Dos and don’ts of Silicon Valley trail running from the experts at ZombieRunner and Fleet Feet (including where to park for free)
If you run, jog or shlog (shuffle-jog) on the Peninsula, you’re probably used to charting routes through neighborhoods that do creepy things like plant enormous hedges in front of mansions and refuse to install sidewalks and streetlights. You won’t find any large “keep out” signs in these neighborhoods, but the message is clear: sweaty plebs, keep out.
And while it can be fun to play architecture critic while pounding the suburban pavement, or another game I call “spot the exotic car in front of the generic bungalow,” it’s nearly always more soul-soothing to head for the hills instead. Having so much preserved land around is, after all, part of the reason your rent is too damn high, so you might as well take advantage.
To aid your escape, we’ve compiled a list of a few running trails that are easy to get to, will make you feel a world apart, and have free parking. As an added bonus for those of you who are food-motivated, we’ve also recommended some nearby post-run spots to treat yo’self.
A Peninsula trail-running primer
But first: if you’re a beginning trail runner, there are a few things you should know about staying safe on the trails. We asked two of the Peninsula’s top trail gear vendors, Gillian Robinson, co-owner of ZombieRunner in Palo Alto, and Lisa Taggart, co-owner of Fleet Feet in Menlo Park, for their advice to beginning trail runners. Responses have been modified for brevity.
Q: Do I need special trail shoes?
Robinson: Trail running shoes offer features such as more grippy tread, a rock protection plate, a toe bumper, and mesh that keeps dirt out of the shoes. The most important thing with any running shoe is a great fit, so if you have a pair of road shoes that you like, go with that. Trail shoes can be a nice investment once you get used to trails.
Taggart: We usually suggest people try out trail running for a while before purchasing trail shoes. Your regular running shoes are fine for starting out on the trails. When you become a dedicated trailhead, that’s the time to buy!
Q: Any other needed or recommended gear I should have?
Robinson: It’s also nice to have trail gaiters, which are lightweight covers for your shoes that keep dirt and rocks out.
Taggart: People need to have a good way to carry water (and ideally some form of fuel like Gu or Sport Beans or something like that). Trail runners should always carry water, and be generous estimating how much they will need. It is hard work running trails (especially in the hills around here!) and it is not unusual for runners to get a little lost so that a “short” run turns into a longer run.
Q: What should I do if I run across wildlife?
Taggart: We say stay away from wildlife, of course. There seem to be a lot of rattlesnakes this year!
Robinson: In most cases if you don’t bother the wildlife, it won’t bother you. My best advice is stay alert. Don’t wear headphones while running on trails. Besides, it’s better to hear the birds and other sounds of nature.
Q: What should I do about other risks of the trail?
Taggart: Let someone know where you’re going. Carry a phone and a map. Retrace your steps if lost. Runners should definitely teach themselves how to identify poison oak, and keep away from it. Tecnu is a wonderful product; it has saved me many times.
Robinson: Stay calm. If lost, I would look at the footprints on the ground to see if there’s anything to follow. Usually on trails, when you reach an intersection, there will be some mention of distance to the next marker or parking. It’s a good idea after any trail run to wash off with a cleaner designed to remove poison oak oils. You can easily run through poison oak and not realize it.
Q: Favorite Bay Area trail or park?
Robinson: North of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands is great for trail running with a lot of variation in the scenery. Specifically, the Dipsea Trail that runs from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach is really great (and challenging) as well as historically interesting. The Dipsea Race is the oldest trail race in the United States.
Taggart: My favorite park is Wunderlich. I also am always amazed at how beautiful and accessible Portola Valley’s city trail system is. You can drive a short way and hop out for a run in Coal Mine Ridge and feel away from everything.
Q: Any other advice?
Taggart: Take it easy starting out. Trail running usually is a lot slower than road running, and the trail running ethic holds as its highest goal to enjoy the journey. It is really, really okay to walk hills and take breaks as a trail runner!
Robinson: Mostly, have fun! I would check online first to get a map of the area you’re visiting and specific descriptions of what you might encounter.
Silicon Valley trail running: where to go
Good for: wildflower season
Bad for: people with dogs
The rolling hills of Edgewood Park in Redwood City are best experienced in the winter and spring, as it’s home to serpentine grasslands — an ecosystem that hosts many rare plants. I heard the word “kickass” used to describe this past year’s wildflower crop — no joke. Parking can be tricky here on weekends, so try to arrive in the morning. No dogs allowed.
For a solid weekend run, try out the Serpentine Trail, a 5-mile loop that has about 860 feet of elevation gain. Not too shabby.
Post-run snack: Any espresso bev from the nearby Emerald Hills Cafe & Roastery. You won’t regret it.
Wunderlich County Park
Good for: finding shade
Bad for: avoiding hills, people with dogs
Wunderlich Park in Woodside is an easy-access outdoors gem that, minutes from Sand Hill Road, quickly opens up into a lush coniferous forest. Trudge up the Alambique Trail (the trailhead starts to the left of the parking area) for great views of the Peninsula. It makes Stanford’s Hoover Tower look small, and on a clear day, you can see all the way across the bay. In a recent excursion there, I was pleasantly startled to come across a pack of deer with big ol’ antlers.
While Wunderlich’s neighbor, Huddart Park, definitely has more trail choices, that park has a cash-only $6 parking fee and is slightly less convenient to access.
As a starter loop, I’d recommend the 4.6 mile Redwood Flat and Salamander Flat Loop. To add roughly a mile, you can stay on the Alambique Trail until it meets the Bear Gulch Trail instead. Pick up a map at the parking lot and feel free to chart your own route — there’s not a bad view up here.
Pro tip: Go on a Saturday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and couple your workout with a history lesson at the Folger stable house. The Folger family, of Folgers coffee fame, owned the estate and used it as a summer getaway to escape the San Francisco cold. And yes, their horses lived in fancier quarters than you probably do. (Though let’s be real—the same could probably be said for most Woodside horses today.)
Post-run snack: The mozz sticks at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside are absolutely worth the drive. As is about the entire brunch menu there. Plus, whatever residual sweatiness or mud remaining stuck to you by the time you arrive will be eclipsed by the hardcore cyclists who’ve pedaled all the way up the hill to get there. Still, do everyone a favor and opt for outside seating.
Good for: running with dogs
Bad for: finding parking
Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto is a natural go-to spot, with 622 acres of land and 10 miles of trails winding through scenic Californian golden hills. Plus, you can bring your dog on a leash. Trails here vary in width and elevation, which makes it a good spot to bring a running buddy or a stroller.
The one downside of Pearson-Arastradero Preserve is that it can be difficult to find parking on the weekends. We recommend going early in the morning, or later in the afternoon; the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. stretch seems to be busiest.
We recommend the Redtail Loop Trail to Arastradero Creek Trail Loop, a 5.2-mile loop that’ll take you through rolling hills to the charming, if a bit algal, Arastradero Lake.
Note: Last time I ran here, I was with a borrowed pup when we stumbled across an ill-looking rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. Consider this another reminder to keep an eye out for critters. Don’t be afraid to go around them.
Post-run snack: See where some of the local billionaires shop (or send their people to shop) for groceries and pick up a hunky deli sandwich at either Roberts Market in Woodside or Bianchini’s Market in Portola Valley.
Baylands Nature Preserve
Good for: avoiding hills
Bad for: finding shade
There’s something so refreshing about the trails around the Baylands — the breeze, the birds, the open sky — that is, once you’re upwind of the sewage treatment plant near the Byxbee Park entrance.
This park is surprisingly big: 1,940 acres with 15 miles of trails. I prefer to run the Baylands closest to sunset, but also advise against starting too late. I once ran here at dusk and got lost on an obscure dirt path I thought was a trail. Instead of turning back, I somehow wound up fording a couple of creeks and stumbling way too close to a skunk. Lest you think it’s impossible to find adventure with the lights of the highway in sight — all it takes is some dumb decision-making on the trail.
Alternative: Start your run instead at the Ravenswood Preserve, continue to the Baylands along the Bay Trail, and loop back along the bayfront. Finish up with a hefty burrito from Taqueria La Cazuela in East Palo Alto.
Side note: If you DO want to run the Baylands after dark without getting lost, you can *ad alert* sign up for the Moonlight Run, a 5K and 10K run hosted by the 650’s sister publication, the Palo Alto Weekly, on Friday, Oct. 6. The 5K starts at 8:15 p.m. and the 10K at 8:45 p.m.
Post-run snack: Mike’s or Bill’s Cafe, both on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, offer all the brunch foods you’ll care to daydream about on the trail. “How many more steps until brioche french toast?” you’ll ask, two steps in to your run.
Good for: Palo Altans
Bad for: everyone else
If you love sneaking into exclusive areas, you’re emotionally prepared to be turned away at the gates because of your address, and you have a burning desire to flip the city of Palo Alto a friendly eff-you, then Foothills Park is your place.
Located just a few miles up Page Mill Road from 280, this park is the only one in California that turns away non-residents from its gates. It’s one of the great examples of Peninsula elitism that Palo Altans can wander around their own private park, wafting their smug, entitled ick over such beautiful land.
(This probably sounds harsh, but these people denied Wallace Stegner — the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and environmentalist — entrance to the park when he was alive, just because he lived a couple of miles down the road in the wrong city. The poor writer was apparently so upset by the injustice he would routinely blurt out during his lectures at Stanford, “It just isn’t fair that I can’t go hiking at Foothills Park.”)
Rant aside, I’ve been hiking there twice without the requisite Palo Altan host and haven’t been asked for my papers, so getting in is possible. Your best chances of doing so are to snag a parking spot by arriving at or before the park’s 8 a.m. opening time, or visiting in the off-season.
If you can get in, go for the 6.6-mile Los Trancos Trail Loop.
If you don’t get in, shake it off and head farther down Page Mill Road to the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. It’s stunning there too. We recommend the 6.9-mile Monte Bello Preserve Loop Trail.
Post-run snack: If you get into Foothills Park, BYO snack; there aren’t a ton of food options around there. If you don’t get in, you’ll probably be too angry to eat or too carsick from Page Mill Road’s twists and turns. And if you’ve got a Palo Alto address, you should probably just shower after your lovely trail run and head for a casual dinner at Nobu with some fellow Palo Altans.