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How to Find a Mellow Trail

Not all trail runs are up mountains, or ultra-distance. Here’s how to find the easy trails that can deliver less-intense runs.

Photo: Getty Images

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If you’re new to trail running—or even new to the idea of trail running—you may be intimidated by what defines a trail. Not to worry! Not all trails travel straight up mountains, and not all trail runners run ultra-distances. You can find easy trails so that you’re not (necessarily) toeing the edge of a cliff, or crawling over rocks, or coming face-to-face with snakes, bears, and mountains lions.

A trail can be a mellow dirt path. It can be a small ribbon of dirt next to a soccer field or through a city park. Or a “trail” can be an unpaved road through the country. And a trail run can be an outing of any distance you want.

Running on relatively flat, smooth dirt, gravel, or grass still rewards you with a connection to nature, an escape from city sights and sounds, and all those great physical and mental benefits that running off-road provides…just without the anxiety of being on terrain that scares you.

How can you discover these tame, reasonable, beginner-friendly types of trails? Here are the easiest ways to find easy trails. 

Go on a walk and look for dirt.

Your neighborhood, or parks nearby, might have dirt paths you never knew existed…because you may not have been looking for them. Once you make a habit of keeping your eyes peeled for dirt, you may be surprised where trails—the flat, smooth, non-intimidating kind—exist, like next to soccer fields, on the edge of neighborhoods, or in city parks. Dirt paths often parallel paved bike paths, or run along the edges of grassy fields.

Turn on your phone (or a computer) and look for green and gray.

It’s possible to find easy trails by simply turning on any mapping application (even “Maps” on an iPhone) and looking for light green and dark green areas. These colored areas on maps indicate green spaces/natural areas. Also, trails often show up on mapping apps as gray lines, as opposed to white roads.

Ask friends (beyond runners).

If you have friends or friends of friends who not only trail run, but hike, mountain bike, dog walk, or go birding, it’s more than likely that they know the trails in your area and can recommend the mellow options. Tell them you’re looking for a flat, easy trail (or whatever you’re looking for). You might be surprised at the wealth of information from what you may have thought were unlikely sources.

Ask shops.

Employees of running and outdoor stores work at such places because they run and do outdoorsy things. Calling a shop, or visiting one in person (if safe and open due to COVID-19), and asking for recommendations on finding easy trails can direct you to great runs.

Join clubs.

Joining trail-running clubs for group runs (perhaps once the pandemic is over) can enlighten you to new trails, as groups hit various trailheads. Just be sure to ask how difficult the trail/terrain will be if you’re new to trail running. Club runs never drop people, but you still want to know what you’re in for.

Web search hiking trails.

Typing a phrase like: “Best beginner hikes in [your town here]” or “Easy hikes in [your town here]” can serve up a wealth of ideas. Some areas might have similar lists for trail runs, but hiking has more of a web presence. And easy/mellow trails for hikers equate easy/mellow trails for runners.

Use apps.

Trail-finding apps like AllTrails allow you to enter your location and set filters like difficulty (choose easy), length, elevation gain, and so on. Know that elevation gain will be cumulative. For instance, a rolling trail with 8 small climbs of 50 feet in elevation will be listed as a trail with 400 feet of elevation gain. A beginner trail will have no more than a few hundred feet of total elevation gain.

Once you’re comfortable on mellow, stress-free trails, you may want to start exploring more challenging terrain…or not. You don’t have to run rugged, gnarly trails to call yourself a trail runner. Enjoy the natural surfaces and environments that work best for you.

Lisa Jhung is the author of Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running and Running That Doesn’t Suck: How to Love Running Even If You Think You Hate It.

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