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The 8 Prettiest Trail Runs in Northern Colorado

Trail running is one of those things that you either love or just don’t get. If you have never run on a trail or run at all (except for in dreaded gym class) then you might gawk and question the sanity of anyone who would want to run up a mountain - or two - for fun.

Distance running, in general, has somewhat become a “new” and trendy way of exercising. Yes, the marathon was created or founded back in 490 B.C. when a Greek soldier named Pheidippides is said to have run roughly 25 miles to bring news of a military victory to the city of Athens (his starting point: Marathon). But it really wasn’t until 1897 and the first-ever international Olympic Games were held that we had our first organized marathon (only 9 of the 25 entrants actually finished). Then things started to get very official in 1921 when the International Amateur Athletic Federation officially declared the marathon to be 26.2 miles long, 13 years after the marathon was run (in its entirety of 26.2 miles) at the London Olympic Games.

Jump 50 or so years to the 1970s and running is starting to become a “thing.” Races of all distances, 5K up to Ultras, are becoming more and more attainable by the common man and woman. The business of running is booming as well. In 2015, the road-running industry was valued at over one billion dollars!

Two people running in the mountains at sunrise
The beauty of trail running. PC Saloman.

But hold on a second. That is mostly road running - the much more well-known side of long-distance running. What about trail running?

Funny enough trail running started thanks to a bet between a couple of San Francisco runners. The Dipsea Inn was a new spot in the scenic coastal town of Stinson Beach (been there, it is very beautiful). The running buddies wanted to see who could run there the fastest, taking the Mount Tamalpais trails. In the end, they had so much fun that a year later they officially created the First Annual Championship Cross Country Run, Mill Valley to Dipsea by the Sea.

While there were “events” similar to this long before, think fell races in the UK, Dipsea’s uniqueness makes it the true first of its kind.

“It keeps its importance because its terrain is so challenging, its scenery so spectacular, and the whole experience so unique.” - Runners World

So now that you know a bit more backstory on trail running, and distance running in general, how about we talk about some of the best spots in Northern Colorado, more specifically the Rocky Mountain region.

With so many amazing trails to choose from - from backcountry roads, single track trails through RMNP and double track forest roads, it can kind of be overwhelming (not in a bad way though). After looking at our own experiences, and a quick search online, we have compiled the eight best trail running routes to show off the best that Northern Colorado has to offer.

On the far north end of Horsetooth Reservoir, there is an open space, and while it doesn’t get as much press as some other spots (looking at you Pineridge) it is still a great spot to go for a run. There are two loops you can do and combined they equal about 4-miles. All of it is on singletrack, with good views, some trees to run through, and more often than not (especially in the morning) it all to yourself. Plus, you can bring dogs there.

Maybe better known as a mountain biking trail, this dirt road near Masonville (and about 45 minutes from Fort Collins) is also a superb running spot. The trail is either a nice soft dirt road or a double track that runs straight through the forest. While it is mostly uphill - but never too steeply - that only means the way back down is more fun!

Dirt road in pine forest
Michigan Ditch Road is perfect for long runs. PC coyotegulchblog

Way up the Poudre Canyon, right on Cameron Pass, is an amazing dirt road that winds itself back into State Forest State Park. The road is about 12 miles in length, though pretty much flat the whole way. The views though are just magnificent: high alpine trees, more often moose than not and the Nokhu Crags.

Located in the national forest and then Rocky Mountain National Park, the Dunraven Trailhead near Glen Haven is an awesome spot to get away from people - and still see the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. There are a couple of trail options, meaning you can go however far (or short) you want. The one we really enjoyed doing was the North Fork Trail, which follows the north fork of the Big Thompson River (meaning the trail never climbs too steeply) into the national park.

This long, wide trail has two starting points: one is off of Little Valley Road on the southeast side of Estes Park, and the other is off Big Owl Road near Allenspark. Because the trail climbs steeply and then drops (you go over two passes in the ~10 miles on the trail) either entrance works. We have started in Little Valley and ended on the other side, and absolutely loved it. The trail goes through aspen groves, has awesome views of Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak, and is really quiet. While the trail is tough - it is totally worth it!

One of our more recent running trail finds, this popular jeep road is pretty much one of the prettiest routes we have ever run. Maybe it was because of the cool, cloudy weather, or that both of us just felt goooood, but either way - there is no denying the beauty of this trail. There are a few steeper parts, though nothing too bad. It also goes for miles and miles meaning you can get a nice long trail run in easy. Bring a phone though because the views are pretty great.

Cloudy mountains behind forested road
Views from Johnny Park Road. PC Backroad Packers

This single-track trail is probably not marked on many maps, we didn’t really know about it until we did it - and then went and searched for it on Caltopo and But while it might be hard to find on the web, the trail itself is quite clear and well taken care of (looks like a popular mountain bike trail honestly). We did it recently and LOVED it! It is right off Johnny Park Road (see above) but took us deeper into the forests where we found fields and fields of wildflowers. The best way to do the trail is counter-clockwise. Either way, you do have to run back on Johnny Park road but that isn’t too bad.

A nice loop trail (or out and back if you want) that starts at the Hessie Trailhead outside of Nederland. It is located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area - meaning dogs are allowed but must be on a leash. The trail is about 13-miles long and climbs just over 2,000 feet up to the Continental Divide (where you can get on the CDT). And while it is a bit steep, the views from the top, plus just the trail through the trees and up to alpine lakes is definitely worth it!


So take a gander, find out where these trails are, and grab your running shoes. We will see you on the trail!

Want to learn more about trail running? Check out these articles: Trail Running Tips, Why Trail Running is a Good Idea and Thoughts From the Pros.


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