No matter what race distance you gravitate towards, from something as short as a 5k up through the marathon and beyond, it’s always motivating and exciting to run the “best” races at that distance. Iconic courses, scenic routes, PR-setting flat courses, well-organized events, and races that draw top runners can all make a race super appealing to run.
After all, there are only so many races that you can run in a year, and you want to make each event count. While this can be said for any race distance, it certainly applies most to ultramarathon races.
Given the physical and mental toll that the extreme distance of ultramarathon races inflicts on the body and mind, most runners can only run a couple of ultramarathon races per year, if even more than one. Therefore, choosing from one of the best ultramarathons in the US to be these one or two annual golden opportunities becomes even more important.
Although selecting the best ultramarathons in the US is definitely a subjective process, we’ve reviewed all of the top ultramarathons in the US and chosen our picks for the best ones based on runner reviews, iconic courses, level of competition, race organization, and scenery.
Looking for some inspiration for your own ultra-running career? Keep reading to see our picks for the best ultramarathons in the US.
#1: Western States Endurance Run
Any reasonable list of the best ultras or best 100 mile races in the US will likely include the Western States Endurance Run 100-miler. This legendary trail race is arguably the 100-miler that the majority of ultramarathoners have on their bucket list.
The epic trail course was actually originally intended as a horseback riding race known as the Western States Endurance Ride.
However, at the 1974 running of the horseback race, participant Gordy Ainsleigh showed up without a horse, running the entire course by foot and finishing in just under 24 hours. Not only is this an impressive time for a difficult course, but it also placed him ahead of many of the horses.
The Western States 100-Miler became an official running event in 1978 and has risen to become the most prestigious ultramarathon in the United States, rivaling the global prestige of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc.
Certainly, the storied history and the fact that this was the original 100-mile ultramarathon in the US makes this 100-miler one of the most sought after by most ultra runners, and it also has an extremely challenging course, which beckons the most competitive runners to have an opportunity to truly test their physical and mental limits.
The Western States 100-miler, clocks in at 102 miles later, beginning at the base of the Squaw Valley ski resort and finishing on the track at Pacer High School in Auburn.
The route requires over 18,000 feet of vertical gain and an unbelievable 23,000 feet of descent; your legs are going to feel it! You will get going with your vertical gain right off the bat, climbing nearly 3000 feet in the first 4.5 miles of the race.
Another factor that adds a challenging degree of spiciness to the event is the weather conditions, which have been known to include temperatures cold enough for appreciable snowfall and ones that soar well over 90°F.
Entry into the Western States Ultramarathon is coveted. There is a lottery entry for adults over the age of 18 who have run a qualifying race over the previous two years, or you can automatically qualify by placing well in other high-level ultras.
In fact, first-timers are said to only have about a 1.3% chance of getting accepted into the race from the lottery.
In this way, runners at the Western States 100 Miler are all experienced and represent some of the top performers in the sport. It is a competitive and exciting race every year, with the victor earning the awe of the other participants and the ultramarathon community at large.
The uninitiated often assume that the HURT100 is so named to encapsulate the challenging toll that the 100-miler will have on your body, but it actually stands for the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, the organizers of this 100-mile ultra.
This race earns one of our picks as one of the best ultramarathons in the US because of the stunning Oahu course that has runners meandering through lush green forest trails while navigating plenty of elevation change—over 24,000 feet in total.
You’ll need more than just the desire to run in one of the most beautiful states in America to run the HURT100; runners need to qualify by completing at least two qualifying 50-milers within the two years leading up to the race.
#3: Hardrock Endurance Run
No list of the best ultras in the US would be complete without the Hardrock 100-miler, one of the best 100 mile races in the US and certainly one of the hardest.
Held in Silverton, Colorado, every July, the Hardrock 100 boasts an extremely difficult course with over 66,000 feet of elevation change.
Plus, the average elevation of the course is over 11,000 feet, posing its own significant challenge of running at altitude. In fact, this demanding course is the highest ultramarathon in the world, so if you really want to give your heart and lungs the greatest test possible, consider the Hardrock 100 your opportunity to do so.
The off-road course has you navigating trails, dirt roads, fields, and rocky hills all along Southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Range.
One cool thing about this ultra is that all of the proceeds are fed right back into helping to support the communities surrounding the racecourse.
The field size of the race is very small, and it is difficult to qualify, so this ultramarathon tends to draw a pretty elite field of lucky—and gutsy—runners.
#4: Jay Peak Trail Running Festival
Not all of the best ultramarathons in the US have to be the most difficult courses or confined to the most competitive and elite field.
One of the best ultramarathons in the US for beginners is actually a handful of races held on Labor Day weekend in Jay Peak, Vermont.
Known as the Jay Peak Trail Running Festival, this fun weekend is really a great family-friendly ultramarathon race experience because there are seven different trail race distances to choose from, and in the context of most ultramarathon courses, most of the routes are relatively easy or moderate, making it a great option for your first ultramarathon.
The Jay Peaks Trail Running Festival has six shorter trail races, including really short races for kids, and then has a 53 miler for those who are ready for an ultra distance.
There are also lots of local activities for kids, including a waterpark, arcade, theater, climbing wall, and ice rink. Overall, it has a really supportive, come-one-come-all atmosphere and is one of the best ultras in the US for beginners.
#5: Leadville Trail 100
The Leadville Trail 100, dubbed the “Race Across The Sky,” is now nearly 30 years old. The 100-mile course takes runners across the rugged Colorado Rockies, with a course elevation between 9,200ft to 12,600ft. Hello, altitude!
The Leadville Trail 100 features a very technical out-and-back course with lots of steep sections, including the infamous Hope Pass, which stands 3,740 meters high.
Although about 800 runners start the race every year, only about half successfully finish it, largely owing to the significant altitude and grueling terrain. With that said, it has a gorgeous backdrop and a unique history.
#6: Badwater 135
The Badwater 135 might not be one of the “best” courses to run, but it’s such an epic event that it earns a spot on this list.
Runners start in Death Valley, 85m below sea level, and over the 135-mile course, they traverse three mountain ranges and navigate iconic sections like Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells, and Lone Pine.
The finish line is on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states of America. There are over 13,000 feet of vertical gain throughout the course, but this challenge pales in comparison to the difficulty imposed by the scorching temperatures.
As the race takes place in July, temperatures can reach well over 100 to 110°F!
#7: Gorge Waterfalls 50K
Held in Columbia River Gorge, Oregon, the Gorge Waterfalls 50k is one of the shorter ultras, lasting 50 km or 31 miles, but there is also a 100k.
This race earns our vote for one of the best 50k ultras in the US due to the absolutely stunning course. Although the trail is rocky, it meanders through a Mossey, dense forest teeming with breathtaking waterfalls.
In fact, the course has more waterfalls than any other ultra course in the country, and you even get to run through one of them en route to the finish line.
Plus, the trail has a rich history, as it was part of the trail traversed by Lewis and Clark.
#8: Barkley Marathons
The Barkley Marathons in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, is definitely one of the most unique ultras in the US.
It used to be the secret society of ultras, known only by a select few, but after being highlighted in the well-received documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, awareness and interest in the race skyrocketed.
Designed to be essentially impossible, only 15 runners have ever finished the course in its 34 years of existence.
The course is not marked. Runners have to find hidden checkpoints, and the 100+-mile course has over 120,000 feet of elevation change—you read that right.
Only 40 runners are invited to run the race each year.
If you want a crazy challenge without the satisfaction of finishing the race (in most cases), this is a quirky event to set your sights on.
The Grand-to-Grand ultra is a little different from most of the others we chose as the best ultramarathons in the US in that it is a stage race that has runners covering just over 170 miles over seven days through the Grand Canyon.
Rather than setting out when the starting gun sounds and continuously running until you cross the finish line with the clock running the entire time, this stage race has runners tackling a shorter course seven days in a row, with the winner being crowned as the runner who has the shortest cumulative time over all of the stages rather than the runner who finishes each leg first.
Although the actual average daily distance is just over 20 miles, the Grand-to-Grand race is still certainly a test of your endurance, and it is a self-supported race, which means that you have to carry all of your gear on your back.
Plus, as you will be traversing the Grand Canyon from rim to rim, there are still some significant climbs and descents totaling over 18,000 feet.
Because the race is held in September, the desert heat can also be its own beast to battle. Although certainly not as extreme as the Badwater ultra, the heat can definitely take its toll.
One nice thing is that you do not have to qualify for this race.
So, which of these ultramarathons sparks your wanderlust and hankering to tackle the best ultramarathons in the US? Let us know!
And what about the best marathons in the US? Interested in a little road running? Check out our guide to the Best Marathons In The USA.