The Marin Headlands lies within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a jewel of the San Francisco Bay area.  Within it lies world-class running and I am lucky enough to live a mere 45 minute drive from some of its best trail heads.  In this post I am going to describe one of my favorite routes through the area – a 30k (18.6 mile) Figure 8 loop that starts and ends at the Tennessee Valley Trailhead.  It’s got everything you want in an epic self-supported trail run – a couple of well placed bathrooms, some spots to fill up water, multiple distance options, and sweeping vistas of the entire Bay Area.  If you’re visiting the Headlands for the first time and want to see why it’s one of the premier running destinations of the area – this loop is for you!

It’s actually composed of a 20k loop that heads south-east from the parking area and then a 10k loop that heads north-west from the parking.  They are equally stunning, but the 20k section goes through Rodeo Beach and offers long gradual ascents and cruiser descents with stunning views of the ocean, San Francisco, and the East Bay.  The 10k section feels a little more steep at parts, but brings you back to Tennessee Valley along the Pirate’s Cove section of coastal trail, where it feels like you are one of the many raptors flying along the western edge of the continent.  It also offers views north of Mount Tam and the Point Reyes coastline.  Really, you should do them both together, and if you’re a real masochist, do the 20k loop twice to make it a cool 50k.

A few things to note before we get started – there is no water at the parking area, so bring full bottles and some to fill up with at the quick pit-stop at your car on the way back through.  There are plenty of nice, clean bathrooms, at approximately Miles 0, 5, 8, 12, and 18.  The trails are predominately smooth fireroads with very little technical sections at all.  It can be cold, foggy, windy, or beautifully sunny – this is San Francisco after all.  Dress in layers and bring enough to stay warm!

20k loop:  ~ 2,150 feet of elevation gain and loss

10k loop:  ~ 1,500 feet of elevation gain and loss

An overhead view of the Figure 8.  20k loop to the Southeast, 10k loop to the Northwest

PDF version of the above map

The 20k loop

I usually start with the 20k loop, and I usually do it clockwise, for no good reason except it’s a little nicer to climb the paved section of Hill 88 at the end of the loop than descend it.  The loop starts off with a bang as you head up the Marincello climb, to the southeast corner of the parking area.  It’s a smooth, gradual climb as you gain elevation and start to get views of Mount Tam behind you, the East Bay straight ahead (including Mount Diablo looming in the distance), and eventually San Francisco as well.  It’s the perfect warm-up climb and it’s okay not too push it too much as you have many miles ahead of you and you’re just getting started!

Fun Fact:  Marincello is the name of a failed housing development that would have existed on the top of this climb, with the excellent views that you are about to get.  It was defeated in the 1960’s and thankfully protected now from future building due to the Federal Land.

The Marincello climb starts just beyond the white gate shown in the picture on the left

After an initial 1.5 miles of climbing Marincello officially turns into Bobcat Trail when you keep going straight.  It doesn’t look like a turn for you, so don’t think about it too much, go straight and through some rollers until about mile 2.1 – here is one of the only little tricky parts of navigation on the route.  Take a hard left immediately followed by a hard right on the fire road – you will now be on Alta Trail.  Follow this until mile 2.8 where you will come out of a eucalyptus section and see a white metal gate across the trail and a service road on the other side.  Run just past the gate, take a hard right, and then an immediate hard left – you should now be on the SCA trail and on a ridge heading south with some wonderful views.

The white gate – take an immediate right after this gate onto a paved service road, and then the first immediate left
Epic views of the Bay from the SCA trail
The SCA trail
Continue straight on the SCA trail, collecting yourself enough to take some pictures and soak in the beautiful scenery around you.  At mile 4.0 make sure you continue straight as shown in the picture above, onto what is technically called Slacker Trail (SCA peels off to the left down the hill and eventually ends up at Fort Baker).  There’s a bathroom stop and small parking lot at mile 4.5 (right after you cross a road), and make sure you take a right at the parking lot onto the signed Julian trail (which also gets called Coastal in some parts).  This is a beautiful, smooth, and gradual descent that will take you back to sea-level and alongside the lagoon of Rodeo beach.  
Around mile 6.0 you’ll cross Bunker Road again and follow it a bit to the left, heading toward the ocean.  Take a quick right, and then a left, and you’ll see Miwok and our old friend Bobcat trail again.  You want to keep heading straight, toward the ocean, on Lagoon trail.  You’ll cross Bunker Road yet again, and now you will be running on a path on the southern side of it, heading toward the ocean and the buildings at the end of the road at Rodeo Beach.
Approaching Rodeo Beach, with Bunker Road on the right and
the Rodeo Lagoon on the left
Bathrooms and parking at Rodeo Beach, with the start
of the Hill 88 climb in the background
Now the fun begins – after you regroup and take care of your business get your climbing shoes on because you are going up, up, up.  The climb up to Hill 88 starts at mile 8.0 just behind the gate at the parking lot, and wraps its way up the bluffs overlooking the Pacific.  It’s fire road in some places, closed-to-cars paved road in others, and even a section of steep steps with a cable at one point.  It’s called Coastal Trail the entire way up, and hard to get lost on – just make sure you keep climbing.  Around mile 9.5 you’ll be way up on the top, now able to look back down into Tennessee Valley to the north.  You’ll want take Wolf Ridge Trail (toward Miwok) down, which heads down the north side of the ridge slightly bearing to the right.  
Don’t forget to turn around and take it all in
on your way up to Hill 88
Around mile 10.3 make sure you stay left onto Miwok for a short bit – and then around 10.5 you’ll take another left onto Old Springs Trail for your descent back to your car at the parking lot.  Old Springs Trail will gently float you all the way back to the valley floor (even passing a flowing natural spring on the way if you are desparate for water!) and eventually to your parked car at mile 12.0.  Get some water, restock your food, and get ready to head out for the next loop to the north!

The 10k loop

The smaller loop starts on the Northeast corner of the large Tennessee Valley parking lot, just down the road on the left.  Hop on Miwok trail and begin your climb out of the valley once more.  It gains altitude quickly and the views improve with each step once again.  Around mile 13.7 make sure you stay straight and merge onto Coyote Ridge trail (there is a resident bobcat that lives up here so keep your eyes open!)
The start of the 10k loop and the Miwok trailhead
The Coyote Ridge trail keeps gradually climbing and winding until you get to the top and are rewarded with a sweeping view of the ocean and coast – Muir Beach and Point Reyes to the north, Tennessee Beach, Point Bonita, Ocean Beach and San Francisco to the south.  You’ll end your climb finally around mile 14.0 and the fun begins as you plunge down toward the edge of the continent.

It’s all downhill from here.  Well, almost.
You can turn your brain off and just glide at this point, making sure to turn right at the intersection at mile 14.5 and head north toward Muir Beach.  You’ll get close, but instead of descending to Muir Beach, hang a left at Mile 15.4 as you hit the infamous Pirate’s Cove trail.
ARRRRRRRRR ya ready for some fun matey?
When I daydream of running the the Marin Headlands, this is the trail I’m running on.  Pretend that you’re soaring above the Pacific (because you are!) as you descend to Pirates Cove (a short jaunt off of the main trail if you’d like to explore).  Legend says that pirates used to dock their ships here as they waited to plunder easy targets coming out of San Francisco Bay.  Don’t wait too long, because you’ve got some steps to climb.  Start heading up what will be your last real ascent before ending up back at the car.
I counted these steps once for a bonus prize in a race
Go up, up, and up until the ridge at Mile 16.8, where you will continue straight on the steep fire road decent back into the Tennessee Valley.  At mile 17.5 you’ll hit the Tennessee Valley Trail, and you can smell the barn now.  The trail gradually changes into a paved walking path as you get close to the parking lot – stay on the main path until it drops you right off at your car around mile 18.6.

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