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The Southeast’s Best State Parks for Trail Runners

Lace-up and pile on the miles at these scenic gems

With some of the oldest mountains on Earth, and traversed by long-distance footpaths like the Appalachian Trail, Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and the Pinhoti Trail, the Southeast is a spectacular destination for trail runners to log miles, especially in the region’s state parks. Here are just a few of the best places to hit the trails. 

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, Tennessee

Stashed away in a rugged corner of the Cumberland Plateau, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is a portal to an extensive regional trail network. Engulfed by the Pickett State Forest, the park borders both the Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the backdrop for a handful of trail races and ultramarathons, including the No Business 100. 

The first protected area in the Southeast to earn a Silver-tier designation from the International Dark Sky Association, in 2015 the park was also assimilated into the Picket-Pogue International Dark Sky Park, with amenities added for stargazers. By daylight, though, there are 58 runnable miles of trails in the park and adjacent state forest. And, for the ultra-runners, the 354-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail connects the trail system in Pickett State Park with the footpaths traversing the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National Recreation Area. For an overnight getaway, there are campsites perfect for aspiring astronomers, along with a variety of cabins for rent, including historic wood shingle and stone cabins constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

View of a wide trail that weaves through a lightly snowed on forest with wild ponies grazing in the tree line.
Grayson Highlands State Park. Photo By Malee Oot

Holding the highest peak in Virginia, the alpine meadows quilting the higher reaches of Grayson Highlands State Park are a wonderland for trail runners. And, in the park’s high country, runners frequently share the trail with a herd of resident wild ponies, the sturdy descendants of animals introduced to the mountainous region by local ranchers in the early 1900s, who later provided natural landscaping for the treeless summits crowning the park, also called balds. 

There are more than 27 miles of trails inside the park, including long-distance routes like the Appalachian Trail and the 68-mile Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. For runners unfazed by gritty climbs, the protected area regularly hosts the Grayson Highlands 50 mile/50K/Half-Marathon. The protected area also serves as a gateway to the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a high-elevation swath of the Jefferson National Forest traversed by more than 500 miles of trails. For plenty of wide-open country, run the 0.8-mile Appalachian Spur Trail to the Appalachian Trail and head north into the Mount Rogers NRA traversing Wilburn Ridge, an upland crest named for prolific local wolf and bear hunter Wilburn Waters, who lived on White Top Mountain in the mid-1800s. Just remember, park elevations top out at more than 5,000 feet, so plan for chilly weather. For a multi-day adventure, the park has campsites, yurts, and a 14-person bunkhouse, available seasonally from May 1 to October 31. 

Rocky Gap State Park, Maryland

Spread over an expanse of countryside that was once a dairy farm, the terrain at Rocky Gap State Park offers a smorgasbord for trail runners. The backdrop for the Rocky Trail 25K, 50K & Relay Race, the park is overshadowed by Evitt’s Mountain and anchored by 243-acre Lake Habeeb. And, in the western portion of the park, Rocky Gap Run slices through a mile-long sandstone gorge with walls rising more than 350 feet. 

For a sampling of the scenery, the 5.3-mile Lakeside Loop cruises through hemlock forests fringed with rhododendron and mountain laurel, and functions as the heart of the park’s trail network. Craving a climb? The 2.5-mile Evitt’s Mountain Trail scales the eponymous peak, ascending more than 1,200 feet to the top of the whaleback ridge, and passes a 300-year-old homestead, built around 1730. 

Photo By Malee Oot

The park’s campsites and eight-person yurt are bookable year-round, and mini-cabins are available seasonally, from April through November. For even cushier accommodations, there’s also an onsite resort, with a spa for post-run recovery. The park is also a strategic basecamp for other regional routes, including a trio of runnable rail-trails: the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the Great Allegheny Passage, and the Western Maryland Rail Trail. Just 15 miles east of the state park, the 49,000-acre Green Ridge State Forest is another gem for runners. The largest interconnected expanse of public land in Maryland, the state forest is etched with more than 80 miles of trails.

Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

The highest cascade in West Virginia, Blackwater Falls has been luring outdoorsy visitors since the late 1800s. Tumbling 57 feet into the Blackwater Canyon, the flume is the centerpiece of Blackwater Falls State Park and the protected area’s main attraction, but for runners the park’s trail system is the real draw.

 Cradled by the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and an isolated, high-elevation swath of the Monongahela National Forest, the state park’s buffet of runnable routes includes everything from wilderness rambles to easy-rolling rail-trails. The park itself is etched with more than 20 miles of trails, and there are plenty of ways to connect to other regional routes. Named for a popular 19th century lodge, the Dobbin House Trail connects the park with footpaths in the Monongahela National Forest for photogenic backcountry tours. For easier cruising, the 1.6-mile Town Trail connects the park to the town of Davis. Need a little more distance? The 10.7-mile Blackwater Canyon Trail originates in Thomas, four miles north of the state park, and connects to the 26-mile Allegheny Highlands Trail. 

For a multi-day run-cation, the park offers a variety of accommodations, including cabins, rooms in the onsite lodge, seasonal campsites, and hike-in Tentrr sites, equipped with canvas tents, queen beds, heaters, and solar showers. 

Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

A century ago, Double Oak Mountain was on the radar of the newly formed National Park Service. The agency acquired more than 8,000 acres outside Birmingham, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were enlisted to build recreational infrastructure on the mountain. However, the initiative was discontinued in the 1940s, and the federal government’s acreage was turned over to the Oak Mountain State Park. 

Today, the 9,940-acre protected area is the largest state park in Alabama, and with more than 50 miles of trails and almost endless route options for runners. Covering the southeastern portion of Double Oak Mountain, the park offers everything from easy-to-navigate lake loops to extended backcountry rambles with punishing elevation gain. As a sweet reward for runners, 65-foot Peavine Falls is perched atop the protected area’s highest ridgeline. The rugged park also hosts a regular rotation of trail races, including the XTERRA Americas Trail Run Championship for 2023. 

For an easy leg-stretcher, the Red Road Trail is a converted forest road originally used by the Civilian Conservation Corps, while the park’s White and Yellow trails traverse Maggie’s Glen, a stream-threaded hollow burrowed into the eastern corner of the park. For overnight getaways, the park’s campground is nestled beside Beaver Lake, and the cabins clustered beside Lake Tranquility are available to rent year-round.  

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