Run the Texas Panhandle!

I grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a large section of Texas loosely identified as the northernmost 26 counties of the state. The region is bordered to the west by New Mexico, to the north and east by Oklahoma, and to the south, hundreds of miles from the northern border, by the Big Bend and Hill Country regions. For the most part, the topography consists of grass and shrub covered plains, occasionally interspersed with arroyos and shallow canyons. It is a vast level swath of land, some 25,000 square miles total, featuring open views in all directions. With a vantage allowing line of sight through fences, power lines, wind farms, and oil field machinery, one may note the slight curvature of the earth along the distant horizon.

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From: smilingglobe.com

It is a windy place, much of the time, with a widely varying range of temperatures, each exacerbated by the blustery weather. It can be well over a hundred and blowing hair dryer hot in the summer, and snowing sideways with wind chills well into the negatives on the worst of winter days. With the winds come tumbleweeds and trash, blowing from fence to fence across rural landscapes, and yard to yard in towns and cities.

Driving the backroads, one moves steadily from one small community to the next, each in varying states of disrepair. The boom and bust cycles of agriculture, ranching, and oil are evident throughout, though when passing by boarded storefronts, broken windows, and empty brick hollows, it is difficult to imagine these main streets ever lived up to their full potential. Scattered signs of life may be observed as well: hamburger shacks with hand-lettered signs, dilapidated beauty salons with clever names, a Dairy Queen, competing convenience stores, shoe-polished slogans supporting high-school football teams—Go Eagles! On the outskirts lie weedy trailer homes and the rusted carcasses of American muscle cars—dreams left to die. The larger cities in the region prove no more stimulating—the standard repetition of box stores, fast food chains, franchised restaurants, and mega-Walmarts. Sprawl and squalor, obvious separation of wealth. The whole place exudes a certain one paycheck behind quality, a feeling of uninspired existence perhaps, though food, fuel, and other fundamentals are produced here, a concept not to be taken lightly. I confess a proclivity for criticism, having endured an adolescence stifled by an inflexible status-quo.

In short, if you ever find yourself in the Panhandle, your first thought might be of running—running away that is. At least that’s been my experience since leaving here many years ago. I have discovered, however, there is beauty to be found everywhere, and though one may have to search a little harder here, it does exist in many forms—in the open skies, those boundless horizon lines, in the wildlife, the rugged vegetation, the thrill of a multi-story dust devil, the sight of a refrigerator-sized tumbleweed bouncing along the freeway at 40 mph. There are also a few geographical gems in the region which provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, for running and camping and wildlife viewing, etc. Places worth getting to know, worth going back to time and again should you find yourself just passing through or stuck here for a while.

My family still lives in the Panhandle, and as such, I try to visit when possible. This usually occurs once or twice a year as I’m driving from one place to another. Amarillo, the biggest city near where I grew up, is a long ways from most of the places I’m interested in getting to—an eight hour drive even from Terlingua and the Big Bend—but as it’s transected by major interstates, planning a route which detours through there isn’t all that difficult. I’ll general stay for a week or so, a couple days in the city with my mom, and a few days hanging out with my dad, who lives in one of the neighboring towns about 45 minutes away. The past several months, however, I’ve ended up spending an inordinate amount of time here. As such, I thought I’d do a little something about a few of the best places to spend time outdoors in the region, just in case one of my fictitious, running obsessed readers finds themselves in the area. Not to mention, this may well be the last bit on running I do in a while, as it’s going to be treadmills, ice spikes, and cross country skis for long months to come once I make it up to Alaska next week.

I mainly want to give a brief description of the three best places to trail run in the entire Panhandle, from my own experience, limited as it may be and more specific to the Amarillo zone. But those three should be enough for anyone driving along I-40 or I-27 to detour to for a couple of hours of exploration, or to camp out for the evening if passing through the region. Truth be told, these three places probably cover it for the most part anyway, as outside of the Big Bend finding opportunities to recreate on land open to the public is depressingly difficult. Over 95% of Texas land is privately owned, leaving a minute amount of accessible open space for the common folk. The rest of it sits sanctioned off by boundless miles of fence posts, barbed wire, and closed gates. As such, options for running outside of city parks or municipal streets are limited to underfunded and overused state parks, or the couple parcels of federal land in Texas—one of which happens to be a few miles from where I’m typing this.

Before moving on to the descriptions, however, one running anecdote from my time in the Panhandle: As I’ve mentioned before on this site, running hasn’t played a part in my life for all that long, at least not an enjoyable one. Some years prior to the shift in attitude, however, I found myself signed up for the annual Amarillo Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. I knew that I was going to run the 5K a couple months beforehand, but couldn’t really bring myself to do any sort of training for the event, mostly because I really didn’t like running, so figured I’d save it for when I had to do it and not spend any extra effort in working up to it. I also lived in Leadville, Colorado at the time, at an elevation of 10,000’, which made running even less enticing, and also made for a convincing excuse that the drop in altitude should be enough to compensate for my lack of preparation. The inevitable Thursday morning arrived as cold and breezy as one might expect for November in the Panhandle. I showed up just as the event started, and found myself scrambling to attach bib and shoelace timing chip as the gun went off. From the back of the pack I eventually found my pace and place, ahead of the walkers, but a long ways behind the real runners, who I could see well on the other side of the lake the course circuited around. I wasn’t dying, but I certainly wasn’t having much fun. It was cold; I was out of shape and underdressed and hadn’t run three miles consecutively in many years.

About a quarter mile from the finish I caught up to a 12-year-old boy giving it his all while dressed in what would, in most parts of the country, be considered a decidedly non-PC Indian outfit, feathered headdress, war paint and all (“It’s my culture, not a costume!” read the posters around university campuses last year…). I didn’t intentionally pass him, simply labored by hoping for the experience to be over. He shot me a death glance as I overtook him. Around the corner the finish line was finally in sight, and I heard much yelling and cheering from the awaiting crowd as the kid was now high-kicking it behind me in an all-out sprint for the end. Even if I would have felt like humiliating a small child in a public setting, I wouldn’t have been able to muster the extra energy, and he bounded past to beat me by a couple seconds. I’d like to imagine that I could smoke him these days, but that’s probably not true, as he’s now about 19 and certainly quite a bit faster if he kept with the running. The most humiliating part came the next day, however, when the holiday copy of the Amarillo Globe-News arrived at my dad’s house. There it was, on the front page of the paper for all the Panhandle to see—the young brave whooping across the finish line with a panting old guy, his/my face plainly visible in the photo, struggling for breath several steps behind.

On to the rest of it then. Over the past months I’ve been able to revisit a few of my favorite spots in the Panhandle, and even discover a couple of new trails. I’ve also been running around the east side of Amarillo a fair amount (might as well grow an extra head the way people gawk from their truck windows at a pedestrian), and have come to the conclusion that winter may well be the best time to run here. The wind can be a deterrent, especially the colder it gets, but there are significantly fewer weeds, pokey things, and stickers in general, along with greatly reduced chances of seeing snakes. Slanted lighting softens the landscape. Long shadows and golden glows abound.

The three places I’d like to endorse are as follows: Caprock Canyon State Park, Palo Duro State Park, and the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. All offer many miles of trails and excellent options for runs of any distance. There are a few other smaller state parks along the southern extension of the region, (such as Copper Breaks, which does have a few good trails), worth checking out if you’re in the area, but these are the top three if you’re looking for extended runs across inspiring terrain.

Caprock Canyon State Park

Caprock has around 90 miles of trails open to hiking and biking. It’s definitely somewhere one could spend several days exploring. For those looking to stay a while, the campsites are a highlight as they are arranged to offer privacy and great views. The trails provide lots of variety and untold options for connecting different routes. I would have stayed a few more days the last time I was there, but had to depart due to reservations made by incoming attendees of the annual Bob Wills Days in nearby Turkey, Texas. Be aware of that detail if you’re there at the end of April. Another highlight is the ‘Texas State Bison Herd,’ which roams freely throughout the park. Tatanka. Get your Kevin Costner on.

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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Touted in park literature as the ‘Grand Canyon of Texas,’ Palo Duro is reported to be the ‘second largest canyon in the US,’ though when I searched for substantiation of this claim I could only come up with Texas based media outlets as sources. Such is life in the Lone Star State. Regardless, it is an incredible place to visit, and an iconic landmark. Captivating landscapes, lots of wildlife and wildflowers, plenty of opportunities for camping, and great trails. You can also see the outdoor musical TEXAS if you’re there in season. I try to spend at least a day here each time I pass through, and any time of the year is a good time to visit. My favorite trail combines the Givens, Spicer, Lowry (named for three local runners) with the Lighthouse trail to make a six or so mile loop with opportunities to take spurs to the Lighthouse formation and/or Little Fox Canyon.

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Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

While the first two might be somewhat obvious choices if visiting the Panhandle, Lake Meredith is fairly unknown outside the local area. When I was growing up, the lake was popular for boating, fishing, beer drinking, and cliff jumping. As the years passed, however, the lake (actually a reservoir capturing the flow of the dinky Canadian River) began to recede considerably, reaching a record low in 2013. As the lake dropped, marinas and boat ramps were left high and dry, and visitor use plummeted. In an effort to increase recreation opportunities in the area, the NPS decided to begin constructing trails, and several were seen to completion. Since then, however, the lake has experienced an astonishing recovery, with current water levels actually covering sections of trail where a few years ago the lake wasn’t even visible in the distance. What this all means is there are presently miles of really sweet trails with great views of the lake along the way.

Along with NRA’s eponymous lake, the region also features Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, a site recognized for its importance to the “survival, commerce and culture of the High Plains.” In past visits, I spent a fair amount of time here with my dad, who did a lot of volunteer work at the monument, including conducting interpretive tours of the quarries. Visiting the sites requires having a guide and a good imagination. The main sites, which sit on top of a mesa, consist of nothing more than small pits in the ground where high grade flint was extracted by prehistoric cultures to be used in trading and the construction of tools. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a stop by the visitor’s center, and nearby dirt roads allow access to the lake and some easy running opportunities. My dad no longer volunteers for the park service, having since moved on to other projects, but does spend a lot of time hiking around the entire area taking photographs and identifying flora and fauna. As such, anytime I’m back we spend at least a couple of days out by the lake, both on trail and off, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of spending time in the Panhandle.

There are several different areas of the recreation area with access to trails, but two of the best trailheads can be accessed at the same basic location, which is the Harbor Bay boat ramp just outside the town of Fritch. The first trailhead will be on the left as soon as you spot the lake. This is the South Turkey Creek Trail, which parallels the lakeshore for around six miles before dropping down into Turkey Creek itself, where it joins up with a four mile loop up the creek—making a 16-mile round trip route for anyone looking to do some distance. The loop can also be accessed, by an unofficial but apparent trail, from Dolomite Point, which is a short drive from the Alibates Visitor’s Center.

The second trail is the Harbor Bay Trail, which can be reached by continuing to the Harbor Bay boat ramp. From here the trail climbs for a short ways, then traverses a side canyon before crossing a creek and heading up to a mesa loop trail. From the trailhead to around the loop and back is around 6 miles. An earlier loop goes up to a mesa overlooking Harbor Bay itself. The terrain is a nice mix of up and down, the views are outstanding, and you are likely to have the place to yourself.

Welp, guess that’s about it pard. Not necessarily suggesting anyone make the Panhandle a destination, but if you happen to find yourself in these parts hankerin’ for some fresh Texas air, now you know where to go. Later y’all!

Photos below provided courtesy of Glendon Jett.

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Michael Owen and SEOTR

MO2An interview I conducted on October 17th, 2018 with Michael Owen, accomplished runner, race director, and well-respected community member in Athens, Ohio. Though we hadn’t met previously, Michael generously shared his time to speak with me as part of a class project regarding trends and issues in recreation. We first chat briefly about some of Michael’s achievements in ‘ultra’ running, where he not only competes, but often wins long-distance trail races, and also discuss a few other topics relevant to Michael’s involvement with the running community in Athens. Afterwards, we get into his role as director of Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners, or SEOTR (I don’t think the abbreviation is distinctly defined in the podcast). While I could have talked with Michael for much longer about his own running career and philosophies, I asked him to do the interview in order to hear his opinions and expertise regarding current paradigms in for-profit vs. non-profit races, and the exploding popularity of running events everywhere. Michael’s responses are thoughtful and informed, and the conversation goes on for quite some time as one topic leads to another. Listening to his views provides a lot of insight into myriad aspects concerning the current state of running in general, as well as running as a consumer activity, and more. Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing, it’s definitely worth skipping to the very end to listen to his final thoughts on training in the winter. Thanks so much for everything Michael.

You can check out his blog at: Owen Running

And info about SEOTR events at: SEOTR

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Run Alaska! (and Canada…)

Didn’t know if there would be enough to write about by merely focusing on a state which encompasses 1/5 the size of the continental US, so figured I’d better throw in another country or something as well. But not all of Canada, of course, just a few western provinces.

Obviously not going for full coverage here. Not even close to a comprehensive examination of running up north, just a few ideas on the feel of it all, and a couple of suggestions for anyone happening up this way.

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Running in Alaska (and Canada…) can be a lot of things. Challenging, steep, fun, frustrating, visually gratifying, and even a bit nerve-wracking. The minute you hit the trail, even paved ones, you know there are lots of things out there that can kill you. Bear, moose, humans, and even the mountains themselves occasionally seem a bit malicious. Even in the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, wild animals often prove potential hazards, and stories abound about unprovoked maulings by drunk natives and bears alike. No lie. I don’t want to be macabre with the sharing of details, but people have been killed (and partially eaten, or in one case never heard from again) while participating in major running events in the state. And not even the ones out front, usually just unfortunate mid-packers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not always the most pleasant thoughts to consider when out all alone.

So yeah, there’s that. The need to be constantly alert, the need to make some noise, the need to carry a can of bear spray in hand, just in case. The perpetual requirement of heightened awareness proves both exhilarating and exhausting, depending on one’s mood. Gives a person something to think about, provides the mind with license to fancy.

Then there’s the weather. Rain, frequent wind, rapid changes in temperature. Maintaining any sort of regimented running schedule requires dedication and self-discipline. Flexibility helps as well. Best to go when the going’s good, or simply deal with the elements as they are.

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Locals don’t seem to mind a bit of discomfort or danger with their recreation. Though you might never see another person out running, the state boasts plenty of crazy die-hards, endurance athletes, and quirky ‘sourdoughs’ up for a challenge. A quick perusal of some of the races sponsored each year provides an idea of the type of adventure Alaskans prefer, from the insanity of the Mountain Marathon hosted each 4th of July in Seward, to the mid-winter Susitna 100.

My own experience in Alaska stems from several summers of living here and working on various rivers throughout the state. I am not a local, by any means. Each year I usually do a bit of traveling before and after the season, and I’ve driven multiple routes across Canada on the way up and down. In that time, I’ve seen a fair bit of some of the more accessible parts of Alaska, and the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, etc., often taking the time to survey some trails along the way.

The past several summers I’ve been based about 45 minutes east of Palmer in the Matanuska Valley. The name of the general location is Glacier View, a sparsely populated ten-mile stretch of the Glen Highway, or Alaska Highway 1, which leads from south of Anchorage up to Tok and onto the AlCan. Our headquarters/camp sits at the bottom of the valley at the confluence of the river and a couple of small creeks. From the office, it’s uphill two-miles in all directions. My first year living here I did my best to explore every game trail, 4×4 track, and dirt road around. I spent a lot of time running through the woods, crawling over and under downed trees, and doing my best to stay alert to my surroundings. Moose, which injure way more people each year than bears, are abundant here, and both black bears and grizzlies live in the area. Even on wider trails, I would be frequently whooping to announce my approach, and diligently scanning for animals to the front, sides, and rear. I eventually grew tired of the routine, of mustering the hyper-awareness I felt necessary even after miles of steeply inclined effort. These days, when I’m right here, right here, without any developed trails in the immediate area, I’ve reluctantly restricted my energies to road running.

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I don’t particularly like running on roads, especially trafficked highways. In fact, I would prefer not to even hear vehicular noise while exercising, much less be passed with frequency by speeding trucks and roaring semis. As such, Glacier View would not make a list of my top favorite places to run. Quite the opposite, in fact. The good news is, however, that sections of old highway, somewhat separate from the new one, still exist. The whole route was redone several years ago (a popular bumper sticker here reads: ‘Welcome to Alaska, Road Construction next 2000 miles.’), leaving leftover miles of decomposing concrete along the way. One such stretch extends a couple of miles from the back of our office, and another lies nearby to the cabin I’m staying in this summer, making for somewhat more pleasant runs, though both are still close enough to the highway to eliminate any sense of audio-tranquility. (Must point out here, however, that a busy highway in Alaska means a few trucks every couple of minutes…) Though as much as I loathe the idea of running along the shoulder of the main road, which I occasionally relent to on longer runs, the touted ‘glacier views’ often compensate.

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What I really wanted to write about, however, weren’t the highways, but a few of the running opportunities and trails I have found while traveling around Alaska as well as to and from. Just a short list of great places to run spanning across the top corner of the continent.

Palmer. The closet town around is Palmer, a quaint little farming community established in the early 1900s, and home of the Alaska State Fair. I generally find myself heading that way a few times a month in order to resupply, and each time I go I try to make time to run on the Matanuska Greenbelt Trails, probably some of the best developed trail running I’ve found in Alaska. The network of connected trails consist of small and large connected loops spanning many miles of open space. Most loops cut through densely wooded hills, occasionally opening up to provide great views of the surrounding mountains. The trails consist of a mix of road-width swaths and single track, and access can be gained at multiple trailheads. Due to the density of trails, routes can sometimes get a bit confusing, though trail markers and maps may be found sporadically placed along the way. I’ve definitely ended up out there for much longer than I originally planned due to the fact that the trails are both extremely enjoyable and, at times, disorienting. Paper maps of the system can be obtained at the visitor’s center in Palmer, and there are larger overviews at most trailheads. One of my ‘standard’ runs (quotes due to the fact that I don’t know that I’ve ever gone the same way twice…) consists of trying to find my way to Mooseberry Mesa and the aptly named Moose Poop Loop, and then trying to find my way back.

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Urban AK. Chances are that if you visit Alaska you’ll find yourself in either Fairbanks or Anchorage at some point. Both offer many miles of paved bike paths, as well as dirt trail options within their city limits. Again, this is Alaska, so even though you’re in the closest thing to a metropolis available, vigilance is still required as far as wild animals are concerned, with the added excitement of drunken homeless derelicts thrown into the mix. Have fun, but be alert. Easily accessible from downtown Anchorage one will find the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which meanders along the Knik Arm providing great views of the water and glimpses of snow covered peaks, including Denali on a really clear day. Many of the bigger running events in the city incorporate sections of the path, and several spur trails lead to other parts of town. Scenic flat cruising at sea level. Fairbanks also offers miles of paved waterside trail along the Chena River, as well as multiple off pavement options. A popular place to walk, run, and admire migratory birds can be found at Creamer’s Field, while those looking for longer routes and less people should check out the trail network near the university.

Kenai Peninsula. Again, only offering a few initial points for the short term traveler here, as options for exploration abound in this area of the state. While running anywhere on the Kenai, the probability is high that you will be running in some type of rain. Embrace it. Or, rather, be embraced in the drizzle or all-out downpour. For starters, it’s often enjoyable enough to meander around communities such as Seward, Hope, and Homer with no particular destination in mind. Homer has its spit, Seward its sidewalks and paths along Resurrection Bay. Hope has one road in and the same road out, though that road terminates at Porcupine Campground, starting point for several runnable trails. One of the more popular summer events in the state goes 16 miles from Primrose Campground to Lost Lake, and there are many other roadside trailheads all along the highway.

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Haines. End or beginning of a ferry trip along the Inside Passage. On my way up last season I took the boat from Bellingham and, after disembarking, spent the night in Haines and several hours exploring a few trails just outside of town. Three sedentary days aboard the ferry readies one for a run or two. Definitely check out the popular Battery Point trail, and brave the thick underbrush along the coastline in the Chilkat State Park if you dare.

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Talkeetna. Confluence of three major rivers and departure point for most Denali bound mountaineers. Train stop and tourist hub. Quintessential small town Alaska. Again, just running around town leaping across mud filled potholes and exploring dirt side streets can be plenty entertaining. Check out the river trails at the end of the main street, then cross the Talkeetna on the railroad bridge and head out of town. Do some trail running out at X,Y,Z Lakes. A paved path parallels the highway into town. Don’t forget to stop by Denali Brewing on your way out.

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Running opportunities in Alaska are endless. I’ve had a great time running around Chena Hot Springs, Valdez, and even good ol’ Tok while on my way through. Imagination, a bit of courage, and a little grit are all that’s required when it comes to fun, fitness, and exploration in the 49th state, the touted last frontier.

As promised, however, I don’t want to end without making a quick reference to America’s hat, Canada. Each time I’ve found myself heading this way or that across our neighbor to the north (or, if you’re here, to the east…) I always intend to spend more time exploring than I ever actually have time to do. Most of my drives up or down have taken around a week, and set plans become distant dreams as hours on the highway grow long – mere inches on the map turning into days on the road. In my experience, the best way to break up long day of driving is stopping off somewhere for an hour run, allowing for exercise, fresh air, and a chance to check out a bit of Canadian countryside – somewhat of a small condolence for the necessary acknowledgement as to the impossibility of previous objectives.

One of the many awesome things about Canada is the abundance of visitor information centers, state sponsored offices dedicated to providing local information to passing travelers. These centers can be found in bigger cities and small towns alike, and even in seemingly remote areas you will often find a clean building filled with myriad brochures and friendly Canadians eager to ply one with maps and advice. Thanks to these centers, their kindly hosts, and a little bit of luck, I’ve been able to find great trails in both bigger municipalities and random towns across the country.

A couple of the places along the highway I remember discovering some fun trails would include Ft. Saint John and Grand Cache, though I recall exploring trail systems in several other places whose names are long forgotten, though the routes themselves still memorable. One of my favorite stops every time I’ve driven by would have to be the community of Whitehorse, Yukon. Parking in the Robert Service Campground provides access to a paved trail system running up and down the Yukon River. Downstream takes you to downtown, with loop potential on the return; upstream sends you up a big hill, onto dirt trails, past the dam, and along the reservoir where you can watch float planes take-off as you run along high cliffs above crystal blue water. Downtown can also be a good time, and your one chance for a healthy meal in a couple thousand miles.

My last trip across Canada found me a bit further east heading across Alberta. There are all kinds of trails in the national parks of Jasper and Banff, as well as everywhere else in the area. Finally, the city of Calgary boasts miles (well, kilometers) of bike paths, and some fantastic trails in Nose Hill Park on the outskirts of the city with great views of the downtown skyline.

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I suppose that’s about all I have to write about running in the great north. So much to see, so many places to check out. And always remember, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than your running partner.

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Run Tennessee!

If you ever have an opportunity to go for a run in the Volunteer State, chances are you’ll figure out real quick what you signed yourself up for. Uphill travel, son. Some heart thumping, lung burning, thigh searing suffering. This place has got itself some mountains, and most of its trails just head straight on up the side of ‘em. And once you go up, you gotta come down. Sorry knees.

But with challenge comes reward. Vibrant beauty lies around every bend. The world throbs with palpable green energy. Vegetation creeps closer by the minute. Everything is alive.

Having lived out west most of my life, accustomed to sweeping landscapes and open horizons, I sometimes feel hemmed in by the trees in Appalachia. The only way to escape the claustrophobic sensation is get to the top of a ridge and climb several flights of rickety stairs up an old fire lookout tower – only to be haunted by the sight of ridgeline after ridgeline after ridgeline of forest for as far as the eye can see. One has to readjust. To realign perceptions. Reset preconceived interpretations of splendor. Here, beauty lies close in. It exists in the minutiae, explodes in the vitality and congruity of ecosystems.

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The trails go up, and the trails go back down, but more than that they go along and through and beside. Water features abound. Brooks, streams, creeks (cricks?), and rivers. Waterfalls galore. Plants grow on plants growing on plants. Big trees shade little trees which shade even littler trees. The color of the world is green. Even the air, the very air itself, all thick with humidity and hanging dense under the canopy, is green. You run in the green, inhale and exhale it. And the sounds, the intensified ‘OM’ of creation. The birds, the frogs, the rushing water, the insects. The cicadas can be deafening, their pulsating din directing your attention to the hum of the universe.

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This is in the summer, of course. All other seasons have their time in Tennessee as well. So I’m told. Splendid fall colors and all that. I was there last week in the early spring, bare limbs on the trees, their buds only beginning to show. But mostly I know it in the heat, when the air is a thick mass. I know it covered in sweat, skin glistening. I know it as a living breathing entity, a place to run and be alive along with everything else.

And I don’t know it all that well, truth be told, having only spent a couple of summers out that way, but I do know that Tennessee can be a phenomenal place to run. Tough in all the right ways, and pretty as all get out. Just about every trail I’ve run there parallels (or crosses twenty times…) a watercourse of some sort. Most trails also keep you in that green shade, though you’ll be sweating like crazy regardless, of course. And the nuanced varieties of scenery and micro-ecologies are never ending.

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Tennessee also has a surprising amount of public land, both state and federal, and at least a few thousand miles of trails. As mentioned, we spent a few quick days out that way last week, and randomly visited several parks in middle Tennessee. The trails in all of them were spectacular, well maintained, and almost devoid of other users. As it was early spring, the air was brisk with the occasional storm rolling through. Heavy rains in the lower elevations had already set the green in motion. Up on the Cumberland, winter was barely letting go, but it was great running weather and the absence of leaves allowed for slightly longer views than in the summertime. The hills were still everywhere.

The first place we stopped off was Montgomery Bell State Park where we headed out on a ten-mile loop circumnavigating the park boundary. Unlike the trails I remember in Eastern Tennessee, which go up for miles before going down more than a couple of feet, this trail gained and dropped the entire way, climbing one hill to traverse a ridgeline over to the next draw, then following a creek down until the next significant turn in the trail where it was back up again. It was a super nice trail with a steady pattern of challenging sections and lots of great scenery.

The next couple of days we were over on the Cumberland Plateau, which has multiple options for hiking, running, biking, and climbing. The first afternoon found us in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Pretty much just headed out from the first trailhead we came to, the majority of the loop we chose following along and underneath a band of sandstone cliffs. Each turn revealed huge eroded overhangs, generally replete with a curtain of water falling from their apexes. We probably passed 20 or more spectacular sites in a mere couple of miles, each of which could have been a destination of its own.

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The following afternoon we went to Pickett State Park, which sits only a few miles away from where we were the previous day. If the two state parks we happened upon are any indication of what the rest of the state has to offer, as I’m sure they are, they must all be worth a visit. (Have I mentioned there’s no daily admission?) Like Montgomery Bell, Pickett boasts a network of well-marked trails. And also like Montgomery Bell, the terrain and scenery vary with each new section of trail. I was able to combine several different loops in an hour or so of running, passing by several notable features along the way. A decidedly satisfactory excursion.

Most of the time I’ve spent in Tennessee has been in the eastern part of the state, near its border with North Carolina, the squiggly line on maps that represents the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. And while middle Tenny has plenty of steep topography, these are the mountains I spoke of in the beginning. The real deal. Having lived a fair amount of my adult life in Colorado, I once scoffed at the idea of legitimate mountains in the east. I mean, look at those things, they can’t even get themselves out of the trees… But buddy, you start running up one of those little inclines, and keep running up it, and keep running up it, and repentance is imminent. You will believe!

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There are lots of options for running in these mountains, but no flat ones, or even moderately rolling ones, that I’ve found. They go up a couple thousand feet. They go down a couple thousand feet. And here’s the thing: as most of us are a lot slower at running up than running down, you’re going to be going uphill at least twice as much as you’re going to be running downhill. Not that going downhill is all that easy either, mind you. I’m sure you get the point, but to truly understand is to experience.

My experience derives from the couple of summers I spent in Hartford, a tiny little exit town on I-40 about an hour west of Asheville, NC and just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hartford, which exists primarily due to its role as the hub of rafting on the Pigeon River, sits within easy access to numerous trail systems on a range of public lands. Depending on the day, I would run in the Martha Sundquist State Forest, the Cherokee National Forest, or the national park. The first two areas are great for being alone, though some bushwhacking may be required as the trails receive little use and minimal maintenance. Both necessitate regular tree ducking, log jumping, spider web across the face tolerating, and occasional route finding – all part of the adventure. Nearby, the access points to the northern sector of the national park aren’t nearly as crowded as those outside of Gatlinburg, and the park boasts over 800 miles of trails. Like most national parks, the further away from the nearest trailhead you make it, the less people you will encounter. Awesome loops abound, and easy out-and-backs await. A few of my favorites would be Big Creek up to the bridges, Big Creek to Swallow Fork to Baxter Creek, and the Boogerman Trail (as much for the name as for the route) over in Cataloochee.

The last thing to mention about running in these incredible places is that wildlife can be abundant. A watchful eye is recommended, mostly for the pleasure of spotting whatever it is that you happen to see, but also for personal safety. I’ve seen far more bears while running in Tennessee than anywhere else. One week in late August I came across three different sets of mothers and cubs, in completely disparate areas with miles of separation between. The last encounter was a bit worrying, as the mother was clearly displeased with my presence. I also have a great video of two copperheads that came out of the bushes seconds after I passed and started mating on the trail. Most of the time, however, sightings provide less intimidating memories and equally good stories. Under every third rock in almost all the streams you’ll find a salamander. Herds of deer and the occasional elk are frequently seen. I’ve also crept up on a bobcat, and was once stopped dead in my tracks when a huge turkey flew out of a tree directly above my head and ‘soared’ a few hundred feet down into the valley below. Like Tennessee itself, it was as majestic as it sounds.

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Run Big Bend!

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With so much space dedicated to the Big Bend on this site, perhaps it’s best to clarify approximately what we’re speaking of. The Big Bend is a fairly remote region of West Texas. Its moniker stems from the topographical representation of the Rio Grande River on a map, specifically the slowly curving 300 something miles of it that gives Texas the lower left bit of its iconic shape. As mentioned in other posts, the bend also happens to be the international border between the US and Mexico. It’s Texas on one side, and the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila on the other. The entire region, more or less, lies within the even more expansive Chihuahuan Desert. While some use the term to refer to the national park of the same name (which encompasses over 800,000 acres at the point of the bend), or the park and the nearby towns of Terlingua and Study Butte, the broader Big Bend, in both character and atmosphere, extends a bit further north as well. While the boundaries aren’t displayed on any map that I know of, most folks would probably agree that a line connecting Presido, Marfa, Alpine/Ft. Davis, and Marathon would represent a general idea of the upper stretches of the Big Bend proper.

Having mentioned all this, however, the heart of the Big Bend, in my opinion, does indeed lie along the border stretches, and it’s along those border stretches where one can run for seemingly infinite miles through rugged, remote, and extraordinarily beautiful desert terrain, most of the time in complete seclusion.

The difficult decision as far as running in the Big Bend never seems to be where to go, as everywhere delivers as far as stark splendor is concerned, but when to go, especially as far as time of day is concerned. Over the past four years I’ve spent a good deal of each winter and early spring in the area, which, unless you’re some freakish cold blooded mutant that thrives in triple digit thermometer readings, is the time of year to be there. Even in December, afternoon temps can be quite warm, and by early March daily highs often creep towards 100+ on the desert floor. There can be cold days and windy days in there as well, which can make for some frigid runs in the winter, but the best part about the Big Bend in January and February is that storms seem to roll through for a day or two at a time, rather than sticking around for long weeks. And cold quickly becomes relative, with wind chill being the biggest factor in run enjoyment.

So, the biggest decision is usually when to start your run once things start warming up again, especially if you’re planning on doing any significant distance. Early in the a.m. is always an option, though it can be brutal to head out just before the sun breaks the horizon only to have things heat up by 20 degrees or more 15 minutes into it. You’re wishing you had gloves and some nipple tape one minute, and tearing off your sweat soaked layers and dying for water the next. My favorite time to go is as close to dusk as possible, but this can also become problematic, as the Big Bend sits on the far western edge of the central time zone, meaning that sometime around the first of March the optimal departure time might be around 7-8 pm, a little late in the day if you have any other plans. Having offered these two options – uncontrollably shivering-to-profusely sweating or sunset mission – the most important thing to mention is that in warmer seasons the meanest time to go is anytime between 3pm and early evening. Around 4 o’clock each afternoon the sun reaches a particularly vicious angle, its rays intensifying significantly. If, as I have so many times before, you allow yourself to be lured into running in the afternoon, the magnified heat and ferociousness of our sky dwelling friend and tormentor will make you feel as if God has singled you out for punishment. Something you may want to experience for yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As for the where…

Big Bend Ranch State Park. One of my favorite places to run anywhere. Texas’s biggest state park, by a huge margin, only receives a small fraction of visitors compared to the neighboring national park. At over 300,000 acres, with a well-developed and maintained trail system easily accessible from the highway, Big Bend Ranch offers an austere paradise for those seeking solitude in the desert. I regularly run long loops in the park, and other than the two event weekends of the year, have yet to see another person on the trails. I’ve even run a trail two weeks after I originally ran it, only to recognize my own footprints in the dirt. The running is phenomenal, as are the surrounding mountains and desert vegetation. Some of the trails are old 4×4 roads, while most are single track with technical sections and undulating elevation, and there are untold options for connecting routes. The two best spots to access the main trail system are across from the Barton Warnock Center, which is one of the park’s headquarters just outside of Lajitas, and the Contrabando trailhead. Perhaps my favorite run starts at Contrabando, heads out towards the Dome trails, and returns via the Fresno Divide. And if the thought of running solo in the wilderness is in any way uncomfortable, I’ll mention that each January there is an ‘Ultra’ with distances of 10k, 30k, and 50k. Kind of fun to run with a small crowd out there one day a year. It’s also worth noting that the trails are open to mountain biking, with a bike festival happening each February.

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Lajitas Airport Trails. East of the resort town of Lajitas sits the Lajitas International Airport. I’ve never seen a plane land or take off from there, but I’m told that they do. The important thing to know, however, is not that a flight to the Big Bend might be available if you know the right people, but that there is a network of trails open to public use accessible from the highway at the airport turnoff. These trails are only slightly more popular than the state park trails, as local mountain bikers ride them with some frequency, though the chances of having them all to yourself is still likely. At the trailhead is a map with routes, descriptions, and mileage. The trails are well signed and provide a diversity of terrain and scenery. As the trails are a bit closer to the town of Terlingua than the state park, one of my preferred sunset runs is the 5.5 mile Loop 3, with great views of the Chisos Mountains on your way out, and often brilliantly colored clouds across the western sky on the way back in.

Horse Trails? Town Trails? Study Butte Trails? These don’t have a name that I know of. In fact, I’ve never thought of calling them anything until now, though I run on them more than anywhere else since they’re a) awesome, and b) begin in the town of Study Butte (aka Terlingua, but not the Ghost Town) just behind the Motor Inn, which is now called something like Big Bend Resort and Adventures… Anyway, just behind the gas station/laundromat/campground there’s a dirt road that leads past a water treatment pond and through a pseudo golf course which is basically just a few greens and a couple of flags out in the desert. As you’re passing the shitpond, just find a trail and start running east, or south, or even north, anywhere but back to the highway. There are trails heading all over the place which are primarily used by the nearby stables to do trail rides. You’ll see a lot of ‘evidence’ of the horses, but their hooves do keep the trails nice and soft. You may even see some folks out on a ride, but there’s usually an alternate trail to turn off onto before you meet them, and the wranglers are friendly enough if you end up in the mix. It’s fun just to figure some things out for yourself, but as you choose your own adventure the trails might take you past old mining ruins, up Rough Run Creek, along a sweet ridge, on to Ocotillo Mesa, and even all the way back to Indian Head, which is the northwest corner of the national park.

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Big Bend National Park. To be honest, I haven’t done much running in the NP. Lots of hiking, lots of canoeing, but hardly any running and nothing noteworthy at that. There are plenty of options, however, just a lot more people and potentially long drives to get to the trailheads if you’re not staying in the park. Most of the trails are clearly marked and travel through some striking terrain. You also have the option to run up in the Chisos Mountains, where the temps are generally significantly cooler than in the desert down below. They are real mountains, however, so be prepared to run up/down a mountain, and the trails, as already alluded to, will be more crowded in the Chisos than anywhere else. If you want to do some desert running in the park, try cruising along one of the unpaved roads, such as the River Road or Old Ore Road. (Avoid Maverick, unless you don’t mind being plastered in a dirt patina from the clouds of dust you’ll be eating each time a car speeds by on the washboard.) Or, for a more authentic trail experience, head out the Marufo Vega until the junction with the Strawhouse Trail and follow the wash back down. Epic desert views abound.

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Terlingua Ranch. The Terlingua Ranch comprises thousands of acres of land adjacent to the national park and north of the Terlingua Ghost Town. While a true working ranch in the late 1800s, the land has now been parceled off into small swaths of barren desert. As you approach Terlingua from the north, you will begin to notice all manner of dwellings scattered across the landscape for as far as the eye can see, an unbridled sprawl of anything from conscientiously built eco-homes to abandoned buses and decrepit trailers. Personal junkyards abound. All of this is connected by an immense network of private dirt roads maintained by the Ranch. I mention this here because with the ever-growing popularity of Airbnb in the area, many visitors find themselves ensconced on the Ranch somewhere along all those miles and miles of dirt roads in lodgings which are many more miles from anywhere near the parks. All of the above mentioned locations are much more enjoyable to explore, in my opinion, than the Ranch, but, having said that, I run out there quite a bit and the empty roads provide plenty of possibility. I will say that running out there can be a bit intimidating. It’s like jogging suspiciously across the set of a bad Billy Bob Thornton movie – you will find yourself looking cautiously between rusted cars and bullet riddled washing machines, knowing that a heavily armed someone might certainly be living in one of the decaying vans in the back, and imagining that they’re not the kind of people that live out there because they want to see some dude in short shorts trotting through the privacy of their conspiracy riddled reality. Keeps things exciting, I guess, the wandering imagination that is. I will end by saying that the Ranch can be a great place to see wildlife, such as deer and javelina, and you can take your dog along, which you can’t do in any of the parks. So, if it’s where you’re at, get after it – the gunshots will be a strong motivator for negative splits on an out-and-back.

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Davis Mountains. As mentioned in the beginning, the Davis Mountains lie at the far north of the Big Bend, and are often included in vacations to the region. This area is home to the McDonald Observatory, Ft. Davis, Davis Moutains State Park, the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, and by far some of the most scenic driving in the state of Texas. And, if you happen to be there, they’re also home to some great running trails through those very mountains and the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Research Institute has several miles of desert trails (along with botanical garden and a cactus greenhouse), while the state park offers multiple options traversing some steep rocky terrain. To test your mettle try starting at the campground, heading straight up the Old CCC Trail, dropping down the Fort Davis Access Trail, running around the fort, returning up the canyon and then up some more and all the way back down the Skyline Drive Trail. The other side of the highway also offers a challenge in an 11-mile ‘lollipop’ including the Sheep Pen Canyon Loop. Keep an eye out for the aoudad.

I guess that’s it. A brief guide to running in the Big Bend. Watch out for snakes, the sun, and all the spiky things. With hundreds of miles to choose from, I probably won’t see you out there, but have fun exploring.