San Francisco isn’t the only notable northern California beacon.
Located in the North Bay area across the Golden Gate Bridge is little Marin County, comprising fewer than 300,000 people. The county is home to many a niche attraction, including epic trail running opportunities and small-town Mill Valley, a prime location to kick-start a run. Whether you tackle a kayak journey from Sausalito to The City on a fog-less, sunny day, explore the gorgeous NorCal greenery with an easy run around Phoenix Lake or scavenge the infamous Dipsea Race in June (stair climbs included), Marin boasts several opportunities to showcase the world-class scenery and free-spirited attitude of northern California. Plus it’s within manageable driving distance of the Napa and Sonoma wine countries.
“Running in Marin gives you the ability to run amazing trails with spectacular, world-class vistas at the park of a car or even right out your back door,” says Charles Yoakum, owner of Marin Running Company, a specialty running store in San Anselmo, Calif. “We actually do most runs on trails around the county since there are so many beginner-friendly options.” Phoenix Lake serves as the number-one spot to see for runners exploring Marin—just less than 3 miles round trip, this loop embraces beginners and experienced runners alike.
For the endurance junkies who require that extra elevation kick to absorb the complete runner’s experience, Mount Tamalpais (called Mount Tam by locals) is chock-full of running, hiking and nature-absorbing options and is considered the go-to outdoor experience for the entire county.
For outdoor enthusiasts looking for an easy, yet impactful jaunt, the Coastal Trail has a great 8.2-mile loop option that showcases the gorgeous views of Stinson Beach and open hillsides with minimal elevation gain. Of course, views surrounding any of the sea-level cities never disappoint—for a pretty stroll, Yoakum recommends China Camp State Park’s Shoreline Trail, totaling 5 miles round trip and offering a nature tour of forests and San Pablo Bay in San Rafael.
And of course, San Francisco lies on the outskirts of the county, and no northern California vacation is complete without a spree across the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s about three miles round trip and an epic monument to experience on foot) and a photo op in Union Square or at Fisherman’s Wharf. Just hope for no fog and the chilly weather that comes with it!
Where to Run
If you want to experience trail running history and appropriately named elevation changes (i.e., “Cardiac” trail), check out the rigorous 7-mile Dipsea Trail, boasting breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. Consider having a local, know-it-all trail runner guide you to and through this “less than traditional” trail or request some local knowledge from Marin Running Company in San Anselmo or the San Francisco Running Co. in Mill Valley. Two beginner-friendly options include loops around Lake Lagunitas and Bon Tempe Lake in Fairfax, both offering spectacular views and less-rigorous endurance demands. If you want to punish your quads and test your lungs, the Bay Area Ridge Trail is a must-do—traveling miles and miles up toward Point Reyes; it kills about 2,400 feet of climb (multiple access options are available). But again, locals know best when it comes to the bad-boy trails around the county.
Where to Race
If running before stuffing is on your agenda this Turkey Day, check out the Marin Turkey Trot 5K, with a Young Gobbler 1-Mile race for the kiddos and a Pilgrim 10K for the overachievers. If you’re digging the half-marathon craze, try the Marin County Half Marathon, 5K and 10K next spring, which features a road-and-trail mix that runs along San Pablo Bay and finishes at McNears Beach County Park. For the quirky, join the San Francisco crowd for the Bay to Breakers 12K, where clothing really is optional and rad costumes are aplenty. And of course, it wouldn’t be Marin without mention of the 104th Dipsea Race. Race registration favors Bay Area locals and the previous year’s top 450 finishers; it also boasts a unique handicap system, allowing runners of any age and gender an equal chance at earning the title. And take note: This race also accepts “sob stories” and bribes for those desperate enough to participate.
Where to Eat & Drink
Puerto Rican food is affordable and yummy at Sol Food in San Rafael (903 Lincoln Ave.)—go on a Thursday and watch La Criolla Mixta perform at the “Big Place” (the second location that opened due to its popularity) a block away. If you’re searching for the more clichéd carb option for runners, La Toscana in San Rafael (3751 Redwood Hwy.) is “no-surprises” Italian. For those social butterflies, the ever-growing trend of “meet, run, eat, drink” is also present at Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax (765 Center Blvd.). Located next to a bike shop, many runners and cyclists peg this local microbrew as a prime spot for meetups—it offers a full pub menu and all-day happy hour on Mondays. Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur (1809 Larkspur Landing Cir.), named “Best of Marin” by the Pacific Sun in 2013, is another great post-run drink destination. If you’re craving some tasty Bay Area seafood, in Sausalito Sushi Ran (107 Caledonia St.) is one of the best sushi joints north of the city, while Fish (350 Harbor Dr.) is a perfect place for casual seafood and a spectacular view of the bay.
Where to Shop
Marin Running Company (722 San Anselmo Ave.) is “locally owned, locally minded” by Charles Yoakum, a Marin native who says he knows the Mount Tam trails like the back of his feet. The store has shoes, apparel and accessories, and its staffers are eager to dispense local trail knowledge to visiting runners. And don’t forget to ask about weekly group runs around the county. San Francisco Running Company (247 Shoreline Hwy.), which opened earlier this year, also has a wide variety of shoes and gear and offers group runs on Wednesday evenings. ArchRival Sports, a three-store Marin County chain, is known for its biomechanical foot and gait analysis—employees ask training questions and watch your natural mechanics as you run on a treadmill. There are also multiple REI locations throughout the county, including Corte Madera (213 Corte Madera Town Center).
The city and coastal areas of Marin County are notorious for heavy fog and cool temperatures throughout the year, but on a clear day, the views surrounding Marin County and San Francisco are extraordinary. Bring an extra layer of clothes—including a light rain or wind shell. Temperatures are bearable throughout the fall and winter, peaking in the upper 50s and dipping down into the low 40s at night. But nothing compares to a brisk NorCal morning run. And don’t worry—if rain is minimal, most trails are still safe to run.