How to Find and Enjoy “Secret Trails”

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website

Do you have a favorite trail that not many people know about? Perhaps it’s hard to find, kept secret by the local trail users, or is used infrequently because of other more popular trails in the area. These “secret trails” exist in nearly every community and can be some of the most enjoyable trails to run on. This article will help you discover the wonders of “secret trails” by covering the following four topics:

  1. What Are Secret Trails?
  2. How Do I Find Secret Trails?
  3. Special Considerations for Secret Trails
  4. Why Should I Run Secret Trails?

What Are Secret Trails?

Secret trails come in a variety of different styles. Listed below are descriptions of some of the types of secret trails that I’ve come across. This list is not comprehensive, so I encourage you to share additional secret trail types you may have encountered.

Snowy Quail Hollow Trail in Sandy, UT.

Neighborhood Connecter Trails
Short trails, usually no more than a few miles, that connect neighborhoods to more popular trail systems. These trails often weave through neighborhoods to bring trail users to more frequented or longer trails. An example of this secret trail type that I’ve come across in my hometown of Sandy, UT is the Quail Hollow Trail. This short 1-mile trail connects trail users in the suburbs of Sandy to the larger trail systems in the Wasatch Mountains, avoiding many busy roads. Connector trails can be great for the environment because they may eliminate the need for driving to a trailhead when you can run directly from your home to your favorite trails.

Forgotten Trails
These trails were likely popular at one time, often constructed for mining, tourism, logging, hunting or other purposes. Over the years, the communities that built or maintained these trails used them less and less, yet the trails remain. Due to their lack of use, these trails can be hard to follow or become overgrown. They are often some of least-crowded trails you will come across. One concern about this type of trail is that they may become too overgrown and unusable. Contact your local trail maintenance organizations or forest service to make sure these trails are safe for you to run and to make sure you are not harming the environment by using them.

The author in Bryce Canyon, UT.

Hard to Find and Reach Trails
These trails may be wonderful and well-established, but are less popular because of the difficulty of finding/getting to them. Examples include trails located at the end of long dirt roads, trails in Wilderness areas or trails that have little to no signage or indications. One of my favorite secret trails of this type is the Crags Trailhead which leads to the summit of Pikes Peak in CO, USA. Pikes Peak (a.k.a. America’s Mountain), is ascended by thousands of hikers each year on the historic Barr Trail. By contrast, the Crags Trailhead has much fewer visitors. It requires a 3-mile drive up a dirt road past the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp and is sure to have less traffic than Barr Trail.

Overlooked Trails
In more touristic areas, such as in national or state parks, or in trail running mecca’s (Boulder, CO, Flagstaff, AZ, or Park City, UT), there are certain trails that steal all the attention, while other beautiful trails in the area go unnoticed. An example of this trail type that I’ve come across is the Corona Arch Trail in Moab, UT near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Since this trail is located outside the two national parks, it is much less trafficked than the trails inside the parks. The Corona Arch Trail is one of the most wonderful spots in Moab and is as spectacular as any trail inside the national parks.

Crags Trailhead Pikes Peak, CO.

How Do I Find Secret Trails?

As their name would suggest, “secret trails” are not always easy to find. Some of the best ones are kept secret by local trail users and not widely shared on social media or talked about in visitor centers. Listed below are some of the things you can do when searching for secret trails in your community or wherever you go.

Research With Trail Maps
It’s easy to stick to running the routes we know and love and not searching for new trails. Researching new itineraries on a trail map is a great way to discover new trails, including secret trails. Also, check out our “Find a Trail” page powered by Trail Run Project. Trail mapping apps such as Gaia GPS, Hiking Project, and AllTrails are great resources for finding many of the trails in your area while on the go. Spend time analyzing these maps and think about ways you can link trails you know with new trails or visit completely new trail systems. Do you prefer hard copies? National Geographic sells detailed printed trail maps for popular trail systems in the majority of US states.

When in Doubt…Go Longer!
One of the best ways to escape the crowds of more popular trails is to choose longer routes. Many trail users will choose the shortest or most direct trail, leaving the longer trails less-trafficked. Research longer trails or itineraries that bring you miles away from nearby cities or popular trailheads. A friend and I discovered one of my favorite secret trails this way by continuing past Eagle Falls at Emerald Bay State Park near Lake Tahoe, CA. The trail leading up to Eagle Falls is one of the more popular hikes in the Lake Tahoe area, but as we continued past the falls we found ourselves hiking alone for the majority of the day.

Sherb hiking past Eagle Falls near Lake Tahoe, CA.

Get to Know Local Trail Users
Befriending local trail users is a great way to learn about the secret trails in their community. Locals will likely know which trails are uncrowded or what additional trails exist besides those recommended by the office of tourism/visitor center. Locals also know the conditions of their trails better than anyone. If a trail is washed out or impassable during certain seasons, the locals will know and be able to advise you what to do. Last summer, I found an amazing trail located near Salida, CO that was recommended to me by friends living in the area. For the entire 6-hour hike I didn’t see a single person or another car in the parking lot. I would say the name of this trail, but it’s a secret!

Use Satellite Maps
This is not always the most reliable method, but I’ve had a few times where I’ve successfully located trails by researching them on satellite maps. Satellite maps can show trails, especially those that are exposed and uncovered by trees. Using this method, I found one of my favorite trails located in Bryce Canyon National Park, UT. During my previous runs in Bryce Canyon National Park, I’d bumped into large crowds at the national park entrance. I wanted to find a less-crowded route into the park, so I used Google Maps satellites and found what looked to be a well-established trail on the opposite end of the park from the main entrance. I went to check it out and discovered a beautiful trail maintained for horses, hikers, runners and other trail users that led into the park, without the crowds.

Take the Road Less Traveled
Can you think of a trail that you’ve seen many times and never taken? Do you come across trail junctions and always go the same way? Explore new directions and run on trails you’ve never taken before. Even if the trail comes quickly to a dead end or isn’t your favorite, you never know what you might find until you try. In the spirit of poet Robert Frost, run the “Trail” Not Taken!

Quail Hollow Trail in the summer.

Special Considerations for Secret Trails

Although secret trails can be some of the most fun to run, there are some considerations you should keep in mind to ensure your safety and that of the environment when running these trails. These considerations don’t apply to all secret trails, but it’s a good idea to keep them in mind just in case.

Environment First, Adventure Second
You should not run on secret trails that may harm the environment (or impact wildlife), even if they seem tempting to run. If you are following a trail that is not well-established and seems to be made by wild animals or trail users breaking their own trail, you should turn around and find a different trail. Hiking “off-trail” can damage the surrounding nature and is not good trail etiquette.

Secret trail near Salida, CO.

Trespassing Concerns
Another worry of secret trails is trespassing. Some secret trails may have been established on public land that was later turned private. Sometimes the trail gets rerouted, while other times the original trail remains and it is your responsibility to know where you can go. Be aware of this concern before running a secret trail, respect private property signs and know the land ownership laws in the area.

More Risk
Secret trails can be more remote and less maintained, which increases their risk factor. You may be far from help should you become injured and have no cell service. It’s also possible the trail could be very overgrown and you could get lost more easily. If you plan on running a secret trail in a remote area, it’s a good idea to tell someone where you’re going and to run with a partner.

The author at Bryce Canyon, UT.

Why Should I Run Secret Trails?

As described in this article, secret trails can be some of the most memorable, adventurous, remote, convenient and least crowded trails you can choose to run. Although there are some important considerations to keep in mind, there are plenty of ways to enjoy secret trails that are safe for you and the environment. I hope this article encourages you to seek out the secret trails in your community and wherever you go.

Feel free to share with us your stories from your favorite secret trails!

Do you like Tayte Pollmann’s articles? You can support the creation of this content by making a tax-deducible donation to the American Trail Running Association via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button below. ATRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.