There are many narratives that surround the Bay Area: an eclectic and inclusive culture, creative architecture, the Spanish Mission, huge fishing wharfs, colorful houses on steep hills, cable cars weaving through the city, the Chinatown district and of course, the recent tech boom and stratification of the city. I'd like to add one of my own to the list: the best urban running in the entire country, bar none.

urban running san francisco

If these views don’t inspire you to get up and get moving, then we don’t know what will.

I started running around the Bay the first day I moved here in January 2012. I ran through downtown Oakland, around Lake Merritt – a paved 3-mile footpath – and through the Temescal and Rockridge districts. Since that first wandering run I've logged thousands of miles across the metro area, from regional parks in the hills to lunch runs along the Embarcadero, to hot laps in Kezar Stadium, a beautiful track open to all. The options are endless, from a casual 3-miler along the waterfront to 20-plus miles entirely on dirt.

Despite the ample trail options, it's the people that make running in SF truly unique. Famous for its bike culture, San Francisco has an underground running community that is equally passionate and active. Dozens of running groups span the city, from November Project San Francisco, to San Francisco Running Company, Nike Run Club, SF Road Runners, Golden Gate Running Club, Fleet Feet, Lululemon, WeRunSF and Strava, to name a few.

Most of these groups have scheduled times and places to meet. If you're unable to make it but still want to get out there, here's a list of the best runs across the Bay Area.

Marin Headlands

san francisco urban running

Early morning runs in The Headlands can transport you to misty, rolling hills that feel more like Ireland than the Bay Area.

Just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate bridge is the largest National Park unit adjacent to a US metro area in the country – the Headlands. This National Recreation Area covers the majority of the Marin peninsula, offers incredible views of the ocean and the city, and offers hundreds of miles of dirt trails. The hills in Marin are long and steep, so prepare for a tough workout. If you're on the other side of the bay, a good alternative is Joaquin Miller and Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills. Together these two parks offer an endless maze of dirt trails for you to explore.

Twin Peaks

urban running san francisco

A November Project tunnel at the end of a run at Twin Peaks.

San Francisco is built atop dozens of rolling hills and the tallest is Twin Peaks, in the south central corner of the city proper. At 992 feet high, the views from the top are either awe-inspiring or very foggy, depending on the day. Twin Peaks and similar hill climbs offer runners a great workout, climbing from sea level all the way up winding roads to the top. If it's a humid morning, a great alternative is Bernal Heights, another hill that sits further east, typically has less fog and is renowned for great sunrises.

Crissy Field

urban running san francisco

Take a leisurely 3-mile run from the Golden Gate to Fort Mason.

For those looking for an easy few miles with minimal elevation change, I'd recommend Crissy Field on the northern side of the city. The route runs adjacent to the water, from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate. It has very few stoplights and tons of green space, making it perfect for a slow recovery day, easy lunch run or a new way to see the city. A great alternative is the Embarcadero, from Fort Mason east towards downtown, following the water.

Golden Gate Park

urban running san francisco

Golden Gate Park removes you from the busy city streets, even though they’re just steps away.

The largest urban park in the country, Golden Gate, is a big rectangle over three miles long from west to east. Inside the park you'll find a chain of lakes, dozens of historical buildings and statues and even a bison paddock. Golden Gate offers both paved and dirt trails, with many loops to choose from. At the eastern edge of the park is Kezar Stadium, former home of the 49ers and Raiders, and now open to the public for track workouts. If you happen to be across the bridge in Oakland, a good alternate option is a loop around Lake Merritt, near downtown.

Moraga Stairs

san francisco urban running

10 laps bottom to top at Moraga Stairs is a leg-burning workout.

Sometimes called the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, the Moraga Stairs are worth a visit for anyone regardless of whether you plan to run them. One of a dozen or more hidden staircases across the city, the Moraga Stairs are tiled with beautiful ceramic paintings, best seen from the bottom. For any masochists reading this, a great workout is 10 laps from bottom to top, without stops. A similar leg-burning staircase run is the Lyon Street Steps near the Marina and Presidio.

All photos by Andy Cochrane.

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