Utah’s Toughest Trail Runs


5 Peaks to Bag This Fall

Utahns are surrounded by mountains on all sides, yet many people run back and forth on the same roads, past the same McDonalds, Starbucks, and houses every day for years.

Looking to mix up your routine? Head for the hills! Trail running doesn’t take any special skills, just a new pair of kicks with better grips for steep and slippery terrain. Sure, it takes a bit more grit to run up a mountain than it does to jog across town, but the exhilaration of bagging a peak is a high you won’t find while jogging in place at the crosswalk.

Maybe that explains why trail running is on the rise in Utah and beyond. Longtime road runners and avid trail runners alike are flocking to new races off-road races like the Ragnar Trail Relays and the Moab Trail Marathon.

Julian Carr, former pro skier and self-described avid hiker, saw the trail running trend and decided to organize a series of “short distance, max elevation gain, mountain adventure races” that he’s dubbed the Discrete Peak Series. In this case, “short” means nearly 10 miles, max elevation gain means a 4,000-foot ascent to a peak, and adventure race means there’s a fun, open atmosphere for runners of all experience levels.

The rapidly increasing numbers at the Peak Series show that runners are searching for more interesting, difficult terrain to conquer. Though the Peak Series is over for this season, fall is still a great time to hike and run in Utah’s mountains.
Here are five of our favorite runnable peaks, ranked from toughest to easiest. Note that steep climbs and exposed sections means you’ll have to walk in some spots, but that’s just part of the adventure when trail running.

Discrete peak series runner on mountain ridge

Photo Credit: Adam Clark

1. Mt. Raymond

Distance: 7.8-mile out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 3,100 feet
Summit Elevation: 10,241 feet
Directions: Start at the Butler Fork Trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Accessible from I-215 Exit 6.
Many hikers and runners come to Big Cottonwood Canyon for the popular Gobbler’s Knob trail, never realizing they’re just a few miles from a far more beautiful peak trail: Mt. Raymond. Though it’s a few feet shorter than its more popular sister, Raymond is undoubtedly a tougher and more interesting climb.

This trail starts steep—expect to gain nearly 1,000 feet of elevation in the first mile or two. It levels off briefly after the first climb, but don’t get used to it. There’s plenty more cramp-inducing ascents to come. In the meantime, enjoy the expansive aspen groves and pine forests. After about two miles, the awe-inspiring face of Mt. Raymond comes into clear view.

A mile or so later, the climbing begins again. The trail leads to the saddle between Raymond and Gobblers, where there’s a short scramble up a knife-edge ridge. At this point, the trail breaks through treeline, winding through the bare rock and snowfields of the ridge.

The last half mile is scrambling, and just before the summit, one final push up a short but steep rocky granite face. The peak offers fantastic views of Gobblers Knob, Twin Peaks, Wildcat Ridge, and the surrounding valleys.

2. Mt. Nebo North

Distance: 8.7-mile out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 3,809 feet
Summit Elevation: 11,933 feet
Directions: The trailhead is on the Nebo Loop Scenic Byway (worth the trip even if you don’t get out to run). Accessible from I-15 Exit 252 (Payson).

Named after the biblical mountain where Moses went to commune with God, Nebo has two staggering peaks, surveyed at 11,933 (north) and 11,882 (south). It’s the tallest mountain in the Wasatch Range—yes, even taller than Mt. Timpanogos, though Timp is often erroneously labeled tallest. It’s intimidating, let’s just admit it.

This trail takes runners to the north peak through fields of wildflowers and aspen stands. The first three or so miles are easy and beautiful with a smooth and gradual 1,400-foot elevation gain. The final leg is guaranteed to get you wheezing, ascending 1,300 feet in just three quarters of a mile across a stark ridge of loose shale and limestone.

This trail is one of the lesser-frequented in the range, and perfect for the runner who wants to get away from crowds and focus on the wildlife and the rhythm of the run.

female trail runner running up mountain side

Photo Credit: Isaac Miller (@isaacmphoto)

3. Fish Lake Loop

Distance: 9.4-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet
Summit Elevation: 10,400 feet
Directions: Start at the Dry Fork Trailhead. Accessible from I-80 Exit 155 (Wanship) to Highway 32.

Buried deep in the Uintas, Fish Lake National Forest is dotted with innumerable lakes, ponds, and streams. This trail weaves through three lakes and a ridgeline, all in a nine-mile loop.

Reports differ on whether this loop should be rated easy or strenuous—you’ll have to go find out for yourself.

Once at Dry Fork Trailhead, follow a stream for a few miles. The loop takes you past the three lakes—first, Round Lake, then Sand Lake, and finally Fish Lake. On your way, enjoy the rainbow of wildflowers and a bonus waterfall.

Once at Fish Lake, keep going past the dam to find the trail to the ridge, where you’ll run a few miles to a knobby peak. Getting down involves a few twists and turns, so use a map or research the directions in advance to to safely navigate the 1.3-mile descent back to the trailhead.

4. Frary Peak

Distance: 6.3-mile out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 2,030 feet
Summit Elevation: 6,596 feet
Directions: The trailhead is on the east side of Antelope Island, 20 miles west of I-15 Exit 332 (Layton).

The highest point on Antelope Island, the view from Frary Peak is a glorious panorama of nearly half the Wasatch Front, as seen from across the Great Salt Lake.

From the valley, Antelope Island looks stark and dry. In reality, it’s anything but. A run up Frary Peak is the chance to see the diverse wildlife that call Antelope Island home: 250 species of migratory birds, herds of bison, and the recently-reintroduced pronghorn deer.

The route up has little to no shade, so pick a cool day or start early and bring water. For the sake of the view, try for a day with good air quality.

The trail is a fairly easy to run until the last half mile where it splits. Option one requires scrambling to navigate the rocky ridge blade. The safer option involves maneuvering down a small bowl then back up to the peak via a series of stairs and exposed roots.

5. Squaw Peak

Distance: 7.1-mile out-and-back
Elevation Gain: 2,739 feet
Summit Elevation: 2,612 feet
Directions: Start from the Rock Canyon parking lot, five miles west of I-15 Exit 269 (University Avenue/Provo).

Squaw Peak got its name in 1850, when the partner of a Ute chief fell to her death while climbing the sheer cliffs during a skirmish with local militiamen. Fortunately, the modern-day trail to the peak doesn’t require taking that route (though the canyon often teems with rock climbers looking for a challenge).

The trail starts in town, just a block away from the Provo LDS Temple and pushes deep into the canyon, closely following a runoff river, before looping around backward to the peak. The first mile or two of trail through Rock Canyon is, predictably, gravelly and uneven. Take a left at the fork in the trail. Here, the ascent begins. The rest of the path is well-packed and oft-used dirt, but fairly steep. It continues to gain elevation while looping through meadows and trees, ending in a brief walk along the ridge before the peak.

If you’re an experienced trail runner looking for a tougher trail in this area, try one of her Squaw Peak’s nearby sisters—Y Mountain, Maple Mountain, or Buckley Mountain—in order from lowest to highest elevations.

No matter which peak you pick, these five trails are sure to challenge you, and take your trail running to the next level.


About Author

Conner Newbold is a freelance writer living in Provo, Utah. When he’s not writing, Conner’s running, cycling, or digging through small town thrift shops.

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