Marin Trail Running: The Most Epic Places to Hit the Trail

A look at some of the most sublime spots to hit the trail in Marin.
A look at some of the most sublime spots to hit the trail in Marin. Peretz Partensky
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At just 2,574 feet, Mount Tamalpais doesn’t rank anywhere near the list of tallest peaks in California. Still, for runners in the Bay Area, this majestic peak looms larger than all others. Marin County, just north of San Francisco and anchored by Mount Tamalpais State Park, is home to some of the most coveted trail running in the country. Competitor Magazine lists the area on its 20 Must Run Trails; National Geographic declares it a Top 10 Destination; and Trail Runner implore runners everywhere to put this spot on their bucket lists. That comes as no surprise to the local trail running community, one of the most robust in the country.

Ready to see what all the hype is about? Whether you’re a first-timer to Mt. Tam or a longtime fan of this beloved peak, here’s what you need to know, from intel on trails, to running groups, to races.

The Marin Headlands

The Tennessee Valley Trail is a beloved route among trail runners.
The Tennessee Valley Trail is a beloved route among trail runners. David Berry

If you’re new to the area or unfamiliar with Marin, The Marin Headlands Visitor Center is a great place to get acquainted with geography and all the offerings on tap. About three miles from either entrance to the Marin Headlands, the Visitor Center offers trail maps, friendly park rangers, and clean bathrooms.

Several trails are located around the visitor center, but the Tennessee Valley trail is a solid choice to pick up the pace. The Tennessee Valley Trail is a wide fire road with expansive views, so it's dificult to get lost. From the fire road, you can take any number of singletrack trails for quick out-and-back explorations. Or if you want to really stretch your legs, you can take the Coastal Trail 9.7 miles to Muir Beach or heading the other direction, 5.1 miles to Rodeo Beach.

Mount Tamalpais State Park

After winter rains, trails transform with gorgeous green hues.
After winter rains, trails transform with gorgeous green hues. Miguel Vieira

Known as the birthplace of mountain biking, Mt. Tam also hosts the oldest trail race in the country, with a 7.4-mile course that’s as gorgeous as it is hardcore. First contested in 1905, the Dipsea Race starts in Mill Valley and charges up nearly 700 steps over the Windy Gap before dropping down into the Muir Woods to finish at Stinson Beach. Two runners competed in the first race and the winning time was 1 hour 12 minutes. Now, demand to run is high and race organizers limit the race to 1,500 hundred runners. The 2015 winner completed the course in 47 minutes 13 seconds.

The Dipsea is always the second Sunday in June and if you can’t get in or you just want to run more, there’s always the Double Dipsea two weeks later. And if that’s still not enough challenge or time charging through Marin, check out the Quad Dipsea held every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

If you prefer a more casual, less competitive run, the Dipsea Trail is still a fabulous place to get outdoors (although it can get crowded on sunny weekends.) Make a loop out of it with the Steep Ravine and Matt Davis trails and you’ll see waterfalls, redwood forests and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The 6.6-mile run includes steep and technical sections though so be prepared.

The Watershed District

It's a 2.6-mile out-and-back trek to see scenic Cataract Falls.
It's a 2.6-mile out-and-back trek to see scenic Cataract Falls. mhara442

Mount Tamalpais Watershed District is less famous than its state park cousin, but it just might be more fun to run. It’s less crowded, and locals love it for its secluded trails. Managed by the Marin Municipal Water District, this area offers five lakes of varying sizes with a labyrinth of excellent trails. Another plus? Parking can be easier here because there’s fewer tourists and more spots.

Phoenix Lake is a great place to get started. You’ll have views of impressive peaks, exposed slopes, redwood forests, and in the spring, loads of wildflowers. This 2.7-mile loop is also dog-friendly, so bring your four-legged friend. If you want to add distance, you can venture off on any number of trails that veer off the loop in all directions. If you get turned around, you’ll also find plenty of runners who can point you back to your car.

Another spectacular run is the Cataract Trail, a 2.6-mile out and back to Cataract Falls that includes 680 feet of elevation gain. Completely shaded, the trail is always cool and usually warrants wearing layers. Touch the falls, inhale the mist, and head back to where you started.

Getting Clubby

Several local groups offer training runs for the Dipsea Race.
Several local groups offer training runs for the Dipsea Race. Wikimedia Commons

To really get to know the secrets of Marin County's labyrinth of running trails, consider joining a running club. The Tamalpa Runners has been running around the county for 40 years. Kees Tuinsing, the club’s original president, still hits the trails and runs a free track workout every Thursday morning at the College of Marin. In the spring, he also leads a series of hill repeats for anyone training for the Dipsea. In addition, the club hosts group runs every week, races once a month, and new member runs every couple months.

Another pioneer in the Bay Area running scene, San Francisco Running Company in Mill Valley also hosts community runs every Saturday morning at 8 am. A more experienced group typically runs 13–15 miles, and another runs to the beach and back for a tidy seven-miler.

_ If You Go _

Marin is the land of microclimates. You could be looking at full sun and serious heat at the trailhead but a mile in, or a mile up, the trail might turn shady, foggy and 15 degrees cooler. Bring sunblock, extra water for longer runs, and layers.

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