Soaring mountains, burning deserts, sapphire blue oceans, dramatic cliff tops and towering Redwoods, hundreds of feet tall. Is this an epic journey across continents, months in the planning? A sprawling expedition through exotic lands? Well, no, actually. It is, in fact, all possible in one single day of running in California.
The Golden State plays host to just about every environment you can think of, which even given that this single state is around twice the size of the British Isles, is still quite incredible to comprehend.
Take the opening paragraph above for example. Any single one of those locations alone are enough to bring even the most well-travelled athlete to a humbled, jaw slackening pause. Enough that it seems almost impossible to fit the endless horizon into your eyes all at once. And the planning and travelling required to achieve not just one, but all of the above? About a 90-minute drive.
With the entire western border against the Pacific Ocean, and with a central ridge of mountainous highlands vertically bisecting the state from North to South, there is an unfathomable scope for the ambitious and adventurous runner, wherever you look. The lush green fields and vineyards of the fertile Central Valley give way to the harsh-seeming plains of the High Desert, where although it may look barren, hardy vegetation and perfectly adapted wildlife flourish. The sprawling suburbia of the Southland hides endless parks, wildlife reserves and pathways, nestled in view, but rarely in shadow of the skyline. In fact, some of the most breath-taking trails exist just a short drive from the famous skylines of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco
We took a 2-week road trip from the mansions of La Jolla, to the Coachella Valley’s lofty peaks, via the rugged coastline of Big Sur and the protected Wetlands of Orange County, to showcase just a few of the unmissable trails that California has to offer. We’ve tried to include something for all levels of runner, from recreational to hardcore, so whilst some of our recommendations are tough, some are perfect for a morning leg stretch, or even to be enjoyed by the whole family.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Just north of the glamour of La Jolla Shores, playground of the rich and streets of the most envy-inducing homes in Southern California, sits Torrey Pines State Reserve. High on the cliff tops above the clear blue ocean and the pods of wetsuit clad surfers, patiently waiting their turn on each set, the deep ochre, sandy pathways offer hours of exploration and endless vistas.
Entering the park from the Del Mar beach road, just minutes from the main I-5 Interstate that carries traffic between San Diego and Los Angeles, Torrey Pines nestles like an island of wilderness. With parking at both beach level, and via a steep, winding road up to the Visitors Centre, there are over 1500 acres and half a dozen trails to explore.
Whilst it’s fair to say that this isn’t a place for huge elevation or double figure mile-munching, it’s the ideal place to stretch your legs, plus the sandy trails do bring about their own challenges. It’s exceptionally easy to access from the San Diego area and is one of the most spectacular places to run on our list.
Favourite Trails – Link the Razor Point, Beach and Broken Hill trails from the top car park to enjoy ocean views, flora and fauna unique to the area, and take on some heart-pumping switchbacks on the climb back out. Make sure you head out early, as the ease of access does make it very popular.
Where we stayed – The Bay Club Hotel, Shelter Island, Point Loma. Set on an artificial island busting with restaurants and several marinas, Shelter Island is perfectly situated between the San Diego downtown area and the Mission Bay beaches. There’s also a fab 1.5-mile loop around the island that we did before breakfast every morning. Listen out for the National Anthem played at 8 a.m. every morning from the Navy base across the inlet!
Post-run refuel – The Seaside Surf Café in Bird Rock has the most amazing selection of smoothies, açai pots, sandwiches and fresh juices. Offering a primarily vegan menu, it’s the perfect place to grab a breakfast bowl of fresh fruits, yogurt, granola and grains before your workout, or spend a lazy lunch with a coffee and a doorstop sandwich made with locally baked bread and the freshest ingredients. So good we went back the next day!
Explore the area – Being so close to San Diego means there are endless things to do when you aren’t running. Check out Balboa Park, with its world class zoo and amazing museums, including the Air & Space Museum and the SD Automotive Museum. Mission Bay is home of all thing’s activity, cycle, row, sail, paddleboard, surf, rollerblade, you name it, Mission Bay has got it. Whilst you’re there, check out the retro and Uber cool Belmont Park, with a huge wooden Big Dipper, right by the ocean.
Mt San Jacinto & Coachella Valley
Just a couple of hours east from the cool Pacific breeze of the coastal cities of Los Angeles and San Diego that serve as the gateway to the majestic Anza Borrego desert, via the equally storied oasis of old Hollywood glamour, Palm Springs, lies the planned towns of the Coachella Valley.
Once the preserve of legends like Elvis and Frank Sinatra, to modern superstars like Leonardo DiCaprio, and now the home of the Coachella Festival, the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament and more golf resorts than I’ve ever seen in my life (over 125).
The San Jacinto Mountain range looms large in every sense of the word here. Responsible for the extreme weather, the range is so high it actually causes the desertification of the whole area. The weather systems coming in from the Pacific are pushed up and over the mountains, where the precipitation falls as snow on the peaks, and never actually reaches the Palm Springs valley side. This makes it arid and swelteringly hot. For the European athlete, visiting in December should bring some much-needed cooler temperatures, after all, in the summer the average high is 115 degrees, that’s a casual 46c.
With nearly 300km of marked trails in the Palm Springs area alone, there is something for everyone and every ability. Valley floor to mountain top and from a handful of miles to ultra-distance challenges, whatever you take on, start early to avoid the heat and take more water than you think you need.
Favourite Trails – We loved the 4ish miles each North and South Lykken trails, which follow the contours of the mountain directly above Palm Springs. Access via the Museum Trail in the centre of the town and enjoy stunning views across the mountains themselves and the Coachella Valley all the way to the Salton Sea. With around 1000m of elevation per leg, there’s a fantastic workout to be had too.
Looking for a challenge? The Cactus to Cloud trail runs from the desert floor to the snow capped peak of San Jacinto. The trail is over 20 miles and climbs over 3000m, in fact, it boasts one of the greatest elevations increases on trail in the whole United States! Not for the faint hearted.
Where we stayed – The Sands Hotel and Spa in Palm Desert is the most fantastic place to unwind after a tough day on the trails. With all rooms set around a string light decorated pool, and with an onsite spa for the aches and pains, it’s a great location to explore the whole of the Coachella Valley.
Post-run refuel – Don’t let the name scare you off, Boozehounds is actually so named as it’s a super stylish dog-friendly establishment! There are, of course, lots of delicious cocktails and beers from local companies if that’s your thing, but there are also great mocktail options, as well as the most delicious food. Check out Happy Hour between 2 & 5 p.m. and try the Kinilaw Yellowtail Ceviche, it’s to die for!
Explore the area – The Greater Palm Springs area encompasses 9 cities in the Coachella Valley. From the aforementioned golf courses, to art galleries, craft breweries, horseback canyon tours and our favourites, the Red Jeep Tour Company, there’s plenty of things to keep the whole family occupied post run. Take the 360° Aerial Tramway to the peak of Mt Jacinto if you don’t fancy the C2C trail up!
Morro Bay & Central Coast
The Central Coast sits suspended between the two megacities of the Golden State. To the north, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. To the south, Malibu gives way to the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis. Between them lies over 200 miles of California finest rugged cliffs, winding beachfront highways, lush forests, volcanic mountains and mile upon mile of carefully tended crops. In fact, the San Joaquin Valley is known as the ‘Breadbasket of the United States’, responsible for more than 12% of the total US agricultural production.
So often driven through or flown over by those heading for the urban sprawl, the Central Coast is an absolutely unmissable stop (or 2, or 3) on our running road trip.
About equidistant between our 2 big cities is Morro Bay, the absolute antithesis of the American 24-hour culture. The geographic focus of this small fishing community is the Morro Rock, an extinct volcanic plug in the bay that has given the town the hilarious nickname ‘the Gibraltar of the West’! With a bustling harbourfront of shops, bars and restaurants, all showcasing the best in local produce, especially the food, this is an incredible place to spend a few days.
The decision was made even easier when we discovered there are over 50 signposted trails, from easy tree lined jogs to thigh burning mountain ascents, within 15 miles of our hotel!
Favourite Trails –Montana de Oro State Park covers over 8000-acres of coastline and sprawling hills. Just a short drive from Morro Bay (around 15 mins), parking is free throughout and there are several trailheads to choose from. We linked the Coon Creek riverside trail up with the switch-backing Rattlesnake trail for around a 5-mile route that went from cool and flat to technical and hot in the sunshine.
Looking for a challenge? Use the 27km long Hi Mountain Lookout near San Luis Obispo to connect to several isolated and stunning trails like the Big Falls and Upper Lopez trails.
Where we stayed – The Inn on Morro Bay sits directly on the shoreline of the harbour, with stunning views of the rock and the boats from the picture windows of the cantilevered restaurant. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset and has a great seasonal menu. They also serve lots of local wines, the Paso Robles area may not be as well-known as its Sonoma counterparts, but it’s every bit as good!
Post-run refuel – On the way up the coast, check out the Hidden Kitchen in Cayucos. Right on the beach, and with a choice of dine-in or hole-in-the-wall, it’s a hippy chic locals’ hangout. Our favourites were without doubt the blue corn tacos, some of the best handhelds we had on our trip.
Explore the area – We spent a fabulous afternoon at the Talley Vineyards Tasting Room, sampling wines from across the area. We even took a bottle home! Drive up the coast and take a tour of Hearst Castle, the former home of ‘Citizen Caine’ inspiration, billionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. And after all that excess, come down to earth and back to nature at the Elephant Seal sanctuary beaches, just a few miles away along the famed Highway 1.
A far cry from the early noughties tv series, the affluent beach communities of Orange County incorporate the towns of Huntington, Newport and Laguna, down to San Clemente on the border of San Diego County. Known for the perfect Pacific sunsets from world renowned surf breaks, beaches and piers, Huntington Beach is the jewel of the OC crown. Once the site of huge oil derricks along the waterfront, years of development have resulted in a hugely desirable beach destination, just 40 minutes from Downtown Los Angeles.
HB is known as ‘Surf City USA’, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a perfect place to enjoy any sport you can think of, due to the fantastic year-round weather (4 days of rain in 2021) and superb facilities. The 9.5 miles of beach that radiate from the Pier are bordered by a wide and well-maintained cycling and running path.
True trail running opportunities might seem few and far between in such a metropolitan area, and whilst it’s true that there is no eye-watering elevation or blister-inducing mega trails, there are lots of opportunities to get away from it all and soak up nature.
Favourite Trails – Although entirely flat, the Bolsa Chica Nature Reserve makes up for its lack of elevation with showstopping views of the ocean to the west and the mountains that frame the horizon to the east. The sandy pathways that weave through this 1300-acre ecological reserve are best enjoyed at sunrise, it’s so easy to forget where you are until you glimpse the high-rise skyline of the city in the distance.
To rack up the miles, head down the coast to Crystal Cove State Park, which boasts over 30 trails, many of which can be joined together. Try the 17km El Moro Pacific Ridge loop, winding away from the ocean and up into the hills overlooking Laguna Beach.
Where we stayed – A part of the Kimpton family, the Shorebreak however stands apart from this normally ‘luxe’ brand of hotels. Make no mistake, it retains the exceptional service and features that have come to define Kimpton, complimentary morning coffee, social wine hour every day, and lots of lovely doggies staying with their humans, but it does so with a distinctly more ‘laid back’ feel. What else would you expect in Surf City?! Record players in every room, beach cruisers available to borrow, and one of the finest eateries in the area, courtesy of the on-site restaurant, Pacific Hideaway. Far and away one of our favourite stays in all of California.
Post-run refuel – Sessions West Coast Deli sits right on the PCH and directly opposite the southside of the pier, the perfect place to load up pre-run. A selection of healthy and more indulgent brunch-style items, plus huge salads, are made fresh onsite. Only go for the Steakfast Burrito if you’re super-hungry, it fed both of us all day!!
Explore the area – As you would expect, there is a superb museum dedicated to local obsession. The Surf Museum features fixed and guest exhibits charting the birth and growth of surfing, and board sports in general, in Southern California. Just a few miles along the PCH is Huntington Harbour, where you can charter a sightseeing boat, grab a kayak to explore yourself, or like we did, take a SUP tour along the winding canals, soaking in the weather and absolutely stunning waterfront homes.
Travelling with the family? HB is a perfect base to enjoy the Anaheim Resorts many attractions. It’s just a short 30 mins drive to Disneyland and California Adventure, Knotts Berry Farm, the House of Blues, Adventure City and more.