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Finding the Trail in the Urban Jungle

“Urban” and “trail running” are two concepts that typically don’t go together. Concrete, brick, iron, and steel dominate the city landscape. While mountains, thick forests, and single-track trails can be hard for runners to find in the city.

But even in the largest cities in North America, trail running opportunities can be found. San Francisco is well known for its miles of scenic urban trails and great escapes can also be found in other cities – if you know where to look.

The rugged mountains surrounding Los Angeles are a stark contrast to what people typically envision the city being. “Whenever anyone thinks of L.A., they think of this giant, flat city, and they think of beaches,” says local ultrarunner Geoff Cordner. But there is more to the city than just sun and fun. Hundreds of miles of hilly trails can be found in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains that encompass the city. “Los Angeles is the city in the U.S. that has the greatest change in elevation. It goes from sea level to basically the elevation of Denver, within the city limits.”

Through the Santa Monica Mountains, over 70 miles of trails stretch from Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Malibu, to Ventura. It’s here that Cordner has found one of his favorite training grounds at Topanga State Park. “It is one of the largest municipal parks in America – and it’s not like a little park with cute little trails – it’s a big, serious chunk of wilderness,” he says.

Miles of trails can also be found in the San Gabriel Mountains in northern Los Angeles.

Between these two mountain ranges, the urban and natural landscapes intersect at Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America. “There’s a mountain lion living in it. It’s a wilderness, but there’s also the Hollywood sign (there.)

“Los Angeles is not a place I see written up about when it comes to the outdoors, and yet, what an extraordinary outdoor experience you can have here,” Cordner says.

Atlanta, known as “the city in a forest,” has an abundance of green spaces and parks that create a thick canopy of trees covering most of the city. Miles of interconnecting trails and paths can be found here.

“I didn’t realize that Atlanta had so many trails until I started running them,” says Trena Chellino, local trail runner and event organizer for the Atlanta Outdoor Club. “Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area has 10 or more parks all up and down the Chattahoochee River where there are great trails.”


Members of the Atlanta Outdoor Club

The East Palisades / Indian Trail is one of the most scenic and convenient trails to get to from downtown Atlanta. The trail meanders along the banks of the Chattahoochee River, passing the ruins of abandoned mills, through a thick bamboo forest, before ascending the nearby bluffs.

On the northwest side of the Atlanta, about thirty minutes from downtown, trail runners and hikers flock to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. “It’s a national battlefield that is very popular. It’s a neat place to go and very unique. It’s considered to be the toughest trail in Atlanta. A lot of people go there to practice backpacking to go to places all over the world, because that is the toughest most challenging place there is in elevation gain in the Atlanta area,” Chellino says.

Event organizer Tom Jarosz began exploring Atlanta’s urban trails through his involvement in the Atlanta Outdoor Club. “I find new trails by expanding my contacts and network of running friends,” he explains.

Trail running near Chattanooga, TN

Trail running near Chattanooga, TN

Mountainous trails can also be found in Chattanooga. The city’s close proximity to Lookout, Raccoon, and Signal Mountains, allow runners to be on the trails in a matter of minutes from downtown. Seeing the opportunity to create a unique running experience that encompasses both the mountain and city landscapes, Chattanooga is one of a growing number of cities to host urban trail races. Billed as “one of the most beautiful events in the Southeast,” the Urban Nature 10K starts in downtown and winds through Stringer’s Ridge, offering runners spectacular views of downtown from the ridge high above the city.

In Portland, people don’t have to go looking for running opportunities – running finds them. “With Nike and Addidas being here, running is part of Portland’s culture. It’s not difficult to find information on trails. It’s just something everyone does here,” explains Flavia DeAndrade, a local trail runner and Nike engineer.

Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the U.S., stretching more than 8 miles on Portland’s northwest side “It’s pretty easy to access from various points in the city. There are many entry ways to the park,” says DeAndrade.

Over 70 miles of trail wind through the park. “The trails are packed dirt. The terrain is typical of the Northwest – evergreens and mossy, from all the rain. Basically you can pick your flavor as far as hills or flat depending on what you’re in to.”

Wildwood Trail, Forest Park’s longest trail at almost 30 miles, is one of Portland’s most popular. “One of the favorite things that I’ve done, since I moved here, that people love doing at Forest Park is running the entire Wildwood Trail from point-to-point. It’s really the best way to see the whole park. It’s very scenic and challenging. If you’re a trail runner in Portland, you need to do it – it’s a badge of honor.”

Nick Coury of Phoenix doesn’t have to go far to find great trails in his city. “I go out my backdoor and a mile later, I’m on trails.”

The Phoenix Mountain Preserve and South Mountain Park offer some

South Mountain near Phoenix, AZ

South Mountain near Phoenix, AZ

of the best trails in North America. “(In the) Phoenix Mountain Preserve there must be 50 miles of trails and several different mountain peaks. Through Phoenix, it’s accessible from almost anywhere. All the different areas are connected by trails,” Coury says. “Especially for long distance trail runners, you could put together 10 or 20 mile runs. You can get what you are looking for whether it be steep or flat.”

Coury and his brother Jamil, owners of Phoenix’s Aravaipa Running, organize more than 20 trail races each year. They have each also competed in over a dozen 100-mile races, and many 24-hour races, having experienced trails all over the U.S. Phoenix’s urban trails stack up to anything they’ve seen.

“There’s nothing like it elsewhere – the views, the desert expanses open up like nowhere else. You can see for miles; it has its own unique personality.” Coury explains. “The thing that I like it about it most, is that you don’t have to compromise a lot. Here you get all the culture, all the things that people like about living in a big city, yet you’re really close to the trails.”

Urban greenways and trails are also being developed in other cities. Some trails can be disjointed, containing a mix of both paved and dirt surfaces, leaving runners asking – “Which shoe should I wear?”

“I don’t want to drive 20 minutes to get to a trail, run 2,3 or 5 miles on the trail, and get back in my vehicle and drive home, says Mike Scott, race director of Chattanooga’s Urban Nature 10K. “I’d rather just run to the trail, get on it, and run.”

Salomon and other shoe manufacturers have recognized this need and are developing hybrid shoes that perform well both off-road and on pavement.

“The shoe companies recognize the fact that you’re not just a trail runner; you’re not just a road runner; you’re an urban nature runner,” Scott explains. “When you see shoe companies developing shoes for our needs, it’s a big deal. They realize that there is a whole paradigm shift.”

The popularity of urban trail running is spreading. “Five years ago, I would have said word-of-mouth would have been the best way (to find urban trails.) It (the trail running community) wasn’t connected,” Coury says.

But now, social media, online networks, and websites dedicated to trail running have connected the community, making it even easier to find the trail in the urban jungle.

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