs that keeps us coming back for more. Start at the Sol Duc Trail head and jog the easy 2.9 miles to Deer Lake. This is a great turnaround point, with views of sparkling lakes and the majestic Mt. Olympus (a nice climb if you’re willing to pack in the gear), but the next 3.3 miles take you up out of the valley with beautiful subalpine views. You can turn around here (about eight miles from the trail head) or turn the run into a loop by heading east on the High Divide Trail and then dropping down to the Sol Duc River Trail at Heart Lake (19 miles). The Sol Duc Hot Sprints has three hot pools ranging from about 99 to 101 degrees and a cold pool. You can stay at the local resort (definitely a Pacific Northwest classic) or camp in one of the nearby Olympic National Park campgrounds.

Trail of Ten Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Salem, Oregon, is a sleepy state capital with not much of a reputation for outdoor sports, but that’s a misnomer. Salem has long been a trail-running mecca—from the massive Minto-Brown Park down by the Willamette to the miles of logging trails in the surrounding hills. But the best-kept secret is the nearby 9,200-acre Silver Falls State Park. There are plenty of variations on the run, and shorter loops, but the daddy of them all is the nearly eight-mile Trail of Ten Falls loop. Many of the falls have weather-and-water carved amphitheaters behind them—so you actually run behind the cascade. The trail has some steeply switch-backed sections, but generally it is pretty moderate, with about 800 feet of elevation gain and loss. The biggest single drop is the 177-foot South Falls. Remember that water spray means mud that can get slick, so watch your footing. After your run, head to the Oregon Garden for a stroll through some of the prettiest landscape in the country.

Dog Mountain, Columbia River Gorge, Washington

You can hike Dog Mountain, but for inspired trail runners, this is great challenge with views that make the long uphill slog worth your while. From the top, the views of the Columbia River Gorge are pretty much unbeatable. In the spring, the alpine meadows offer some of the best wildflower displays of anyplace in the world. The trailhead is about an hour east of Vancouver (WA) and less than a half-hour from Hood River. You have your choice of three trails: The Old Dog Mountain Trail, the New Dog Mountain Trail, and the Augspurger Connector. The New Dog Mountain Trial has a lot of switchbacks, but it’s not as steep as the Old one, and has better views. Our favorite run is up the New Dog Mountain Trail and then down The Connector (to save your knees). The mileage is just under four miles round trip, but the first half mile is a doozy. And did we mention—you can bring your dog! Just 10 miles to the west (toward Portland) is Stevenson, Washington—the Homo Erectus Imperial IPA at the Walking Man Brewery will blow your socks off (if the run hasn’t already).

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Forest Park Trail Portland