Trail Love Letter: The Dipsea Trail

AJW writes a Trail Love Letter to California’s steep and beautiful Dipsea Trail.

By on November 5, 2021 | Comments

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the 11th installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

A quick reminder before we begin, next month in December, for the 12th and final installment of our Trail Love Letter series, we’ll publish a reader-submitted trail love letter, so we want to hear from you! Contact us with a short love letter about your favorite trail to be included in next month’s column — international trails are especially welcomed.

A quick drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge from the City of San Francisco lies the lovely village of Mill Valley. On the edge of town at Old Mill Park, a small footbridge leads to the base of a series of over 500 stairs, the ominous beginning of the legendary Dipsea Trail.

Dipsea Trail - stairs

Some of the Dipsea Trail’s famous stairs. Photo: Alex Varner

Spanning 7.1 miles of challenging terrain between Mill Valley and the seaside town of Stinson Beach, the Dipsea Trail is one of the most well-known, and well-trodden, trails in North America. Home to the historic Dipsea Race in June and the Quad Dipsea in November, the Dipsea Trail has seen more than its share of talented runners over the past century or so.

Back in the early 2000s when I lived in the Bay Area, it was a Thanksgiving custom for me to run “the Quad” every year, and each time I found something new as I climbed the stairs up and down, ascending over 8,000 vertical feet in 28.4 miles and traversing in any given year at least five microclimates along the way.

Dipsea Trail - Greg Nacco and Geoff Vaughan

Greg Nacco (left) and Geoff Vaughan, who have 26 and 24 finishes, respectively, of the Quad Dipsea. Photo: Tropical John Medinger

The trail from Mill Valley, after ascending the stairs, transitions to a nice rolling trail for a mile or so before plummeting downhill to the thick forests of Muir Woods National Monument. After a quick creek crossing in Muir Woods, the trail begins a long, more gradual climb to the high point of the trail. There, assuming the infamous Bay Area fog has lifted, runners are treated to their first views of the Pacific Ocean over 1,800 feet below. From this point, on a high, often windswept meadow, the ocean seems to pull runners downward.

The descent to Stinson Beach on the Dipsea Trail is legendary. Beginning gradually, the trail eventually gives way to stairs — yes more stairs — this time of the stone variety carved into the side of the hill on the aptly named “Steep Ravine” section. Eventually leveling out, the trail abruptly spills out onto the Pacific Coast Highway where the bucolic village of Stinson Beach awaits.

Dipsea Trail - Stinson Beach view

The view of Stinson Beach and the Pacific Ocean from the Dipsea Trail. Photo: Alex Varner

As with many of the trails I have reviewed in this year-long series, I think the Dipsea Trail deserves to be on any runner’s bucket list. And, ideally, if one has the time and the energy, running it as an out and back from either terminus provides a true sense of the magic and majesty of this extraordinary place.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week Marin Hefe Doppel Weizen

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur, California. Located just a few miles from the Dipsea Trail, Marin Brewing features a delicious range of beers and my favorite is the Hefe Doppel Weizen. A “double wheat” beer, this great brew weighs in at 7% ABV but doesn’t taste at all boozy. In fact, it’s crisp and eminently drinkable, making it a great post-Dipsea Trail treat.

Call for Comments

  • Tell us about your experience on the Dipsea Trail.
  • Write to us with a love letter to your favorite trail so we can share it next month!
Dipsea Trail - Alex Ho

Alex Ho on his way to winning the 2017 Quad Dipsea. Photo: Tropical John Medinger

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.