A Trail-Running Guide to Muir Woods, San Francisco’s Hidden Gem

Sure, you can walk across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, head down Lombard Street or deal with crowds as you eat clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf, but if you’re looking for something more than typical tourism in San Francisco, you’ve got to head about 12 miles north of the city. Tucked into the quaint neighborhood of Mill Valley, you’ll find Muir Woods National Monument.

Home to lush trees, rigorous trails and impressive ocean views, Muir Woods is famous for its enchanting forest, steep hills and being home to the oldest cross-country trail race in America: the Dipsea Race.

Is there a better combo? Photo: Davide Zemiti/Unsplash

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Whether you’re a casual hiker, trail-running nut or weekend warrior, this is one destination you’ve got to check out. Here’s your go-to guide to a day of two-legged adventure in Muir Woods National Monument.

Where to start

You’ve got from sunrise to sunset to explore Muir Woods. Like many places, the weekdays are best to avoid crowds and heavy traffic, but if the weekend is the only time for you to go, then head there early in the morning.

Any trail will deliver stunning views, but Stinson Beach is a local favorite for a lunchtime picnic or a sunset stroll.

Where to trot

View of West Point Inn
The view from West Point Inn. Photo: Courtesy of Ron Selvey

Start at Tennessee Valley Trail and head toward Muir Beach. The run will start flat, but don’t get used to it; the steep hills kick in quickly — no joke.

Next, take Heather Cutoff to Dipsea, which is part of the Dipsea Race. Zigzagging trails will take you up and down hills to a beautiful ocean backdrop. At the top, stop to snap a photo; you won’t regret it.

As you continue, your legs will get a nice little break with a bit of downhill trail. But don’t get too content; you’re going to climb more rolling hills.

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Make your way to Pantoll Campground, where you can grab water or use the restrooms. You can get picked up here if you’re tired, or go for a couple more miles to West Point Inn for the ultimate finish-line view.

Continue to West Point Inn through the enchanted forest. You may need to throw on a light long-sleeve at this point; the route is mainly covered with trees, so you’ll get cool quickly. The last three quarter miles of the run is a gradual hill — your last climb, but well worth it.

West Point Inn
West Point Inn: For sure worth a couple more miles. Photo: Courtesy of Ron Selvey

Enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the East Bay, the city of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. Stretch along the benches, walk around the historic site and enjoy the building.

RELATED: The less-traveled way to see the Golden Gate Bridge

If you want, book a room at the Inn the night before. There’s no electricity or Wi-Fi, so it allows you to shut off and enjoy nature. Plus, you can only hike or bike into West Point Inn: Whether you stay the night or for an hour, you’ll need to head back down the trail. If you’re not running an epic back to your starting point, the recommended pickup point is Pantoll, since that’s the shortest hike back to a parking lot. For more info, check here.

What to pack

View of SF from West Point
The San Francisco skyline is scenic enough, but the sweat equity for this view might make it that much better. Photo: Courtesy of Ron Selvey

Whether you’re going on a short hike or all-day trail run, Bay Area weather is notoriously unpredictable. One minute you’ll be in the sun, feeling nice and warm, and then you’ll be under hundreds of trees, cooling off quickly.

It’s best to layer and to bring snacks and a few other essential items to enjoy your outdoor adventure on the other side of the bay. Here are a few items that should make it into your pack:

Water: If you’re running, a hydration pack is ideal. Don’t underestimate the steep hills. Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta has enough room to store water bottles, a bladder, snacks, ID, keys, money and a long-sleeve.

A light jacket: The combination of wind, fog, sun and shaded stretches of trail alter the temperature quickly. It’s best to dress in layers and wear a light jacket. The Cotopaxi Teca Windbreaker Half-Zip is an excellent lightweight solution for those breezy runs or hikes and has a kangaroo pouch for easy storage.

Snacks: Gu Energy Gels are great if you’re going to hit the trails running. If you’re heading for a hike, pack granola bars, fruit or nuts, which you can pick up at one of the local produce stands on your drive to Muir Woods.

Sunscreen: Even if the weather is cool, when the sun’s out, you ought to put on sunscreen. Any waterproof or sweat-proof lotion will protect your skin. Make sure it’s SPF 30, and don’t forget to reapply.

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