The popularity of trail running has exploded across the country in recent years, and St. Louis is no exception. We’re fortunate to have some of the best trails in the entire U.S. at our disposal, with the variety of terrain offering something for every skill and fitness level.

But with more than 20 trail races held annually in and around the Gateway City, it can be tough to decide which ones to focus on. In an effort to help ease your decision-making process, we’ve narrowed down the list to a few races that no runner should miss.

These events made the list by distinguished themselves from the others in our area through uniqueness or location of the course, entry fee value and participant extras, or plain-old popularity.

#1 Pere Marquette Trail Run
Distance: 7.8 miles
Date: December 13, 2014
Location: Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton, Ill.
Cost: $35

Pere Marquette Trail race

It’s fitting that a group nicknamed “Team Godzilla” created what it calls the “toughest and most grueling race in the Midwest.”

The Pere Marquette Trail Run truly lives up to its reputation. The course is known for its continuous, steep elevation changes, climbing hill after hill throughout the race, and the brutal “stone staircase” can reduce winners to whiners. Add in the unpredictable Midwest winter weather—the race has been run in freezing rain, snow and inches of thick mud—and you have the formula for one rugged race.

The Pere Marquette Trail Run is also one of the hardest races to get into, and runners have been known to schedule their lives around registration day. Many wake up in the middle of the night so they can sign up as soon as registration opens, as previous years’ races have sold out in only a few hours.

So, if you plan on running this race in 2014, set your alarm clocks for 12 a.m. on September 1 and beat the other early birds!

#2 The Skippo Trail Race
Distance: 10k, 20k or 30k
Date: November 2014 (TBD)
Location: Castlewood State Park in Ballwin, Mo.
Cost: $35 (10k), $45 (20k) or $55 (30k)

Castlewood State Park, home of Skippo

Where else can you zip across sandy river bottoms, climb 200 stairs to a rocky overlook and splash though a refreshing creek all in one race? The Skippo Trail Race has it all! Runners can even choose to loop the 10k course once, twice or three times.

Set in one of St. Louis’ most popular parks, the race course winds through Castlewood’s spectacular, varied terrain. Runners are treated to scenic views of the Meramec River from trails that run along its banks, as well as from high above on the bluffs that surround it.

Like the Pere Marquette Trail Race, this one sells out quickly, so don’t delay when registering. In fact, Skippo has become so popular the race was split into two days last year. The 10k was held on a Saturday, and the 20k and 30k on Sunday.

Run one day, or both—just make sure you run Skippo!

#3 Double Chubb 25k/50k
Distance: 25k or 50k
Date: April 19, 2014
Location: Chubb Trail in Eureka, Mo.
Cost: $65 (25k) or $80 (50k)

Chub Trail in Eureka, Mo.

As if running the Chubb Trail once isn’t hard enough, this race gives you the chance to do it twice!

Starting at West Tyson County Park in Eureka, the race course stretches to Lone Elk Park in St. Louis County and back for the 25k distance. The first few miles can be brutal, but eventually the course goes through the soft, flat Meramec River bottoms before climbing back out near Lone Elk.

Looking to get your first trail ultramarathon under your belt? Run the out-and-back twice for the 50k race. The course length, difficulty and variety of terrain make Double Chubb one of St. Louis’ “must do” rites of passage for elite trail runners.

#4 Wildwood Frozen Feet Trail Run
Distance: 13.1 miles
Date: January 2015
Location: LaSalle Springs Middle School in Wildwood, Mo.
Cost: $35

Wildwood Frozen Feet

What really sets this race apart from the others is its value: It’s hard to find another half marathon at this price! Now in its fourth year, the Frozen Feet Trail Run is known for its low cost, scenic route and great swag.

The course combines portions of the Hamilton-Carr Greenway, Al Foster Memorial Trail and Rock Hollow Trail. Surfaces vary from smooth, paved asphalt and crushed gravel to single-track dirt trails.

Runners love extras, and this race has it all. The $35 entry fee includes breakfast before the race and lunch afterwards—and previous years’ giveaways have included much-coveted, super-cozy, hooded sweatshirts.

The race got even longer this year, stretching from 2013’s 12 miles to a new half-marathon distance.

#5 Berryman Marathon/50 Mile
Distance: Marathon or 50 miles
Date: May 17, 2014
Location: The Berryman Trail in Potosi, Mo.
Cost: $75 (marathon) or $85 (50 mile)

Berryman Trail 50-Mile

Even with some solid scenic entries mentioned above, it’s hard to beat the Mark Twain National Forest for its tranquility. The Berryman Trail, a 25.4-mile, single-track course through the rural recreation area, showcases beautiful foliage and copious wildlife—in addition to 5,000 feet of elevation change and a number of stream crossings, depending on the weather.

In fact, this can be a wet, wild, muddy race if there has been any recent rainfall, which can either be a turnoff or make it a real adventure (depending on your perspective). In any case, expect a lot of rolling hills, with aid stations every four to five miles. If one lap of the trail isn’t enough, do it twice for a 50-mile ultra.

Berryman has also gained a reputation as a very friendly race, with great hosts—the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group (SLUGS)—a lot of experienced, helpful ultra runners and a fun finish-line atmosphere with “the coolest finisher medal ever.”

Author: Mike Meehan is a runner, triathlete and freelance writer in St. Louis. He is the creator and editor of the blog, which helps promote the region’s running and triathlon scene.