The trail begins in Mill Valley, Calif., a sleepy village north from San Francisco where redwoods shade neighborhood streets. Many mornings fog rolls off the flanks of nearby Mount Tamalpais, mist creeping inland from the Pacific Ocean to smother the land.
Last week, on a visit to the Bay Area, I laced up to prepare for a trail run from Mill Valley to the sea. My route of choice, called the Dipsea Trail, is famous for its direct and precipitous course, a worn path that weaves between redwoods and ascends stairs that disappear into mountain mist.
Trail-running shoes from Montrail and apparel made by Mountain Hardwear comprised the technical gear I needed for the route. I brought energy gels and some water, though spigots at stops along the trail allowed me to keep my liquid load light.
You can count the stair steps (around 700 in the first mile alone) or talk about the trail’s distance and vertical rise (7.4 miles, 2,200 feet). But it is the Dipsea’s setting that distinguishes it as one of the best I’ve ever run.
I’m hardly alone in the praise. Since 1905, runners have lined up to race the Dipsea in an annual event. The trail attracts more than 1,500 athletes each June to a footrace that’s among the oldest in the U.S.
My Dipsea experience began with far less fanfare. I ran with a friend from the area who knew the trail. We started the Dipsea before 8a.m. on a Saturday while Mill Valley was still asleep.
We paced through town on a paved street then ran toward a wall of trees. Stairs hewn into the hillside shot up, glossy and slick still with morning dew.
Big climbs define the Dipsea. In its east-west traverse of the Mount Tamalpais area a runner must negotiate multiple heart-palpitating ascents, from sea level to above 1,300 feet at the trail’s crest.
Among the toughest climbs, near the halfway point is Cardiac Hill. It kicks against gravity on an exposed stretch where the ocean, if the fog has cleared, exists as an abyss miles below.
The finish line is down there where the waves crash and the continent ends. Stinson Beach, a tiny town, is the terminus of the Dipsea Trail and a fine destination with vacation shacks and seaside dinners in thick ocean air.
But before the beach you must plunge back into the forest. Killer climbs on the trail are matched by its blazing descents. After Cardiac Hill, I slowed on switchbacks dropping through a ravine.
Gravity delivered us into a shadowy gorge. Redwoods towered. Ferns and other greenery clung thick on hillsides, giving off a jungle scent.
We caught our breath on a rare rolling section near the end. Soon, the sounds of the ocean would come, the rumble of waves unexpectedly loud after silence in the woods.
I stood on the beach at the Dipsea’s end, my body tired and knees sore. Sand shifted underfoot. I relaxed, finally, after a long time on the move, happy to be alive, happy to be at rest at the end of an epic run.
—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of GearJunkie.