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Bay Area Trail Running

By Steve Edwards - October 8th, 2001

The San Francisco Bay Area offers some of the finest trail running imaginable. The fall season is the optimum time for experiencing this region's trails. The high pressure that builds over the great basin results in warm winds that blow the marine layer out to sea creating Indian summer conditions that last into November.

Assembled here is a list of five of the Bay's most notable runs. They are geographically presented - each area offering something unique. Each run has both a difficulty and a technical rating. You may notice that the chosen runs tend to be somewhat advanced. That is because in trying to pick the highlights from each area, it is hard to overlook the trails with the best views. Getting to these views means going up. However, each area described has many runs to choose from for every level of runner.

The difficulty rating reflects how punishing the run is physically, while the technical rating is for the state of the trail: how rocky, narrow, steep, bumpy, etc. Figure that a hard run with an easy technical rating could be completed by most anyone, the difference being a novice may have to walk some of it.

Wolf Ridge Loop, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Marin Headlands

Distance: 5.2 miles
Elevation gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Medium/Hard
Technical rating: Easy/Medium

While the Dipsea may get all the press, it's almost impossible to beat the Marin Headlands for beautiful, user-friendly trail running. You can take your pick of runs from the steepest and most technical, to flat, wide roads -- all with arguably some of the best views in the country. I choose this particular trail because it is dog-friendly, but one hiking guide calls it the best hike in Marin. You may scoff at its degradation, as it is quite trodden, but you can't help marveling at the scenery and positioning. A definite five-star outing.

Directions: Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, take the road west into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (toward the Marin Headlands) and park in the Marin Headlands Visitors Center. From the south side of the lot, take the trail that skirts the lagoon, then cross over the road and head east along a dirt road, which is the Miwok Trail (and it's marked). Follow it uphill for a little over a mile until it intersects the Wolf Ridge Trail. Take this uphill route to the ridgeline, then follow the dirt trail toward the ocean and over a couple of small peaks. After marveling at the views and your surroundings, descend the steep, well-marked trail (some pavement, some stairs) down to Rodeo Beach. Cross the sand and pick up the trail that skirts the lagoon on its south side, and it will take you back to your car.

French Trail Connector, Redwood Park Skyline Gate, Oakland

Distance: 6.1 miles
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Difficulty: Medium/Hard
Technical rating: Medium/Hard

Just up the hill - and easily accessed from Oakland and Berkeley - lies an idyllic park that doubles as the trail-running mecca of the East Bay. The park's boundaries are criss-crossed with trails of all angles and difficulties. The French Trail connector is a good introduction to the area, combining the popular and technically easy East and West Ridge Trails with the steep, technical, and isolated French Trail. You start and finish on nearly flat, well-trodden ground, but it's the steep single-track of the French Trail that gives this run its character. The dense, redwood forest is magical terrain but can also block out so much light that you may want a head lamp long before the sun drops into the Pacific. Leashed dogs are welcome.

Directions: From the Highway 13 in Oakland, take the Joaquin Miller off-ramp and head uphill until you intersect Skyline Boulevard. Take this north (left) for about three miles to the Skyline Gate parking area. Here you'll find a map showing all of the park's trails and a drinking fountain.

Take the West Ridge Trail for .62 miles, then turn down the French Trail (marked). Follow the French Trail, up and down through the redwoods (intersections are marked) until you hit the Mill Trail. Go left for 0.2 miles to the Stream Trail. Another left, then proceed 0.1 miles to the Prince Trail, which takes you up the other side (.41 miles of STEEP) until you hit the East Ridge Trail. Head left and back to the parking area.

Power Line Run, Rancho San Antonio, Los Altos Hills

Distance: 8.0 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Technical rating: Easy

One of the more popular destinations for runners and hikers in the South Bay, this Rancho offers many different options for all ability levels, and its only drawback is that it can be somewhat crowded during peak times. Early morning and late evening provide good opportunities for wildlife viewing, and the higher trails offer excellent views of the South Bay.

The Power Line run is very popular with runners because of its difficulty combined with its technical ease. The smooth dirt trail allows for minimal concentration, enhancing your enjoyment of the surroundings while providing a punishing workout. The area is generally open and warm, though there is some shade to be found, primarily on the Black Mountain Trail. Dogs and bikes are not allowed.

Directions: From Highway 280 in Los Altos, take Foothill Boulevard south. Turn right on Cristo Rey Drive, and proceed one mile to the park entrance. Park just beyond the Deer Hollow Farm.

Take the Meadow Ridge Trail (Meadow to High Meadow) uphill. Near the top, just after turning east, take the Utility Service Road (or PG & E Trail) back down to the parking area.

Huddart Park/Skyline Loop, Woodside

Distance: 8.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
Difficulty: Very Hard
Technical rating: Easy

This relentless hill climb is a circumnavigation of scenic Huddart Park through a dense forest of redwoods, firs, and madrones. The park offers many runs catering to most ability levels, but keep in mind it's located on a steep hillside and there isn't much flat ground to choose from. While this run is strenuous, it is also on a smooth dirt path with surprisingly few loose stones and tree roots. Because you are constantly enshrouded in trees, this is a great option when it's hot and you want to stay out of the sun. Dogs are not allowed in the park.

Directions: From Highway 280 in Redwood City, take Woodside Road (Hwy. 84) west to Kings Mountain Road. Take this to Huddart Park ($2 entrance fee). Park in the Werder parking area.

Take the Dean Trail down to McGarvey Gulch, then up to the Crystal Springs Trail. Take this uphill route to the Summit Springs Trail, which crests at the Skyline Trail. Go left here for 3/8 of a mile to the Archery Fire Road and start the descent. Pass the park headquarters, turn left at the Chinquapin Trail, and follow this back to McGarvey Gulch and the Dean Trail.

Rose Peak, Ohlone Wilderness Trail, Sunol

Distance: 20 miles (out and back)
Elevation gain: 3,400 feet
Difficulty: Very Hard
Technical rating: Medium

The Ohlone Wilderness, east of Pleasanton and Sunol, is another area offering superb trail running. The run to Rose Peak (3,817 feet) is the area's highlight, but many, shorter options exist. To use the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, you must purchase a map/permit ($2). It's good for a year, and since you need a map anyway, I'd say it's a bargain. I parked in the Sunol Wilderness Park lot ($4), but you can also access this trail from Calavaras Road and Del Valle Regional Park.

This run is great mountain marathon training, and about as benign as any run with 20 miles and a 3,400-foot elevation gain can be. I had heard it was extremely remote but because you spend a lot of time on dirt roads it doesn't really feel remote. You are, however, pretty far off the beaten track, and a sprained ankle or a snake bite could turn into a serious situation. Rose Peak is one of the highest points in the Bay Area (34 feet lower than Mt. Diablo), and it offers a breathtaking panorama. On a clear day you can see the entire bay to the west, and the snowcapped Sierras to the east. The running goes through oak woodland, making it refreshingly different from most other Bay Area runs. While I rated its technicality as Medium -- for some single-track and steep whoop-de-do's -- most of the trail would be considered Easy. The trails are very well marked, and if you have a map it would be almost impossible to get lost. There is water available but it's recommended that you bring some form of water treatment. Dogs are allowed.

Directions: From Highway 680 in Sunol, take Calaveras Road south to Geary Road and follow signs to Sunol/Ohlone Wilderness Park. Buy a map and follow the red markers on the trail.



It's great to have detailed directions but is there anywhere I can see these runs marked out on a map?

Posted on May 14, 2009 - 11:03pm
by Visitor

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