Trail running has many legitimate benefits over running on roads. And although it isn’t always possible to run on dirt, it’s worth staying off busy thoroughfares. A 2004 pollution study conducted by the University of Brisbane, Australia found that during exercise in crowded urban areas, low concentrations of pollutants caused lung damage similar to the high concentrations people experienced when not working out at all. So even if you can’t get to a trailhead, it’s smart to find a local park or routes through quiet neighborhoods.

Trail running has also been shown to help with mental health. It relieves stress by allowing us to unplug for a moment — concentrate on the wind in the trees, chirping birds, or deer bounding off into the underbrush. Plus, running on trails helps with balance and core strength. Dirt creates less impact, which translates to a lower risk of injury. So, not only do we avoid breathing vehicle fumes, we also lower the risk of getting tagged by that idiot who’s texting while driving.

But my favorite part of running trails is definitely the opportunity to tap into my inner kid. You know, that exhilaration that comes from jumping over obstacles — logs, roots, rocks — getting dirty and running along babbling brooks. Trail running reminds us to take a deep breath, find peace and reset. So how do you find the incentive to get out in the woods each and every week? Simply sign up for a trail race. The following are some top picks in the Pacific Northwest for your motivation list. Giddyup.


Orcas Island 25K
Orcas Island, WA
15.5 miles
January 25, 2020

With old-growth forests, challenging climbs, and raw beauty of the Puget Sound, the Orcas Island 25K is one of Rainshadow Running’s oldest races, and one you don’t want to miss. Experience communal lodging complete with heated bunkhouses (don’t forget your bedding, headlamp and scary stories). There’s also camping in Moran State Park, but it’s first come, first served, so get there early. Be prepared for a winter weekend like no other, and make sure to stick around for an unforgettable after party.

Lake Padden Half
Bellingham, WA
13.1 miles
October 12, 2019

The Pacific Northwest is known for its picturesque forests. And the woods around Lake Padden are no different. Be ready for plenty of rocks and roots, and enough dirt to satisfy even the most serious trail runners. The lakeside post-race party will feature awards, recovery food, drinks and massage therapists. Proceeds benefit Rebound of Whatcom County — a charity dedicated to kids on the fringes of the Whatcom County community.

Elk-Kings Traverse 25K
Tillamook State Forest, OR
15.5 miles
October 12, 2019

Want to climb a mountain? How about two? The Elk-Kings Traverse 25K features a steep and technical course through the Tillamook State Forest. You’ll climb up and down rocky trails with exposure, and it won’t be easy. Summit both Elk Mountain and Kings Mountain, and conquer 5,800 feet of elevation gain (much of it in the first three miles of the race). But the hard work will be worth it. Post-race festivities include pulled pork BBQ or veggie burgers for all runners and volunteers.

Hagg Lake 25K
Henry Hagg Lake, OR
15.5 miles
February 16, 2020

If you haven’t run this one, it’s high time. One of the Pacific Northwest’s most popular winter ultras, Hagg Lake 25K offers one of the muddiest experiences around. It was featured in Runner’s World Trail Edition as one of Oregon’s top trail races, and you’ll see why. After a 1.5-mile gravel out-and-back featuring the biggest elevation change of the whole race, you’ll run the famously muddy singletrack trail around beautiful Hagg Lake before celebrating with friends and family at the post-race festivities. 

Originally published June 2017