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The Best Running Trails in the Bay Area, According to a Pro Runner
Health & Fitness

The Best Running Trails in the Bay Area, According to a Pro Runner

Marin County resident and champion ultrarunner YiOu Wang shares her favorite Bay Area running trails and her tips on how to start running.

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5 min read

May 09, 2020

“In California, we have so much access to outdoor spaces, and I feel super fortunate to have that. Plus, the climate is unbeatable, so you can run year-round.” —YiOu Wang

The shimmering waters of the San Francisco Bay stretch below you as your feet pound against the dirt path, taking you past undulating grasses, vibrant blooms, and looming trees—the only sounds are your breath, the blowing breeze, and your footsteps. This peaceful serenity and the ensuing bliss you can feel while running is exactly why ultrarunner YiOu Wang fell in love with the sport. 

Considering she’s a two-time Marathon Olympic Trials qualifier, a two-time winner of Lake Sonoma 50, a US 50K trail national champion, and the reigning champ of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships, you might be surprised to know that she hasn’t always been a runner. Growing up, she was more competitive in academics than she was in sports, and it wasn’t until she was in college at MIT that she felt inspired to start running. 

“While I was a freshman, I went to the Boston Marathon, and I thought it was the most incredible human endeavor I’d ever seen,” Wang recalls. “I really wanted to participate in it, so I went home and looked up: How do I run the Boston Marathon?” 

The rest, as they say, is history. After training and qualifying for the Boston Marathon, Wang never stopped running. Fast-forward to today, and she’s one of the top ultrarunners and trail runners in the world (plus a part-time high-school science teacher). We caught up with the Marin County resident to hear about her favorite Bay Area running trails, her essential running gear, and her tips on how to start running. 

Best Bay Area Trails for running

Pro trail runner and ultrarunner YiOu Wang enjoys running the trails of Marin, which overlook the San Francisco Bay and beyond.

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Here are Wang’s top spots for trail runs, whether she’s going for a casual weekend workout or training for an upcoming race. 

Lake Lagunitas Trail
“Where I live, I have easy access to the Mount Tamalpais Watershed,” Wang says. “It’s on the north side of Mount Tam. There’s a bunch of different trails, but I love the Lake Lagunitas Trail, which loops around Lake Lagunitas.”

Bon Tempe Lake Trails
“Another one of my favorite trails in Marin is the Bon Tempe Lake Loop, which goes around the reservoir,” Wang reveals. “There’s also the Sunnyside Trail and the Shady Side Trail that go around Bon Tempe Lake. The Sunnyside Trail has gorgeous views, and the Shady Side Trail is more woodsy.”

Matt Davis–Coastal Loop Trail
“On Mount Tam, I love running the Matt Davis and Coastal Loop Trails because they’re beautiful,” she says. “They have really gorgeous views of the Pacific, Point Reyes, and even Bolinas.”

Dipsea Trail
“I think one of the most challenging trails to run is the Dipsea Trail, which goes from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson,” Wang says. “It’s very steep, and there’s a lot of stairs. There are great views as well, but there’s a lot of climbing and descending, too.”

Essential Running Gear

Wang always brings her Camelbak running vest and nutrient-packed snacks with her, regardless of where she's running.

No matter where she runs in the Bay, Wang always brings certain outdoor gear with her. Here’s what she recommends to other running enthusiasts. 

  • CamelBak running vest. For long runs, Wang always packs her CamelBak water flask into her running vest pocket so it’s easy to hydrate on the go.
  • GU Energy snacks. Wang emphasizes the importance of bringing nutrition with you on your runs. She relies on GU Energy Lab’s nutrient-packed products such as stroopwafels and gels. 
  • Lightweight jacket. Wang also recommends wearing a lightweight, breathable rain jacket on your trail runs, especially when you’re running up in the mountains and may find yourself exposed to the elements. It’s important to keep your core temperature steady. 

Pro Tips on How to Start Running

Wang won the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships last year, and she considers it her biggest achievement thus far.

Wang believes running is one of the easiest sports to start, thanks to the lack of equipment needed. All you need are appropriate running shoes and workout clothes—you don’t even have to drive anywhere. So, if you’re growing tired of your virtual exercise classes or simply seeking a new summer workout, here’s how to start a running routine.  

Tip #1: Start slow. “You should be careful and not go too hard, too fast, too soon—especially if you’re starting from zero,” Wang advises. “Running just 10 to 15 minutes a day is totally fine. Don’t feel like you have to aim super high, because it’s easy to get into an injury cycle or to get discouraged and feel like running sucks. I also recommend combining walking and running. Most people who are just starting running probably can’t run a whole mile, but they can alternate running and walking for certain amounts of time and work their way up to it.”

Tip #2: Find an inspiring place to run. “What I love about running is that it allows you to explore your neighborhood,” she says. “I’ve met so many interesting neighbors and seen so many cool places in my neighborhood just from running around. Beautiful views also always motivate me. I just appreciate the time in nature because it's so peaceful and rejuvenating, and I think it lifts your spirits no matter how tired you are.”

Tip #3: Talk to runners. “I learned a lot from just talking to other runners,” Wang admits. “In Marin, there’s a long history of trail running here because there’s easy access to Mount Tam, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and other regional and local open-space areas. But when I moved here, I wasn’t used to having so much access to trails, and trail running was a totally new challenge and experience for me because I never used to run in uneven terrain. So it was a bit intimidating, and meeting other trail runners and going on runs with other trail runners was really important to give me more confidence and to show me where to run.”

Tip #4: Grab a buddy. “Finding people to run with—or even someone to just talk to about your running routine—helps to hold you accountable,” Wang says. 

Tip #5: Take care of your body. “I think one of the challenges with running is always injury prevention,” she says. “So, it’s important to listen to how your body feels after a run. Personally, I always try to take at least a week or two completely off of running after a big race or event. I do a lot of hiking and walking instead. ... I also think that having good nutrition and good eating habits is very important. And sleep is crucial. I try to carve out time to take naps during the day. Even if I don't sleep, I like to lie down for 30 minutes in the afternoon, just to recharge.”

What are your favorite running trails in the Bay Area? Drop us a note in the comments below.

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