The Best Places to Run in San Francisco

By Rune Sanbeck. Posted: May 25, 2018

It's no surprise that San Francisco is a great place for hill training but you may not know that it's actually also a fantastic city for running in general. It offers nearly all a runner could wish for - hilly runs, flat runs, park runs, beach runs, unspoilt trail runs and some cool running races. If you're a visitor to San Francisco, it's also a great way to sight see. I'm going to tell you about my favourite runs so you can enjoy them as well when visiting this wonderful city. At the end of my blog I'll also say a few words on some amazing races in the city.

The first time I was on a business trip to San Francisco I struggled to find good runs or to mobilize my jet-lagged body to get out running. It just seemed too exhausting. Either the run was just too challenging with steep hills everywhere I looked, or if finally flat, then too many tourists and traffic to seem like a good idea. A beautiful city, very American and yet more European than any other American city I have been to, but not a city to go for a run in. How wrong I was. It takes time to get to know the city, but many visits later and the joy of participating in the famous triathlon, Escape from Alcatraz, it is perhaps my favourite city to run in.

To prepare for your trip to San Francisco it's also worth watching some great movies shot in the city. Most of them are older like Bullit, Vertigo, Escape from Alcatratz, Basic Instinct, Mrs Doubtfire and more recently The Rock. All great movies that make your running there even more fun.

Hill Runs

(Image - Chris Lawton)

In classic American style the streets mostly follow the usual pattern, like a grid imposed on the surface of the city. This makes it very interesting for us runners as the whole area is curved and has plenty of steep hills. Many go straight up, then the cross roads provide a short flat section, then straight up again. This continues for typically 5-7 sections providing a great structure for a speedy hill run. There is no limit to the hill runs you can do in the city as you can imagine.

If you have seen Bullit, with Steve McQueen (the best car chase ever despite a very old movie), then you have already seen what is unique about San Francisco - the steep hills. Taylor, Valero Street, and Russian Hill to name a few, are streets that feature in the movie.

Run 1: Filbert Street – a hill run for visitors

Staying closed to the central part of the city near the Financial District, head over to Telegraph Hill. Here you find Filbert Street on the East slope with inclines of up to 31.5%, perhaps even too steep for hill runs, but a great experience for a visitor. Some houses here can only be accessed by stairs. You can find steeper roads, the steepest is supposed to be Bradford Street with an incline of 40%, but once over 20% it really is more strength training than running. Fun to try although you probably may want to walk back down. You can also check out the curvy part of Lombard Street for a bit of sightseeing as it is not too far away.

Run 2: Twin Peaks Hill – a classic hill run

A better hill run, and one locals would actually do, is the Twin Peaks Hill. It is 1 km long so both a great hill and interval run.

Run 3: Divisadero – a fun city hill run, various lengths as you do repeats and endless elevation

Not many locals would use Divisadero for hill training but it is not bad at all. The seven or so different sections provide a great structure for a steep hill run. Run them fast one at a time with a short break at the intersections. This will help your  strength as well as speed but will be demanding. You can start from Lombard Street as the incline starts here, or even better, start and end at the Marina. As your reward you can also enjoy a nice drink in the cool Marina area afterwards.

You can repeat the hill a couple of times or combine it with the Presidio run (go right at Broadway) or the run along the Marina and the beach.

This area of Divisadero is Pacific Heights and was where Basic Instinct (with Kim Basinger and Michael Douglas) was filmed. You may recognise the Presidio from the Dirty Harry movie (with Clint Eastwood).

Run 4: The Presidio – A hilly trail run in the city, 8.7 km and 180 height meter

A beautiful trail run with hills inside a city of a million people? Yes, that is what you'll find here in the old Spanish military outpost from 1776, now a recreation area. Most of the run can be done on single tracks, some on paved sidewalks, but with few people and little traffic. It is a small forest of cypress and at the other end of the park you can run under the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can enter the park in lots of places but if you come from Broadway as described above you just have to get over Presidio Avenue. Then run around the park on the outskirts and you have a great run, or combine it as you wish.

Park Runs and Flat Runs

The parks in San Francisco are not terribly famous despite being really great parks. This is probably because the setting around the city is so nice that parks are not so essential to escape the busy city.

Run 5: Golden Gate Park – 11.1 km round the park with 130 meters of height

The first of many times I visited San Francisco I did not see this park as it is kind of “on the other side” of the city. It is over the hill and behind Presidio next to Ocean Beach. A bit confusing as it is not really next to the Golden Gate Bridge. Somehow this beautiful park is hidden and not very well known. It is not unlike New York’s Central Park and great for running. There are endless combinations of routes but if you run around it you get a really nice 11.1 km run in, mostly flat, at least for San Francisco.

Run 6: Ocean Beach – 4 km stretch, no elevation

At the end of Golden Gate Park you have Ocean Beach. Here you can run on the hard beach sand or on the pavement. It is not too busy and you can watch the surfers or time it with a beautiful sunset. It runs from the Cliff House to San Francisco Zoo and is 4 km long. Another beach to run is at Baker Beach with the famous sand ladder, or you can even rent a car and go and visit the wonderful Stinson Beach.

(San Francisco sunset - image Rune Sanbeck)

Run 7: Golden Gate Promenade – 5 km and no elevation (out and back)

On the rigth side of the Golden Gage you have the Golden Gate Promenade, still on the city side and along San Francisco Bay. You can combine this with the Divisadero hill run and it is a nice 6 km round stretch along the water mostly on gravel road. Obviously a phenomenal view to the bridge while running and probably the most popular run and walking route in San Francisco. It's totally flat so good for speed work.

You start by the Yacht harbour (where you exit the swim on the triathlon Escape from Alcatratz) and run to the end just below the Golden Gate bridge. The end is called Hopper’s Hands and from here you run back.

Run 8: Embarcadero – 8 km flat run (out and back)

Despite being a busy tourist spot this is a nice run along the water.  It's a 4 km lstretch and a nice way to see this part of the city. You can start and finish at the Ferry Building (a great place to have something to eat or drink afterwards). You will run past Fisherman’s Wharf, passing many tourists and sea lions.

Run 9: Across the Golden Gate Bridge – 9.9 km, 140 hm (out and back)

This run is a great run for a visitor to the city. You can run back and forth on same side or change sides at the end of the bridge. Due to cyclists and lots of tourists you have to slow down around the pillars to avoid bumping into someone. Not a big issue but just take it a little easy, or even better - if you are jet-lagged and wake up early - go for an early run before the tourists arrive.

As with most bridges there is a bit of a slope on the bridge and it can also be very windy. The views and overall experience are incredible though. Often you will run from a fog covering San Francisco into the sunshine on the other side where you find Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate National Park (not to be confused with the Golden Gate Park). Mark Twain talked about the coldest winter being a summer in San Francisco. This is obviously not true but the fog can be cold and hide the sun. This is due to the warm sun on land and the huge inland of warmer water meeting the ice cold Pacific Ocean. If you cross the bridge and go onto Marin Headlands then you may find warm sunny weather when it is foggy or even raining in the city.

(Golden Gate Bridge - image Iffley Road)

Trail Runs

In the Marin Headlands, just across the bridge, you will find phenomenal trail running. This is the area of the Golden Gate National Park and the area around Mount Tamalpais. One moment you feel like you are in a remote national park, (you might see eagles and bobcats) and the next moment you see the bridge popping over the top or the city in the distance. You also have a great view of Baker Beach or over the Pacific Ocean. Just a phenomenal way of experiencing nature.

Below are two runs I cannot recommend highly enough. You can do many other trails in this area but if you like running, trails and nature, you really should give this a go. You cannot do this easily in the morning before work and might struggle to do it after work (especially if you are suffering from jet-lag) so I recommend booking a day off or stay for the weekend. I promise you that you will not regret it!

Run 9: Trail run from the city just after exiting Golden Gate bridge, 18.5 km

You can reach this trail by following the Miwok and the Marincello Trails once you exit the bridge, and if you run it early morning you will enjoy a breath-taking sunrise over the city. Apparently this route became popular with the ultra-distance runners who could do this run before work, but I would say it is a very challenging run. If you google it for more details you will find that the locals call it the Ninja Loop. 

Run 10: Marin Headlands trail run, 13.5 km, 580 hm

Rent a car and go to Tennessee Valley Road where you can park. Start out on the Miwok Trail and follow it until the fork with Coyote Ridge Trail, where you follow the latter. At the next fork with Middle Green Gulch Trail follow that one. Then follow the Coastal Trail back to Tennessee Valley Road. If you want, there are many other trails so this is just one suggestion. The trails are well marked and with the help of a smart phone it is easy to stay on the right path.

Most of the trails here are old fire roads, so gravel roads. If you like you can do many other trails but bear in mind that some of them are really thin trails and can be a bit more difficult to run. I recommend not using flats or thin soled shoes as there can be sharp stones in some places. I tried that once and completed my run but my feet were very sore for a few days.

If you go a little further into Mill Valley then you are strictly speaking not in San Francisco any longer but it is here you find Mount Tamalpais where the mountain bike was invented. There is a good reason for that, the trails are endless and the mountain is very beautiful. In elevation and steepness it is not too challenging -the highest point is 784 meters. It is very easy to orientate yourself - you really just need to try it.

Famous Foot Races

When writing about running in San Francisco I have to mention some of the more famous foot races in the city. You can google full details of these but here are a few words on them.

Bay to Bakers 

This a 12 km run from Embarcadero to Ocean Beach. A great run in itself but with the craziness of San Francisco it gets to be an even stranger experience. Some run naked, and some start at the wrong end and run against the flow like salmon. It's supposedly the oldest foot race in the world.

The San Francisco Marathon

I'm sure you can imagine that this is not the marathon to aim for a PB.I have never done it but apparently it's a great experience.

Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

Well not really a foot race, but the run in this triathlon is something unique. You start with the first leg of Run 7, the Golden Gate promenade, up tough stairs to Presidio and over to Baker Beach. On Baker Beach you run on sand to the end, turn around and go back up the infamous sand ladder. It's a tough, beautiful demanding run.

North Face Endurance Challenge

You run in the Marin Headlands, there are various race distances to choose from, the original one being the 50 miler.

Good luck!

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