Sometimes, it’s a new pair of running shoes. Other times, it’s a gathering of like-minded folk for a long run. But, a lot of the time, what really gets me excited about moving my feet is that special trail—the one I don’t get to do often or has been on my checklist for a while, but I know it’s going to deliver on all the sights, smells, and feels.
Having a special trail is extra important to me during this time of the year. Routines are back, replacing the summer whimsy with more rigid schedules. Sometimes, it seems like I’m taking on more, even if it might be the same load I had in the spring! So, having something to look forward to is key. But what type of trail is the ideal, perfect trail in the fall?
I’ve been lucky enough to live and run in lots of places, and these are the ones I dream about going back to when I want to escape and experience the season!
Battle Road Trail
Your feet hit the gravel path with a rhythmic cadence. You imagine a different beat as the British marched down the same road from Boston to Lexington and Concord almost two hundred fifty years ago, setting off a war and the birth of a new nation. But on this fall day, there are no soldiers—only red maples, russet oaks, and yellow birch leaves decorating the landscape and placards telling of the events that occurred on April 19th, 1775.
A relatively flat trail, it meanders to and fro around colonial-era homes and farms with classic New England rock walls denoting boundaries. The air is crisp to the point you could say you smell the cold, but then the cider scents from nearby apple trees remind you that it’s apple cider donut season. Luckily, there’s a stand around the corner where you can get your fall flavor fix.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal
Georgetown, Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD
As you run along the dirt towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Canal just outside Washington, D.C., a golden leaf floats from one of the many mature oaks, maples, and poplars lining the waterway. The calm surface ripples as it lands, though you can hear the tumultuous roar of Great Falls nearby.
The path climbs slightly near the locks used to raise the barges (the only real elevation change offered), allowing for sweet daydreams or complete immersion in the flora and fauna with little danger of tripping or falling. But be careful—if one gets too lost in thought or in their surroundings, they might find themselves further along the 183-mile path than they intended!
Rim of the World Highway
San Bernardino to Big Bear, CA
While running on the Rim of the World Highway (CA 18) is highly discouraged, any of the trails just off the highway are worth the trip. True to the name, the drive to the trailheads will make you feel like you’re sightseeing from the edge. If you’re looking to get lost in a sea of pines dotted by the occasional yellow aspen or if you want to earn your views with a steady climb, there’s something for everyone.
The smell of fallen pine needles roasting in the sun will surround you as you look down to the valley floor. Hawks, eagles, and hang gliders catch thermals rising from the valley thousands of feet below. Though warm, even hot, temperatures persist below, you’ll feel cool breezes as you spy the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island off in the distance on a clear day. On the most special of visits, you’ll be kissed by clouds racing up the mountain slope as you stand at the edge of one of the major overlooks.
Pensacola Beach, FL
Sugar white sand on expansive beaches and aquamarine blue waters gently curl and fall to the sand, taking your mind to places it’s never been before. You breathe in the clean ocean air and let your feet grab the warm sand, which would have been slightly less pleasurable two months ago because of the heat.
When running on the beach has turned your legs to jelly, a paved multi-use trail off the main road offers respite. Though considerably quieter compared to peak season, there’s still action in the town’s center with restaurants and bars. But, a half mile out in either direction, the noise subsides, leaving the notes of ocean breezes to float around your head instead of Jimmy Buffett. With very few buildings between you and the ocean, you can take in the view and may even catch the Blue Angels in training.
The National Mall
Passing by large masses of marble and granite, fountains, and endless memorials, one is tempted to imagine a similar landscape when visiting Rome during the height of its empire. Hard-packed dirt and gravel trails connect the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, one on either side of the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument, and multiple grass fields.
No longer needing to dodge the multitude of summer tourists, it’s easy to notice bright foliage multiplied in the still water of the pool. As much as the sweltering summer heat drained the soul, the moderate temps and light breezes off the Potomac revive it. Seeing the stairs of the Capital and Lincoln Memorial remind you of Rocky. Go for it—you won’t be the only one.
The White Mountains
Almost any trail in the Whites can become magical in the fall. The peaks watch over you as you drive along the highway to your trailhead. Once shrouded in a summer sea of green, they are now blanketed in a warm-toned technicolor confetti mixed with punches of emerald and sapphire from the evergreens and lakes.
Whether you seek the peaks or want a trail that rambles, all paths start with a tree canopy. The sun filters through ruby, copper, and gold leaves, creating the illusion of running through a stained-glass cathedral. You pass by and over little babbling brooks, steady streams, and gentle waterfalls, sometimes spotting a red newt, a moose, or a bear, all usually running off before you can take a picture.
On this particular day, you crave elevation and find most journeys go straight up (who needs switchbacks) including today’s pick of the Mount Morgan Trail. Legs burning and heart pounding, you stop at the top to catch your breath. Closing your eyes, you breathe deeply, putting your hands on your head. Though chilly, the sun’s warmth beckons you to take a peek. Before you lie miles of painted fire that when paired with the deep blue sky above, instills a sense of calm and peace.
Sunset Cliffs Trail
San Diego, CA
Ideal at sunset and low tide but beautiful at any time, the sunset cliffs are an amazing place to take in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Bright blues in the atmosphere meet the water’s dark tones until the sun falls in the evening when the sky becomes a multichromatic masterpiece reflected in the waves as they approach the coast.
Traveling along the mostly dirt trail, you hear the seagulls call to each other from their various perches and seals bark at each other just beyond the reach of the wave’s break. When the edge seems too close, you move to the road for a stretch but make your way back to see what the surfers are up to. As the sun approaches the horizon, you take a seat and watch the colors of the sea and sky change before your eyes.
These are trails I cherish, but I know there are a gazillion more perfect fall trails out there. How do I know? Because the perfect fall trail doesn’t have to have warm-colored leaves, epic views, or historical significance. It’s the trail where you feel the shifting temperatures on your skin and smell the sweet fragrances brought on by the cooler air and dimming light. It’s when you stop to note the things that are different on the side of the trail. The perfect fall trail is all about the change—all around you and in you—and how you look at it makes all the difference.