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The Golden Triangle of California

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The Best Running Trails in the World?

There are great running trails everywhere - well, maybe not quite everywhere. But where are the very best trails? Coastal? Mountains? It depends on what kind of running you like? Do you like endless flat runs out through the deserts, year around running with critters like snakes and coyotes to keep you company. Or maybe you prefer rolling hills? How about abandoned rail lines? Or tough mountains trails? The very best trails are the ones that you like the best.

The Golden Triangle

But for my money, there is just one very best place. It is along the coast of California and I call it the Golden Triangle of trail running. Easy to get to, this area offers an unbelievable variety of running trails. By driving a short distance you can probably find just about any kind of trail running you are looking for. And most of the trails are maintained by public money.

The area I'm referring to is bounded on the north by San Francisco and on the south by Monterey. The east side of the triangle is the great Silicon Valley. The whole thing is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and some of the mountain trails run right down next to it.

Here's the situation. Along the coast of this part of California are a range of low mountains with a temperate and pleasant climate; perfect for year-around running. This article is not intended to describe individual trails, but only to discuss the area in general, but I would invite others to send in articles describing their favorite trails in this area.

Let's start our exploration of the many trail running places at the southern most point of this Gold Triangle and work north. At the southern tip of the triangle is Mount Madonna. This is a state park (on route 152 east of Watsonville) with easy, tree-shaded areas on top with soft rolling trails that wander all over the park. But lest you think it is strictly easy running, the trails also go up. And I mean up! If you start at the park's easternmost parking area (on 152 near Gilroy), you go straight up for more than thirty minutes to get up to the main park area. They hold an annual race that goes up that trail and I can tell you from experience that the first thirty minutes of that race are tough!

Head north from there (above the cities of Watsonville, Freedom, and Aptos) along the range of mountains and you can find innumerable other trail running areas. One of my favorites is the beautiful (and big) Nisene Marks State Park. This park is much larger than you might think from looking over the entrance: the park is narrow at the south end but broadens out to the north. Almost 10,000 acres in which to wander. To get there take the Aptos exit off Highway 1 and park along Soquel Drive (northeast of the highway) near the entrance to Aptos Village Park. From there you can run up the road into the state park (you can also drive into the park). Near the park entrance you will soon hit the trails as they veer off the road to the left. You will be running in the park's narrow southern end, on trails that are cool and shaded. There are a lot of choices there, but in the park's lower level the trails generally stay near the year-around stream. The best variety of Redwood-lined trails are to the west of the main road. It is always cool and damp in this area. Some of these trails follow the stream, but others venture into the hills.

As you go farther north, the trails head up into the steeper hills. And some of the hillside trails are tough! You can run for a long time up there: in fact, they run a half marathon in there, as well as many other types of trail races.

If you get back on Highway 1 and head North you will almost immediately enter the City of Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz there are trails here and there, but the very best are at the north end of the city. Two areas up in the hills north of the city offer an unbelievable variety of running trails. The first is the area above the University of California, Santa Cruz. In fact, there are trails between many of the buildings at this hillside university. You can park at meters on campus or buy a daily parking pass. Many of the trails on campus lead upward into the extensive forest that is all along the north end of the campus. In this area there are shaded roads and single-track trails everywhere. You could create a trail route in there for many, many miles and never cross your own path (and you will rarely see anyone else in there). In fact, if you want to run to the east you could cross the Empire Grade Road and tie into the Wilder Ranch State Park. You could even run all the way down to the ocean, but if you want to do that and make it back to the university in the same day, be prepared for some serious distance: this is a big park. There are both roads and shaded trails in Wilder. Some of the roads head out onto open meadows before they turn down to the ocean so bring your sunscreen. The Redwood-shaded paths and quiet streams are beautiful up there and the ocean views are spectacular along the high ridges.

As if that weren't enough, from the upper university trails there is another large trail running area to the east. Follow the university trails through the trees to the east and you will eventually start to drop downward through the Redwood trees on steep switchbacks. At the bottom, you will enter the Pogonip Open Space area. This area also has both roads and trails and you are more likely to run into other runners there. It is popular running area for the university students. You can also get into the Pogonip from the south or east sides but it may be hard to find a place to park.

Want to run all day? OK, then just follow the main Pogonip trail all the way to the north end and then cross the road (Highway 9) and head down to the river or follow the railroad tracks to the north. You will soon enter the lower unit of the beautiful Henry Cowell State Redwood Park. This park lies along both sides of the San Lorenzo River. If you are driving, there are several places to park along Highway 9 on the west side or along Graham Hill Road on the east side. You can also drive into the park from either side. Don't miss the River Trail or the trail through the huge old growth Redwoods (near the visitor center).

A few miles to the north is the upper unit of the Henry Cowell State Redwood Park. This is the wilderness component of the park so there are no dogs allowed up there. Also no smoking and no camping and no mountain bikes. The trails of this wilderness park are among the most extensive and the most beautiful anywhere. You can park in the parking lot at the southern end of the park. It is near Felton, along the Felton-Empire Road that goes right through the park.

From the parking lot, the main trail follows the Fall Creek steam upwards. How far? How far do you want to go? The main trail follows the stream for many, many miles and there are side trails that veer off to explore some of the historical areas left over from when that area was a logging and mining location.

While you are on Route 9, why not head farther north into an area that has even more running trails in one location. How is that possible? I have just described one area that has hundreds of miles of running trails. How could another nearby area have even more? The answer is that there is an even more extensive area that is north and east of Boulder Creek, California. That area is just about ALL running trails. To the east of that little mountain town is the huge Big Basin State Redwood Park (18,000 acres). It is California's oldest state park. There are soft, shaded trails all over the place so take your pick. There is even one trail that goes all the way down to the ocean; it's a very long run, even one way. They run an annual marathon and half-marathon along that trail that has to be just about the most spectacular trail marathon in the world. It even has rock stairs that climb along side several magnificent waterfalls. On out-of-season runs along that trail you are more likely to see deer and other critters than people.

You can run on soft trails all the way from the Big Basin Park up to Castle Rock State Park. There are also supposed to be trails from there to the Portola Redwoods State Park over the mountain.

There are no towns up in those mountains, almost no one lives there. As a result, there are wonderful running trails most anywhere you look. At the top of the mountain (heading north from the junction of Route 9), along Route 35, the land has been set aside as open space and there are established trails everywhere. Most of the trails are for pedestrian traffic only, but there are a few trails that also allow mountain bikes and horses. The main trail area up there is known as the Skyline Open Space Preserve. There are parking spots along Route 35 (Skyline Boulevard) and a couple of established parking lots. There are paper trail maps at each of the parking lots.

The Skyline trail system is extensive and varied. There are both roads and shady trails through the forest. The trails head out from the highway both to the west (the Pacific side) and to the east (the Silicon Valley side). It is all open space up there so I don't need to say much about where to go. Just find a place to park along Route 35 and start running.

Note that although this area is mostly deserted, the entire open space region is regulated. Trail signs clearly describe each trail's intended usage. Dogs are not allowed in some of these areas (they may require a special permit). There is some limited camping in the area, notably the Black Mountain Backpack Camp in the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve.

Starting at the south end (near Castle Rock State Park), there is the Sanborn Skyline County Park. From there, heading upward, there are 7 Open Space Preserves. They are Saratoga Gap (1,090 acres), Long Ridge (1,946 acres), Skyline Ridge (1,661 acres), Monte Bello (2,782 acres), Russian Ridge (1,724 acres), Los Trancos (274 acres), and Coal Creek (493 acres). They are all part of the huge Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve that stretches all along the top of the mountains, from the Pacific Ocean on the west to Cupertino, Santa Clara, and Palo Alto on the east.

There is one trailhead that starts at Alpine lake parking area that heads upward for many miles through open meadow and down into deep forest. At different times of the year there are several trail races held up there. Be prepared for changeable weather as this is the borderline area between an ocean climate and the valley below. Some say there are trails that go all the way down to the ocean but that would be a very long run to attempt in one day. On the other side (to the east) there are trails that go all the way down to Silicon Valley far below.

As you might guess, there also great running trails in and around Silicon Valley - lots of trails. For example there is Stevens Creek County Park, and the extensive Rancho San Antonio Open space Preserve that connects, by trail, with the open space preserves up on Route 35.

I won't try to describe all of the Silicon Valley trails in this summary article but I hope others who are more familiar with the trails on that side of the triangle will soon send in articles about them. In the meantime, I hope to see you sometime running along the spectacular trails of the Golden Triangle.

By the TrailRunningUSA staff
Copyright 2004 by TrailRunningUSA

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