I’m currently on my way to Aspen, Colorado to run the Golden Leaf Half Marathon. I registered for this race several months ago and as race day has gotten closer, the thought of doing it has been a bit intimidating… Mainly because it’s a trail run through the Rocky Mountains at almost 10,000 feet elevation and the elevation chart and topo map for the course look like this:
As tough as that looks though, the Golden Leaf Half has also been voted to be one of the most scenic races in the United States. So even though the charts are a little bit unnerving, I’m still pretty excited to run it.
I got to thinking though. How scenic is this race really going to be compared to some of the others I’ve done? I guess I’ll find out soon enough, but here are five races that have already set the bar pretty high:
This race has been grown in popularity over the last few years, but it’s still one of the best kept secrets in Arizona. It’s an extremely challenging course at a high elevation but the weather on race day is usually perfect and the area around Sedona is stunningly beautiful to run through.
I would have put this one a little higher on my list except for the fact that the weather on race day was brutal. The temperature was in the low 50’s, which would have been quite comfortable except for fact that for the first six miles of the course I had to deal with 40 mph headwinds and driving, freezing sideways rain with drops that felt like hundreds of tiny needles constantly hitting my skin. The rain let up by the second half though and the scenery along the rest of the course featured an amazing array of glaciers, mountains, and wildlife. It was also the only time I ever stopped running during the middle of a race to take a picture of a moose that was standing alongside the course watching the runners.
This is another high elevation race with a challenging course (although I didn’t think it was as tough as Sedona even though the elevation was about the same). The finish line is inside of Grand Teton National Park and there are mountains visible in the distance throughout almost the entire race. The course also crosses rivers and streams and winds through fields and wooded areas where runners get plenty of opportunities to see wildlife. As an added bonus, the Yellowstone Half Marathon is the following weekend and only about 50 miles away. If you’re interested in extending your stay a little bit, you can get a bonus medal for running in both parks.
I could easily have flip flopped number 2 and 3 in this list. Both the Grand Teton Half and the Zion Canyon Half are run by Vacation Races and they share a lot of the same qualities: point-to-point courses that feature breathtaking scenery, finish lines at the entrances of US National Parks, and challenges where runners can get discounts on future races if they hike to certain locations within the parks after they finish the race. I gave a slight edge to the Zion Canyon half in my list because of the Angel’s Landing Challenge. Getting to Angels Landing requires a tough hike that features 1500 feet of elevation gain over 2.5 miles. The incline is so steep during the last half mile that you have to hold onto chains to keep from falling over 1000 feet to the canyon floor. But the view from the top is amazing.
Every other race that I’ve mentioned in this list is amazing but this one is almost impossible to top. Africa is a beautiful continent with awesome wildlife and all of the people I met there were great too. I’m still friends with some of them to this day. I was pretty young when I ran this one and didn’t even realize how much the experience would change my life until I got back home and things suddenly seemed different compared to before I left. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
I also had a few runners up that didn’t make the final cut but were still extremely scenic: the 2008 Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon, 2012 Las Cruces Half Marathon and 2015 Missoula Half Marathon all could have easily made this list if I wanted to make it a little longer. We’ll see where the Golden Leaf Half ends up after this weekend…. Maybe you’ve done some other races that you thought were more scenic than these. If you have, I’d love to hear about them so feel free to let me know!