10 of the Most Epic Northern California Trail Races

10 of the Most Epic Northern California Trail Races

If the prospect of logging double-digit miles through stunning scenery gets your heart pounding before you ever hit the trail, you have good company in the growing community of long-distance runners. Ultra events have exploded in popularity in recent years: According to UltraRunning Magazine, the number of races topping out at over 26.2 miles have more than doubled since 2004, and now there are more than 800 events to choose from nationwide. 

Though hardcore trail races take place across the country, some of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) of these soul-testing events happen in San Francisco’s backyard and beyond. With mostly temperate weather, Marin County, Lake Tahoe, the East Bay, and other Northern California regions offer a variety of options year-round. So take heart if you happen to miss the signup date (and keep in mind that many sell out quickly): There's usually something else right around the bend, and many of these events also offer 10ks, half marathons, and other shorter distances to whet your appetite.

Regardless whether you're a seasoned distance junkie or a runner looking for the inspiration to work toward longer mileage, this list will have you ready to lace up your shoes and hit the trail. Here, a rundown on 10 of the most epic Northern California trail races (including two a little farther south).

1. The Double Dipsea

A gate marks the infamous Dipsea Trail in Marin County. A gate marks the infamous Dipsea Trail in Marin County. Ian Ransley

The Dipsea Race  is the country’s oldest trail race, a grueling 7.5 miles of stairs, steep singletrack, footbridges, and other obstacles. The concept behind the Double Dipsea is simple (and a little terrifying): Take the already difficult Dipsea Race and double it. Race organizers describe the 47th annual race as “not just another trail run,” claiming that the course is “sadistically designed,” and will “test your patience and your perseverance and reward those most able to overcome adversity.” While the Double Dipsea doesn’t qualify as an ultra, it definitely earns a spot on this list, with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss during the 13.7 miles. The challenges of the Double Dipsea—such as climbing Cardiac Hill twice—are not without rewards. The trail covers some of Marin County’s most scenic trails; expect sweeping coastal views, towering redwood groves, and undulating green hills as you race along the shoulder of Mount Tam.

2. The Mount Diablo Vertical Challenge

Mt. Diablo rises above the green hills of the East Bay.Mt. Diablo rises above the green hills of the East Bay. Nick Fullerton

Rising 3,849 feet above San Francisco Bay, Mt. Diablo’s summit beckons runners looking to test their legs on brutal climbs and treacherous descents. The Mount Diablo Vertical Challenge promises to do just that—race organizers claim that the “devilish” 13-mile course will “push even the most seasoned trail runner to the max.” The course is designed to contain some of the most technical and challenging trails on the mountain, guaranteeing a “quad-busting, heart-pounding adventure,” gaining 3,800 feet as it climbs to the summit along the Eagle Peak and Devil’s Elbow trails. On a clear day, the summit promises views as far as the distant peaks of the Sierra Range, though the view may be the last thing on your mind after racing from the base. Diablo is also the home for several other races throughout the year, including the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge (50k, half, 10k, and 5k options) in mid-April.

3. Rodeo Valley Trail Run

Sunlight illuminates fog over Marin CountySunlight illuminates fog over Marin County Mike Behnken

Endless miles of trail and singletrack that trace rolling hills and overlook the ocean make Marin County a trail runner’s paradise. Winding through the Marin Headlands, the Rodeo Valley Trail Run covers some of Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s best terrain. The race starts at Rodeo Beach and traverses steep pitches and breathless descents as it follows scenic favorites including the Coastal Trail, Tennessee Valley Road, and the Coyote Ridge Trail. Catch unparalleled views of the Pacific’s rocky shoreline from Pirate’s Cove and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline from the SCA Trail. However, the terrain is as challenging as the scenery is spectacular. The 50k option climbs over 5,700 feet, the 30k course gains 3,500 feet, and the half marathon climbs almost 2,500 feet. 

4. Skyline to the Sea Trail Run

Run through groves of ancient redwoods. Run through groves of ancient redwoods. mindgrow

Following the same path as one of the Bay Area’s favorite backpacking routes, the Skyline to the Sea Marathon and 50k offer a speedier alternative for athletes who prefer to cover their trails without a heavy pack. The race course drops from the Saratoga Gap towards the Pacific Ocean, finishing at Rancho del Oso near Waddell Beach. Along the way, descend through ancient redwoods, run past waterfalls, and soak up views across the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay. Much of the race takes place within Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the state’s oldest, providing a serene and remote experience. Need more incentive? This is one of few races on this list that does not involve thousands of feet of strenuous elevation gain. In fact, the course loses about 2,600 feet from start to finish. 

5. Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs

Marlette Lake along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Marlette Lake along the Tahoe Rim Trail. sxl

With 55k-, 50-mile, and 100-mile options, the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs are true “ultra” events: The tagline on the race page promises “a glimpse of heaven … a taste of hell.” One of the gems of the Lake Tahoe area, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail encircles the Lake Tahoe Basin, traveling through the Carson and Sierra Nevada ranges. The most scenic trail sections offer views of the Lake’s cerulean waters ringed by the rugged mountain ranges beyond. The Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs traverse the high-elevation alpine and subalpine forest along the northeast side of Lake Tahoe, using the Rim Trail and other connecting trails and dirt roads to complete the course. The average elevation of the trail is 8,000 feet, so hopeful runners should plan to get some altitude training in before taking on any of these races. The high point of the trail is the base of Snow Valley Peak at 9,214 feet, an elevation that offers some of the best views along the course. The Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs take place in July, though competitors must enter lottery in December. 

6. Bishop High Sierra Race

The Eastern Sierra rise out of the Owens Valley
The Eastern Sierra rise out of the Owens Valley koo1987

While the Bishop High Sierra Race is still tentative (pending permitting), it’s well worth keeping an eye on the calendar to wait for it to become official. With 30k, 55k, and 100k options, this race promises to reward runners with epic scenery and a strenuous course. The course is mostly above 7,000 feet, which means that like most races in Tahoe, runners should be training at altitude. But that's not the only challenge of the race, whose route climbs steeply through the foothills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, topping out at a whopping 10,100 feet. With few trees shading the course, the sun scorched slopes are dry and exposed. Expect expansive views of the starkly beautiful sagebrush and towering peaks along fire roads and single track from the starting line at the Millpond Recreation Area up into the alpine landscape. 

7. Big Sur Trail Marathon

Run to the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. Run to the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. Marke Goebel

The vast majority of visitors see central California’s Big Sur wilderness from Highway 1, but the area is best experienced by trail. The quirky Big Sur Trail Marathon (with half-marathon and 5-mile distances) promises scenery that just might make you forget you're huffing and puffing through an endurance event. Starting at Andrew Molera State Park, the out-and-back route climbs the sunny hills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, heading north along the Old Coast Road. During the construction of the famous Bixby Bridge, workers used the Old Coast Road to bring supplies to the construction site. The route’s challenging climbs deliver epic views of steep valleys leading toward the iconic Big Sur coastline. The fire road ascends from near sea level to 1,100 feet in the first six miles, and immediately loses almost all the elevation gained, continuing to climb and descend until the designated turn-around-point at the stunning Bixby Bridge (with an additional mini-lap to up the mileage from 21 to 26). Racers will cover several shaded sections of trail that pass through redwood groves, but much of the Old Coast Road is sunny and exposed. 

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8. Miwok 100k

San Francisco visible from the Miwok Trail
San Francisco visible from the Miwok Trail Sarah Murray

The 100k course, with over 11,800 feet of cumulative elevation gain, is not to be taken lightly. In its 21st year, this annual ultra and local favorite predates the recent boom of ultra events. Organized by Tia Bodington,ultra enthusiast and former editor of UltraRunning Magazine , the race always attracts talented athletes gunning for course records and qualification for the iconic Western States Endurance Run. The race starts in the quaint town of Stinson Beach, and covers classic trails including the Dipsea, the Miwok Trail (the race’s namesake), and the Bolinas Ridge Trail. Sweeping views of Marin’s rolling hills, the Pacific Ocean, and the Golden Gate Bridge offer runners ample reward for their efforts. The race concludes by descending the Matt Davis Trail back to Stinson Beach. Perks include food provided by M.H. Bread and Butter , a local bakery and cafe with deep roots in the distance running community.

9. Lone Pine Wild West Marathon and Ultras

Mt. Whitney above Lone Pine.Mt. Whitney above Lone Pine. Tom Hilton

The Lone Pine Wild West Marathon is the country’s third oldest trail marathon, and one of its most stunning. The challenging point-to-point course traverses the foothills of the Eastern Sierra, leaving runners breathless both from the altitude (between 3,700 and 7,600 feet) and stunning views of the snow-capped eastern Sierra rising above the Owens Valley. The route includes about 8,500 feet of elevation gain and loss as it follows dirt jeep roads and fire roads, and features a downhill finish, plus several creek crossings. Located on Highway 395 in the Owens Valley, the race is closer to Los Angeles than San Francisco, but it's a worthy change of scenery, with distances from 10 miles up to 50. And with its clapboard buildings and saloons, Lone Pine—best known as the gateway to Mount Whitney—really does feel like a Wild West outpost. 

10. Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run

The Western States Race passes through Emigrant Wilderness.
The Western States Race passes through Emigrant Wilderness. Malcolm Manners

Prestigious, brutally challenging, and requiring a qualifying run and a lottery to enter the race, the Western States Endurance Run has earned its reputation as “one of the undisputed crown jewels of human endurance.” The course begins near Squaw Valley in Tahoe and ends 100.2 miles later in Auburn, following the historic Western States Trail up 18,000 feet of lung-burning climbing and down 23,000 feet of knee-grinding descents. The trail covers some of the Sierra’s most beautiful country, traveling through Emigrant Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness, and traversing the Middle Fork of the American River. A career highlight for many ultrarunners, the race has a rich history of competition and the ability to inspire astonishing, almost superhuman performances. Awards include a coveted belt buckle for an under 30-hour finish. 

April 30, 2019