Great Runs in San Francisco

NOTE: We have published a MUCH more comprehensive guide to San Francisco running the Great Runs website. Also, see our separate guides to running in the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, etc.), Silicon Valley, and San Jose.

One of the world’s most beautiful cities, San Francisco has it all for runners. Views. Ocean. Hills. Paths. Trails. Good Weather. Variety. Accessibility. For the runner who wants to experience some of the greatest urban running and some incredible trails within a stone’s throw of the city, put San Francisco on your running bucket list.

The highlight of San Francisco running is the trail from the Embarcadero, over Fort Mason, along Crissy Field and toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Running across the Golden Gate bridge and out to some of the view points is another must-do. Other spectacular runs include Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, and some fun urban hill running. Trail runners and those seeking a running adventure should experience the Marin Headlands adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. And for those who like hills, well…

The Iconic Routes

In some cities I struggle to find 5 ‘iconic’ routes. Containing myself is the biggest challenge where San Francisco is concerned. OK, discipline calls…

  1. Crissy Field
  2. The Embarcadero
  3. Running Across the Golden Gate Bridge
  4. Golden Gate Park
  5. Land’s End/Ocean Beach Area

Crissy Field to Fort Point

6.1 miles RT. Start: Fort Mason & Bay St. MAP

The run along Chrissy Field from Fort Mason to Fort Point is one of the great urban runs of the world. Heading northwest, are views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Headlands, and Sausalito/Tiburon. The first part of the route uses the paved path/sidewalk around the Yacht Club, then joins a wide gravel pathway for the jaunt out to Fort Point. There’s the Fort Mason Visitor Center/warming hut at the 2.3 mile mark.

Ambitious runners can continue up to Golden Gate Bridge. Adds about 2.5 miles one-way depending on when you leave the Chrissy Field trails. You can also add to this run by running up and down some of the piers along the way, which feature wonderful views.

If you are starting from the Fisherman’s Wharf area, it is about 0.8 miles one-way from the end of Jefferson St. around the aquatic park and over Fort Mason.

The Embarcadero

AT&T Park to the end of Fisherman’s Wharf: 3.4 miles One-Way. MAP

The Embarcadero has been improved and rejuvenated since the 1989 earthquake and the decision to remove (and not rebuild) the highway that was badly damaged. There are numerous options to run along the Embarcadero, mainly depending on where you start and how long you want to run for. From AT&T Park to the end of Fisherman’s Wharf is 3.4 miles.

Key landmarks along the way, starting at AT&T Park and heading northwest, are: Bay Bridge, Market St., the Exploratorium, Alcatraz Ferry, Pier 41 (ferry to Sausalito), Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square.We end at Marina Park, but there are options to continue around the park at up the hill to Fort Mason and on to Crissy Field (see above)

The Golden Gate Bridge.

~4 miles RT from Welcome Center to Vista Point. MAP

10,000 pedestrians cross the Golden Gate Bridge every day. Running across the Bridge is not only encouraged…it’s a tourist attraction. You will be contending with walkers, cyclists, strollers, bladers, and every other “er” or “ist”. But it’ll be hard to not stop and enjoy the views. There are wonderful view points at each end of the bridge. It is 1.7 miles across the bridge. So our route is ~4 miles RT, incorporating a jaunt out to the view points, from the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center to Vista Point on the other side of the bridge.

If you want to access the Golden Gate Bridge from the Crissy Field/Fort Point area, take the trail to the bridge, which starts right near the warming hut. It’s 0.4 miles from the Warming Hut to the Golden Gate Visitor Center.

The Big Kahuna: AT&T Park to Vista Point

9.6 miles. MAP here. Distance breakdown below.

The Embarcadero, Crissy Field, and the Golden Gate Bridge are broken out into distinct runs here. But the accompanying gives a sense of the entire run from AT&T Park, just 0.8 miles south of the Bay Bridge, all the way to Fort Point and then joining up with the trails that lead to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then over the Bridge to Vista Point. Total distance is 9.6 miles. It is 0.3 miles from the end of the trail at Fort Point back to the Battery Trail at the intersection of Long Ave. where you climb up to the trails that lead to the Golden Gate Bridge.

From Golden Gate Bridge to Land’s End

~4 miles ONE-WAY. Start: GG Welcome Ctr. or Land’s End Visitor Ctr. MAP
Option: Coastal Trail around Land’s End Visitor Ctr. 3.5 miles RT MAP

The run between the Golden Gate Bridge and Land’s End is unique: spectacular ocean views, hills, wooded sections, and some beautiful homes. The ~5 mile route one-way route follows the Coastal Trail, with some road connections. Close to the Golden Gate Welcome Center, you can follow either Lincoln Blvd., or the Battery to Bluffs Trail, which is more rugged. Then you’re on the road for a bit, through the high-end residential area of Sea Cliff, before re-joining the Coastal Trail to Land’s End. Landmarks include numerous overlooks down to the water, Baker Beach, Seal Rock, and Sutro Baths. There are various options here to do more road sections instead of trails, especially Lincoln Blvd. between Golden Gate and Baker Beach.

Another, shorter option is to do just the Coastal Trail section around Land’s End, which is ~3.5 miles, with numerous options to add on.

The Presidio

~5 miles, with numerous options. Start: Lombard St. gate. MAP
Presidio Park Trail Map

The Presidio is a former military installation, now a gorgeous park with miles of trails for walking and running. There are hills, wooded trails, and scenic vistas out to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. It is also a connector between the Marina and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, Crissy Field, and the Golden Gate Bridge and recreation area. It’s also a great place to access from “motel row” along Lombard St. Close to Lombard Gate is the Letterman Digital Arts Center and beautiful Lawrence Halperin desgined by noted architect Lawrence Halpern, Walt Disney Family Museum, the National Cemetery, Mountain Lake, and golf course. We’ve designed a ~5 mile route, combination roads and trails (Promenade Trail, Park Trail, Mountain Lake, Lover’s Lane), but if course you can design your own route and incorporate other fantastic running options in the area.

Golden Gate Park

Many options. MAP of 8.8 mile RT between east and west ends.

Golden Gate Park Map

Golden Gate Park is the left coast version of New York’s Central Park. Yes, it’s a beautiful, green park, with wonderful paths, trails, ponds, fields, and other amenities. But the Park is also home to a Botanical Gardens, a Japanese Tea Garden, the De Young Museum of Asian Art, and a “Music Concourse”. There are tons of running options in Golden Gate Park, from the perimeter roads, to some terrific trail running.

The Park runs from Highway 1 at the ocean to the west, to the Haight-Ashbury area to the east. It is difficult to proscribe a particular running route, but it is ~3.6 milesfrom the intersection of Lincoln Way and Martin Luther King Dr., mainly following MLK Dr., to the intersection with Stanyan St. to the east. It’s then another 0.8 miles along the “Panhandle” trail to Baker St. Heading eastward, you can follow trails near John F. Kennedy Dr., by the De Young Museum and other landmarks. It’s about 1 mile between the eastern end of Golden Gate Park to the Arguello Gate of the Presidio, using Arguello Blvd.

Twin Peaks

2 miles up and down. Start: Clayton St. & 17th St. MAP

www.san-francisco-travel-secrets.com

This is a popular place for hill runs and sunset views. It’s about 1 mile to the summit of Twin Peaks, using Twin Peaks Blvd. Great homes, great views, fabulous place to watch the sunset…or the fog— and a 400 foot elevation gain in 1 mile with 10–11% grades! One can combine this with the nearby trails of Mount Sutro, which is sort of a city ‘cloud forest’. More info on Mt. Sutro here. Also, one can combine with Golden Gate Park, whose eastern sections are about 1 mile away from Twin Peaks Blvd.

Ocean Beach Area

~3 miles between the Cliff House and San Francisco Zoo. MAP

On the west side of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Sunset/Ocean Beach area. It is very different in look, feel, and even climate than the Marina/Golden Gate area. It’s rugged, and and can be chilly and foggy. But there is spectacular running along the water here, with views out to crashing surf. The path options here include — a paved path for most of the way between Hwy. 1 and the beach; on the beach; an interior path on the east side of Hwy. 1; and on the shoulder of Hwy. 1

The section I’ve chosen here is the 3 miles between the Cliff House/Lands End Visitor Center on the north to the San Francisco Zoo to the south. The Cliff House, originally built in 1863, is a Victorian era complex set on a windswept hillside cliff, adjacent to the historic Sutro baths and garden. The Visitor Center has tons of information about the trails in the area. You’ll run south toward the zoo, by the western entrance of Golden Gate Park, with the Pacific ocean to the east and the Sunset neighborhood to the west. The run ends near the entrance to the zoo.

Further Afield

  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Headlands. This is a fabulous but challenging area for running with unparalleled views. The area is very large. You can run on the main vehicle road (although there are no sidewalks), or on any one of the countless trails. It is about 5 miles along the road from Vista Point to Rodeo Beach, and about 6 miles using the off-road ‘coastal trail’. Note: the trails are hilly and rugged. I don’t recommend running alone — there are coyotes and mountain lions. MAP
  • Mt. Tamalpias. About 15 miles from San Francisco, “Mt. Tam” is a wonderful run/hike, with spectacular views at the summit. There are hundreds of miles of trails in this area. A series of fire roads provide a relatively gentle “switch back” route to the top of Mt. Tam, 5–7 miles to the 2,500 foot summit depending on route taken. MAP
  • Point Reyes National Seashore. If you have time, this is a day trip. A true “destination” run. Point Reyes is a spectacular walking/hiking/running/driving area, with myriad trails and excellent variety — from beautiful green pastures to views of crashing ocean surf. A fantastic run/hike is to take your time and do the ~5 mile run from Pierce Point Ranch to Tamales Point. Then, take a leisurely drive back to San Francisco along Rt. 1, stopping for a bite at one of the eclectic restaurants along the way. MAP

STAY

San Francisco definitely has its distinct areas/neighborhoods. It’s a bit of a challenge finding nicer hotels really near the best running areas. If you really want to be near one of the iconic routes, you might have to stay in a slightly less fancy hotel, a couple of miles away from where your meetings are going to be.

If you want to access the Chrissy field to Fort Point trails, try to stay in the Marina district inside Lombard St., or in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. There’s a cluster of ‘budget’ hotels along Lombard St. bordering the Marina and Pacific Heights, with good access to the Presidio

The North Beach and Financial district areas provide good access to the Embarcadero area for running. Try to avoid staying deep in Union Square area, because even though it is a popular destination for business travelers and shoppers, it is further from good running spots. A compromise area might be along Market St. close to the Embarcadero. It is a little over 1 mile from Union Sq. to Ferry Plaza at the Embarcadero

There are not very many hotels in the Ocean Beach area, or west of Golden Gate Park, and if you’re in SF for business, you’re fairly far from the central business area.

Running Stores

There are surprisingly few local running stores in the heart of San Francisco compared to other cities. Some best bets:

Marina/Crissy Field Area.

Fleet Feet. Great local running store. Numerous events including “Wine Not Wednesdays” runs at 6:30om and Saturday morning 8:30 am along Marina Green and the Presidio. Also a location South of Market (SOMA).

Nike Store. Numerous events, some free others fee. Also a location in Union Sq.

Sports Basement. In the Crissy Field area. Not a running specific store but an incredible one of a kind sports store and worth a visit.

Union Sq.

Foot Race. On Polk & Sutter.

Finish Line in Macy’s

Presidio & Mission districts

A Runner’s Mind Local running store, with group runs Tuesday 7pm hill repeats, Thursday 7pm 3–6 miler, and Saturday 9am (long runs).

See Jane Run. Women’s focused running store in the Mission area. Fabulous store and folks. Tuesday evening and Saturday morning run clubs. Calendar.


Community

Group runs to join when in San Francisco:

The two largest and most established run clubs in San Francisco are the Dolphin Run Club, which has numerous events throughout the week, and a Saturday morning group run in Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Road Runners Club. Large organization, with many events. Also the Golden Gate Run Club.


Running Events

San Francisco has a huge running community and there are events almost every weekend. Signature San Francisco running events include:

  • Bay to Breakers. May. The oldest continually run footrace in the world. 12k from the Embarcadero to Ocean Beach. Huge event running from Crissy Field to the ocean.
  • San Francisco Marathon. June or July.

And if you’re looking at a more comprehensive calendar of events, check this out: Bay Area Running Events.