Ocean Beach – Kelly’s Cove Running / Hiking Guide


[Update Summer 2014 - The beach apron -or the hardpack near the water line - is steep and scalloped making for a challanging run in places. The north end at high tide is quite steep and soft. Would advise an alternate route until the wind storms return and level things out.]

Starting at Kelly’s Cove you can go three directions for 3 completely different experiences.


The Beach Experience – South


On the beach  - 1a & 1b (refer to aerial photo below).

Ocean Beach proper (1a) is an exceptional running venue for several reasons. First, it is relatively flat meaning the height differential between the feet is negligible. So unlike many beaches along the Gulf Coast or Atlantic which have steep slopes, here, ankle, knee and hip joints are spared the stress of differential impact. Second, Ocean Beach is shell free with few if any hazards. There are a few small stones but these are polished and mostly flat.  And third, the air temperature here stays fairly close to the 53 degree water temperature.


The fine silt-like sand packs hard in a 10-50 yard wide apron between the water and softer sand. This surface is idea for running barefoot and gives enough to mitigate jarring.


The softer sands beyond the wash zone (1b) provide the perfect conditions for isometric and oblique muscle conditioning. Go easy if you are new to soft sand running. Consider running barefoot or with beach booties as the sand will fill up your sneakers beyond a few hundred yards.


From the rocks on the north end of the beach at Kelly’s Cove to the rocks at the south end of the beach near Ft. Funston is a distance of 3 miles exactly. So out and back is an even 6.  The stop lights on Great Highway are ¼ mile apart and can be used to mark off your progress or an interval workout.


Bear in mind the winds prevail from the Northwest and generally pick up as the day progresses. The beach is deserted in stretches in the AM expect for the occasional dog-walker or surfer. Evenings and weekends evidence the bulk of users, especially along the north stretch between Judah and Kelly’s Cove.


Dogs are usually off-leash but not normally a problem as there is just too much distraction for them including other dogs, birds and tennis balls. During peak use, the beach is never so populated as to impede your workout.


A big part of the Ocean Beach running experience is the sound and beauty of the Pacific wave releasing energy acquired thousands of miles away. The drone and repetition of the breaking waves is ideal for those who use running as a meditation. The ‘striping away’ of the extemporaneous clutter is hastened by the natural drama and the infinite sea beyond.



Linear Park – 2 

For those who prefer paving, there is an 80’ wide linear park along the east side of Great Highway that is bisected by a gently meandering asphalt trail wide enough to accommodate bikers and runners (5’). Additionally there is a ~1’ wide sand apron adjacent to the trail that provides less impact. The park consists mostly of low scale coastal scrub bushes and trees, grasses and the ever-flowering ice plant.


The trail is approximately 2.75 miles from Balboa on the north end of Ocean Beach to Sloat on the south end, so round trip is 5.5 miles. It is broken only by the streets that flank Golden Gate Park and feed into Great Highway. At these intersections there are lights and potentially, a 40-60 second wait.


Terminating at the Great Highway are alphabetical streets named after Spanish generals. Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo et.al are to the north and Rivera, Santiago, Taraval et. al. are to the south.


One block off Great Highway at the intersection of Balboa and La Playa are steps that rise 180’ to the top of Sutro Heights. Adding this to your out-and-back run will yield an even 6 miles and a good anaerobic burn to punctuate your workout.


The paved trail does not offer the both spectacular and sublime experience of running along the very edge of the western world.  It does however offer a well-defined paved course and the appearance of safety being flanked by a residential district on one side and a moderately busy 4 lane road on the other. Perhaps for these reasons it is well used from morning until hours after the sun has set.


Again you can mark off your progress and intervals by the stoplights along Great Highway between Judah and Sloat. These lights are approximately .25 miles apart.


The linear park is also adjacent to the commercial district at the end of Judah (where the light-rail trains turn around). Here you can relax after your workout sipping an iced coffee from Java Beach or an organic smoothie from Judalicious several blocks in. See below.


Dune Trail - 3a & 3b

On the beach (west) side of Great Highway, there is boardwalk on the north end which transitions to a sand dune trail (3a)  from Lincoln to Noriega and then back to boardwalk to Santiago then back to sand until it’s termination at Sloat. The boardwalks (3b) are broad, concrete seawalls and connect visually with the surf. The north boardwalk is quite active while stretches to the south are less populated but very safe given your proximity to the highway.


The sand portions of the trail vary in density from moderately packed to soft. If the wind has been blowing hard, drifts will cover them in places but these are easily traversed.


Fort Funston

If you wish to increase the length of your run or explore more varied terrain, continue south along Great Highway to Fort Funston , a former Nike missile base. There is a wide bike lane to escape the accelerating traffic and you only have to run a few hundred yards along the highway before you can get back on the trail. Except for the parking area, Ft. Funston is in its natural state and as the name implies fun to explore. Trails criss-cross this park and will take you along the cliffs and through former bunkers.


From the rock termination at the south end of Ocean Beach to the scenic to the Funston overlook (where the hang gliders launch) is 1.6 miles or 3.2 miles round trip or 9.2 from Kelly’s Cove.


One caveat: during astronomically low tides, the beach below Funston is accessible and can add another mile or so to your run. There are some debris spots (old gun turrets, concrete, etc.) but they are easily navigable even in your bare feet. Check the tide charts. If low tide is -1 foot or more, the beach will be exposed. Just note which direction it's moving when you venture past the rocks as the hike out, if you get trapped by the water, can be challenging.


Lake Merced  

For long distance runners and marathoners, consider adding a loop around Lake Merced . This 4.5 mile loop is popular with walkers, bikers, roller-bladers and runners who share a broad paved path next to the lake. Evenings are quite busy especially with the stroller set.


Combining the Ocean Beach, Ft. Funston and Lake Merced loops, one can get a 13.7 mile round-trip run almost entirely automobile free. Fog is often a factor in the summer so some areas can be socked in with low visibility and if the wind is blowing, you can loose heat fast so best to head out with a piece of fleece or wind breaker. There are public restrooms at the South end of the beach, at Judah and Taraval as well as Funston and Merced.



 The Park Experience – East


Golden Gate National Park is 3 miles long by ½ mile wide and offers a variety of running / hiking experiences from sidewalks and paved trails to single track dirt trails. JFK Drive on the north and South/MLK Drives on the south yield up to a ~7.4 mile loop (includes a stretch on Great Highway). The loop around Stow Lake adds another mile. There is no shortage of interesting and spectacular moments in the park. Gardens, buffalo, water falls, carefully manicured Arcadian landscapes, old stone bridges and festival-like gatherings make GGP one of the most interesting recreational venues on the west coast and a great place to run. If you area’t familiar with the park, print out or study a map before you take off as the serpentine roads and trails can throw you for, and into a loop. And if you are venturing into the park on a a summer or fall weekend, check the Park event calendar as music festivals and other large gatherings can impede your workout..


The change in elevation from east to west is approximately 300’ which is mild spread across the 3 miles. However, there are areas like Strawberry Hill at Stow Lake where you can do hill intervals.


There is a single track trail that runs between South Drive and Lincoln. This is a good alternative to the pavement although beware of the exposed roots and other tripping hazards.


Another runner’s amenity is Kezar Stadium and its all weather track at the south east corner of the Park. Here you can do laps on the track or on the 0.4 mile (700 yard) ring around the upper terrace. The track is open to the public most of the time including every morning.


Beyond Golden Gate Park

If you wish to add mileage or explore the urban areas around the park consider the following:


The Panhandle

This is a sliver of park at the east end of GGP and continues for another ¾ mile east before terminating at Baker Street. Meandering paths accommodate a busy stream of bike and pedestrian traffic with only one interruption at Masonic.


Buena Vista Park

At the east terminus of the Panhandle, turn right and run up the hill 2 blocks to Buena Vista Park . A short but steep climb to the top yields the ‘good views’ advertised by its name.  From the Panhandle to the top of Buena Vista is ~0.5 miles so a roundtrip loop is another mile adding a total of 2.5 mostly automobile-free miles beyond GGP. If you want to add a bit of flavor to your run and you don't mind negotiating dense, slow-moving masses of humanity, return from Buena Vista via Haight Street.


Twin Peaks Park

For those runners seeking a serious hill burn, go south on Stanyan Street (right out of the park if you're heading into town) at the park’s east terminus and run up the hill until it dead-ends into Belgrave Ave. Beware the grades at the top of Belgrave are STEEP! At the top, go left until it dead-ends into Tank Hill. Go up the steps for yet another stunning panorama view of the downtown. At the top go right and out the back of the hill, down the wooden steps on to Twin Peaks Blvd. Follow Twin Peaks Blvd as it turns left snakes up to one of the highest points on the Peninsula . Again, expect more stunning 360 degree panoramas of the entire bay. Also be prepared for brisk winds. If you still haven’t had enough, traverse up, over and down the twin peaks and finally over the third minor peak. Round trip from Kelly’s Cove to the top of the south peak is ~11 miles and a 900 foot change of elevation most of which is achieved in the 2 miles between the Kezar Stadium and the Peaks.


The Coastal Forest Experience – North


Ocean Beach is punctuated on the north end by the famous Cliff House Restaurant and the Sutro Bath ruins. Head up the hill to Cliff House and follow Point Lobos Road past Louis’ Restaurant and make a left at the large parking area. This will launch you into Point Lobos and Lands End (THE place, not the catalog!) and one of the Bay Area’s best kept secrets.  From here there is a coastal trail runs along the cliffs and will take you through the cypress and scrub past Seal Rock Beach. The 1.5 mile long Lands End coast trail is paved initially then changes to hard pack dirt. It is well marked and has stairs in the steep sections but is quite navigatable at speed.  There are numerous opportunities to explore side trails and attractions including the Camino del Mar / Ft. Miley overlook near the beginning of the trail. The trail offers more spectacular views of the Marin Headlands and eventually, the Golden Gate Bridge .


Beyond Lands End

Lands End Trail terminates on the north end at El Camino del Mar and the uber-swanky neighborhood of Sea Cliff. Continue along El Camino for .6 miles and you will find yourself in The Presidio. From her you can divert down to China or Baker Beach or continue on to the Golden Gate Bridge or Crissy Field. For those looking to for a good marathon work out, consider skirting Fort Mason east of Crissy, spinning through Fisherman’s Wharf and connecting up to the Embarcadero. Here are some distances:


Kelly’s Cove to the Lands End Trail terminus at El Camino del Mar: 2 miles

Kelly’s Cove to Baker Beach: 3 miles

Kelly’s Cove to Golden Gate Bridge approach: 4.3 miles

Kelly’s Cove to scenic overlook on Marin Side: 6 miles

Kelly’s Cove to Crissy Field: 6 miles

Kelly’s Cove to Fisherman’s Wharf:  8 miles

Kelly’s Cove to the Ferry Building at Embarcadero: 10 miles (and take the N Judah back!)


Getting to at Ocean Beach – Kelly’s Cove

Most of the City uses either the N Judah light-rail train or the buses to visit Ocean Beach. The N train terminates at the end of Judah which is 1 mile south of Kelly's Cove. Buses feed through the avenues of the Outer Richmond and Outer Sunset terminating at many points along the 3 mile stretch. If you arrive by car, there are several large lots along Great Highway shown below. On-street parking is also an option in the outer avenues and along the general streets. Even during large events, parking is always available..



Combining Experiences

Beginning at Kelly’s Cove and staying within the bounds of Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park or Lands End, it is possible to design a 20+ mile run / hike loop free of automobile traffic (less intersections) and without retracing your steps. Restrooms and drinking fountains are sprinkled throughout GGP and along Great Highway.


Post Workout Reward

Within a 5 minute walk of Kelly’s Cove you can:

Imbibe handcrafted beers and down some protein bites at Beach / Park Chalet.

Grab a sandwich or the daily special at Freddy’s Deli.

Pick up your beach picnic supplies at the Safeway.

Snag a Latvian beer or exotic chocolate at Eurpora Express grocery.

Treat yourself to a gourmet meal or classic cocktail at the historic and the highly rated Cliff House.


If you want to venture a little further afield consider the 1 mile trek to the south (15 minute walk) is the Judah Street Outer Sunset business district. A sampling includes:

Java Beach Cafe

Other Avenues Grocery

Judalicious Juice Bar

Beach Burrito

Sea Breeze Cafe


Happy bipedalling!