Trail Running in the Marin Headlands and on Mount Tamalpais
December 29, 2010 by Leor Pantilat · 21 Comments
The Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais combine to form one of the greatest parklands near an urban population center. Much of the area is protected within public lands, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, Marin Municipal Water District, and Mount Tamalpais State Park. From sweeping coastal vistas to old growth redwoods to sandy beaches, this region provides a quintessential Northern California coastal experience. What’s more, this spectacular parkland is only a channel away from the bustling streets of San Francisco via a crossing of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. A myriad of trails give ample opportunity for exploration and discovery. There is literally something for everyone. Suffice it to say, covering each trail is well beyond the breadth of this guide, but we’ll provide you with a description of some of our favorite trails in the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais State Park, and Mount Tamalpais Watershed. We’ll also share some favorite local races and running gear shops.
As usual, leave a comment to share your favorite trail or route in this region. Have a question? Comment away and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
Literally right across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands is characterized by undulating hills covered in coastal scrub and an incredibly rugged and rocky coastline. Excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco are achieved from the exposed hilltops. The primary trailheads are located at Rodeo Beach, Muir Beach, and Tennessee Valley. While most of the trails here are non-technical fire roads, the terrain is hilly with substantial elevation change over virtually any route. The hill climbs are often sustained for between ~800 feet of elevation gain and are sometimes steep. Numerous loop options are available to design your preferred distance.
Recommendation – Coastal Trail: The section of the Coastal Trail between Rodeo Beach and Muir Beach is perhaps the most scenic in the Marin Headlands. A good chuck of it is single track and the views of the rugged coastline, including secluded Pirates Cove, are awe-inspiring. We recommend incorporating this section of the Coastal Trail into your Headlands itinerary.
Insider’s Scoop: Since the Marin Headlands are very exposed, this is not a great area for running during inclement weather. The wind and accompanying sideways rain can be relentless. Similarly, the Headlands are a magnet for summer fog, so if you’re looking for more sunshine when the Headlands are socked in, head higher up the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.
Insider’s Scoop: A long-term construction project is underway in the Headlands. It seems like when one project finishes, another begins. The construction includes improvements to roads and trails, so be mindful of your driving route and your running route. Moreover, the contractors are on a rolling schedule, which means notification of closures may only become available the week before construction commences. Closures are frequent so check the Project Headlands site for updates before you set out for your trail run.
Muir Woods is known for its stand of ancient coastal redwoods. These redwoods are not the largest, nor are they the most scenic, but they can’t be beat for their close proximity to San Francisco. Outside of the heavily trodden interpretive loop, there is some great single track through the redwoods, including the Ben Johnson Trail and Bootjack Trail. Muir Woods is a small park and most trails cross over into Mount Tamalpais State Park described below.
Insider’s Scoop: Muir Woods is extremely busy during the weekends. Busloads of tourists visit these redwoods and you will hear an assortment of languages on the paved interpretative loop. However, the most impressive redwoods are located on this paved loop so if you have not seen old growth redwoods it is worth incorporating this paved portion into your trail run.
Insider’s Scoop: While the redwood grove at Muir Woods is most heavily visited in the summer, we think the best time to visit is in the winter and spring when Redwood Creek is flowing, the trails are more peaceful, and the understory is lush and vibrant.
Mount Tamalpais State Park is one of the gems in California’s State Park system. The impressive relief from the ocean to the ridge on Mount Tamalpais affords amazing coastal vistas. The summit of the 2,574 feet peak also has an incredible 360-degree view of surrounding hills, San Francisco, and the entire Bay Area. The diverse ecosystems on the mountain include coastal scrubland and chaparral, lush redwood forest, oak woodlands, and coastal prairie.
Insider’s Scoop: The trails of Mount Tamalpais State Park are immensely popular on sunny summer weekends. It’s essentially like the Bay Area’s Yosemite, so be prepared to encounter lots of hikers if this is the timeframe of your visit. Try to arrive early, or better yet, attempt to visit this spectacular park midweek or during the fall, winter, or spring months. After all, California can have gorgeous weather year around and summer weather often entails persistent fog and stratus.
Recommendation – Coastal Trail via Pantoll (easy): Some of the most stunning coastal vistas in the entire region can be seen along the stretch of the Coastal Trail from Pantoll north to West Ridgecrest Blvd. This relatively easy trail undulates gradually as it traverses the hillside and therefore has relatively little overall elevation gain. The first 1.5 miles is shared with the Matt Davis Trail and is primarily in Douglas fir and oak woodland forest. About one mile from Pantoll, the trail emerges from the woods and into an open meadow hillside. At the junction with the Matt Davis Trail, take the right fork. The trail begins a gradual ascent with views of Stinson Beach and the coastline improving with each step. The trail aesthetically traverses the steep hillsides meandering through minor gullies and occasionally passing through clumps of forest. After 4.1 miles the trail reaches West Ridgecrest Blvd (8.2 mile round trip).
For a lengthier run, the Coastal Trail can be resumed after walking north along the road for 125 yards and hoping back on the trail for another 2.6 miles to the junction with Bolinas-Fairfax Road (13.4 mile RT). For even more miles, cross Bolinas-Fairfax Road and continue along the Bolinas Ridge Fire Road for as much as another 11+ miles (35+ mile RT). The Bolinas Fire Road travels through an active cattle ranching area along a wide dirt road with several ups and downs. Another alternative is crossing over into the Marin Watershed at the Willow Camp Fire Road junction (3.1 miles from Pantoll) to link into the myriad of trails there. Finally, there is potential to connect into Point Reyes National Seashore, with its own network of amazing trails, to be described in a future guide.
Recommendation – Dipsea Trail: The legendary Dipsea trail travels from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach in 7+ miles. It is the site of the oldest cross country race in the United States and 2011 will be the 101st running of the Dipsea race. This challenging trail includes great variety and excellent views. Within the first half mile you encounter three flights of stairs entailing 670+ steps. Once you reach Windy Gap, the first of two high points along the trail, the “urban” portion of the Dipsea is complete. The descent into Muir Woods includes a half mile stretch along Panoramic Hwy due to a trail washout many years ago. Look for the steps descending into Muir Woods as you run down the road. The section from Muir Woods to Stinson Beach is perhaps the most scenic. Expansive coastal views greet the runner at Cardiac Hill, the high point of the trail at 1,370 ft. Following a relatively flat stretch after Cardiac Hill, a descent through an enchanting redwood and bay tree forest drops down into Steep Ravine. Hundreds of steps are also encountered in this stretch, which becomes deceivingly difficult on the return trip. The last mile of the trail through coastal scrubland features spectacular views of crescent-shaped Stinson Beach. A point-to-point tour of the Dipsea is just over 7 miles with 2,300+ ft of elevation gain while a round trip is over 14 miles with 4,600+ feet of elevation gain.
Recommendation – Matt Davis-Steep Ravine Loop: Perhaps the best overall loop in all of Mount Tamalpais State Park, this 7.5 mile loop showcases much of what Mount Tamalpais has to offer – lush redwood forest, cascading waterfalls, sweeping coastal views, rolling meadows, and fantastic single track throughout. The Steep Ravine Trail even includes a famous ladder right beside a waterfall drop.
Insider’s Scoop: You can either start the Matt Davis-Steep Ravine Loop at Pantoll or Stinson Beach, but we think it makes more sense to start it from Stinson Beach since it feels better to get the hill climb out of the way first and it’s nice to be greeted by the sands and dining options at Stinson Beach upon conclusion of the loop. We also recommend doing the loop counter-clockwise, which is to say, ascend Steep Ravine and descend the Matt Davis Trail.
Located on the north side of Mount Tamalpais and managed by the Marin Water District, the trails in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed are much less visited than the popular trails of Muir Woods National Monument and Mount Tamalpais State Park. In fact, no organized trail races are permitted to utilize these trails. Cataract Falls and Bon Tempe Lake see the most traffic, but there are a plethora of delightful single tracks further back where you can find solitude on even the busiest summer weekends. The watershed provides great variety, including lush redwood canyons, spectacular waterfalls, meadows, panoramic vistas, and lakes. The trail running here tends to be advanced with steeply graded climbs and technical trails, but the rewards more than compensate. Please note that many of the single track trails here tend to be under-maintained and can become overgrown with poor signage.
Recommendation – Bon Tempe Lake (easy): A relatively flat and easy 3.5-mile loop around Bon Tempe Lake. The lake has two distinct sides, a shady side and a sunny side, with the trail names on each side corresponding to this dichotomy. On the north side of the lake, make sure to take the Pine Point Trail, which hugs the lakeshore and provides some nice views of the lake. One can also extend the run for another 1.5 miles by running around Lake Lagunitas.
Recommendation – Cataract Falls Trail: Cataract Falls is one of the best waterfalls in the Bay Area, especially because of its gorgeous setting amidst a carpet of lush ferns and moss. There are numerous waterfall segments spread out over a mile with at least a half dozen large drops and numerous other small cascades keeping it interesting the entire way. Some of the best waterfalls in the string are near the bottom by the outlet of Cataract Creek into Alpine Lake so make sure to descend all the way to Alpine Lake to view the entire falls. Rock Springs has the most parking and is the logical starting point. Use this trailhead as a base to design a loop including the Cataract Falls Trail and potentially utilizing the gorgeous Helen Markt Trail, Kent Trail, Potrero Meadow, and High Marsh Trail, to name a few.
Steep Hill Climb – Temelpa Trail: A challenging hill climb from the neighborhoods above Mill Valley to the summit lookout of 2,571 foot Mount Tamalpais. The entire distance is only around 2 miles from bottom to top, but the elevation gain is over 1,700 ft. The trailhead is near the end of Summit Avenue/Fern Canyon Road. The trail is eroded, rocky, and steep. Offshoot trails can make for confusing navigation, but when in doubt, follow the trail that heads uphill fastest. Near the summit, you must utilize the Verne Dunshee Trail that circumnavigates the summit area and then ascends to the lookout on the north side of the peak.
Other Recommendations: Other highly recommended trails within the Mount Tamalpais Watershed include the Northside Trail to Inspiration Point, Colier Spring Trail, Rock Springs Trail to West Point Inn, and Nora Trail.
Complete Coastal Trail:
The complete Coastal Trail is a point-to-point 17-mile route spanning the entire Coastal Trail from the Golden Gate Bridge to Bolinas-Fairfax Road at the northern end of Mount Tamalpais State Park. This route provides a grand tour of the Marin coastline with amazing views virtually the entire way.
The trails of Marin are showcased in numerous trail races and ultras. Here are a few notable options in case you’re looking to race during your visit:
- Miwok 100K: This highly popular event requires a successful lottery bid to participate. It’s a classic event on the Ultra circuit and used as a tune up for many Western States 100 participants.
- North Face Endurance Challenge: The flagship event in the series of events around the country with many distance choices. This event has become the de facto trail 50 championships attracting some of the best ultrarunners in the world.
- Single Dipsea: Going on its 101st running, this is the oldest cross-country trail running event in the United States traveling from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. Legendary history on a legendary course. The event is held on the second Sunday in June.
- Double Dipsea: Two weeks after the Single Dipsea, the Double Dipsea event starts in Stinson Beach and travels to Mill Valley and back.
- Quad Dipsea: Starting in Mill Valley, this event traverses the Dipsea trail a total of four times! 9,276 feet of elevation gain is packed into 28.4 miles. The event is held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
- Pacific Coast Trail Runs: PCTR organizes events in these parks throughout the year, including trail runs based in Rodeo Beach, Muir Beach, and Stinson Beach. For the longer ultras, PCTR organizes the Headlands Marathon and 50 miler as well as the classic Headlands Hundred.
- Headlands 50k: After some dormancy, this event is making a comeback in 2011. The course hits all the highlights for perhaps the most aesthetic 50k course in the region.
- Enviro-Sports: Holds an event in the Golden Gate Headlands in the spring and a semi-annual event out of Stinson Beach (spring and fall).
Numerous dining options are available in Mill Valley, Stinson Beach, and Sausalito. A rich variety of cuisines is also just across the bridge in San Francisco.
- Marin Running Company – San Anselmo, CA
- Zombie Runner – Visit their physical store in Palo Alto for all your trail running needs.
- REI Corte Madera
- Fleet Feet Santa Rosa
- Fleet Feet San Francisco
- TranSports – Oakland and Berkeley
- Heart & Sole Sports – Santa Rosa, CA
- Many other options in San Francisco…