Trail Running in San Francisco: 6 Superb Spots in the City

San Francisco is full of options for great trail running.
San Francisco is full of options for great trail running. John Leszczynski
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When it comes to trail running, it's hard to beat the Bay Area. It boasts a virtual mecca of world-class trails, a head-spinning array of terrain, from wide-open spaces to coastal redwood forests to rocky bluffs hugging the Pacific, and, not to mention, world-class vistas that go along with it. It's no surprise, then, that the trail running community has exploded in Northern California in recent years, especially in Marin County and around Mt. Tamalpais, but also in the East and South Bay.

But even with trail running nirvana at nearly every turn, sometimes city dwellers just don't have the time (or the patience) to hop in the car and drive over a bridge or body of water for an off-road run. Fortunately, San Francisco itself is chock full of options to hit the trail, with some 43 hills and more than 200 city parks that add to the mix. Here, six superb options for trail running in San Francisco, all within city limits.

Land’s End

Land's End is an epic spot for a trail run in SF; plan for a weekday if you can.
Land's End is an epic spot for a trail run in SF; plan for a weekday if you can. Jonathan Dinh

On weekends, this wild, rocky corner of San Francisco is overrun with selfie-snapping tourists. But visit early on a weekday morning, and it’s a trail runner’s dream, with few other souls to share the jaw-dropping views and evocative fog with.

Indeed, the aptly named trail Land's End Trail, perched at the northwest corner of the city (and on the edge of the continent), is well worth the drive across town for. A good place to start your run (especially if parking is available) is at one of the two lots near the Land's End Visitor Center and make your way to the Land’s End Trail, which then links up with the Coastal Trail. You’ll break a sweat on the hills and steps, but the views of the rugged coastline and the Golden Gate Bridge will more than make up for the effort. If it's your first time on the trails, an out-and-back is the easiest way to go.

For an extra calorie burn look, for a turnoff to the Mile Rock Beach viewpoint and its 100-odd steps down. If it’s low tide, keep an eye out for three shipwrecks that met their fate along the rocky shores of the edge of the continent (look northwest, almost at the shoreline, to try to catch a glimpse).

Insider Tip:  Weekends can be madness here, so if you attempt the trail then, make it as early as you can so you're not dodging tourists the whole way.

The Presidio

The Presidio boasts 24 miles of trails.
The Presidio boasts 24 miles of trails. Picasaweb/JP

The former Army base checks off most of the boxes for a trail runner’s paradise: plenty of variety to mix up routes (24 miles of trails), spectacular views of the bay and its bridges (and eight scenic viewpoints), restrooms en route, and the occasional water fountain. There are also enough hills and stairs to keep your heart pumping, as well as glorious, gently rolling stretches through the fragrant coastal forest that make you feel as if you’re actually flying.

A big part of the fun of trail running in the Presidio is exploring the various routes. But a good starting point for newbies is the Ecology Trail, which you can easily pick up right behind the Inn at the Presidio (with plenty of nearby parking). Link up the Ecology Trail with the Bay Area Coastal and Park trails, which will eventually put you within easy striking distance of the Presidio Promenade, the gorgeous waterfront stretch with unbeatable views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. For a quad-burning add-on, weave your way westward toward the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, a roller-coaster stretch that includes dozens of wooden stairs. You can take the Batteries to Bluff all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, and make your way along the Presidio Promenade back to the Ecology Trail for the return leg.

Insider Tip: Pack a change of clothes and, after your run, pop into Arguello, a newly opened restaurant right on Presidio grounds, next to the Inn at the Presidio, for some tasty tacos with locally sourced ingredients. (And don’t worry, there’s a patio that’s perfect for sweaty-ish patrons.)

Mount Davidson

Mount Davidson's summit, which is marked by a cross, is the highest point in San Francisco.
Mount Davidson's summit, which is marked by a cross, is the highest point in San Francisco. Stephanie Settimi

The tour buses and visitors flock in far greater numbers to Mount Davidson ’s nearby neighbor, Twin Peaks. But that’s just fine with outdoor lovers and trail running enthusiasts: Mount Davidson, which is the highest point in San Francisco at 938 feet, feels like a locals-only secret.

There are a few trails that circle the hill, easily accessible through several roads off Portola Drive (including Juanita Way, Dalewood Way, or Myra Way). Parking is usually a non-issue; just pop out of your car and find the closest trailhead. Trails crisscross the space, and with a little exploration, it’s easy to make your way to the two highlights of the hillside: a fantastic viewing area of the city, complete with a giant fallen tree (whose branches some hipster is usually camped out in, taking selfies) and, tucked into a grove of trees at the top of the hill, a 103-foot cross.

Built in 1934, the concrete cross was one of a series of five crosses built during the Depression using donations. In 1997, San Francisco voters approved the monument’s sale to the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California. The first time you see it up close, its size is especially surprising. After that, you’ll keep trying to spot it whenever you see Mt. Davidson on the horizon.

Insider Tip: Easter, when many locals come to see the cross, is about the only time you’ll have to deal with crowds on Mt. Davidson.

Golden Gate Park

Take your pick of trails in Golden Gate Park.
Take your pick of trails in Golden Gate Park. Daniel Ramirez

You really can’t go wrong with any of the labyrinthine network of trails in Golden Gate Park – half the fun, after all, is exploring them. For a solid five-mile route, start near the Botanical Garden and make your way west along the paths that run parallel to Lincoln Way. You’ll cross Crossover and Transverse drives and eventually veer right (there are a couple of trails you can take) until you meet up with John F. Kennedy Drive; the easiest way to reach the beach from there is to follow the paths alongside the main road. Look for the North Windmill and then the waves of the Pacific before turning around.

If you’re especially pressed for time, make a beeline for Stow Lake, which has a mile-long dirt loop around it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more scenic spot to crank out a few miles.

Insider Tip: On Sundays and all holidays, JFK Drive is closed from the East End (Kezar Drive) to Transverse Drive. On Saturdays from April through September, JFK is closed to vehicle traffic from 8th Avenue to Transverse Drive. That might make driving and parking at the park a bit trickier, but your runs will be all the more peaceful.

Glen Park Canyon

Glen Park Canyon is a hidden gem for trail runners near the Glen Park neighborhood.
Glen Park Canyon is a hidden gem for trail runners near the Glen Park neighborhood. Blane Bachelor

Tucked into the southern part of the city, this under-the-radar gem is a serene slice of nature in the middle of a residential neighborhood. A deep canyon that slices through the 70-acre space makes for unique geography, and plenty of stairs, hills, wildlife, and cityscape views keep things interesting.

The trail network here is fairly short—just 3.7 miles—but you can easily loop routes together for a perfect midday run. A good place to start is near the entrance of the park (there’s plenty of street parking near the entrance of the park where Chenery Street meets Elk). Just past the recreation center (which is undergoing a major renovation), you’ll feel the daily stresses start to slip away as soon as your sneakers crunch on the gravel path and the scent of eucalyptus hits your nose. Follow the wide trail straight through a fairy-tail forest grove and along a boardwalk over Islais Creek—one of the few remaining creeks in city limits—to hit several trail offshoots. Continue up the steps and head left for a longer route (and a couple of out-and-back offshoots to the left, which are chock full of wild blackberry bushes).

Another option as you head into the canyon is to keep an eye out for a set of wooden stairs to your right. Head up them for an extra shot of cardio; the trail will eventually lead you up and over some dramatic rock formations. At the forks, stay right and you’ll run under some homes built on tall pilings. The trail eventually dumps you out into a neighborhood; head right onto Turquoise Way, up a short but steep hill, and make your way back into the park through the trail on the right-hand-side.

Insider Tip: Regular trail maintenance means that occasionally trails are closed. The park also is popular with bird- and wildlife watchers, too—keep an eye (and ear) out for the occasional coyotes that roam through here.

Corona Heights

Log some quick (but steep) laps at Corona Heights Park in San Francisco.
Log some quick (but steep) laps at Corona Heights Park in San Francisco. Marcin Wichary

Corona Heights Park isn’t the spot for logging long miles; the trail leading up to the summit is only about a mile long. But if you’re looking for a scenic spot for some hill work, or a change of pace from your usual route, it’s an excellent spot to work into the rotation. It boasts prime panoramic views of San Francisco, and some gorgeous wildflower displays in the spring. Another bonus? It’s fairly off the beaten tourist path, so you usually won’t have to contend with big crowds.

This pocket-sized park also boasts some interesting history. According to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, in the 1800s, the site was used as a quarry. Two infamous locals, the Gray brothers, were constantly breaking the law, including illegal rock blasting on the hill that injured neighbors and damaged property. In 1914, George Gray was murdered by former employee who was owed back wages; the defendant was eventually acquitted.

These days, outdoor enthusiasts no longer have to worry about dodging quarry debris here. The trails that wind up to the summit are fairly stable but steep-ish dirt paths, dotted with wooden staircases. For a real quad-burner, the trail leading down to the 15th Street tennis courts is the most challenging section (be extra careful on the loose gravel). Parking is generally not too much of a hassle (available at the nearby Randall Museum, the 15th Street tennis courts, and around the park).

Insider Tip: With the loose gravel and steep trails, lacing up trail running sneakers is recommended for this one.

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