It's one of those primal fears that trail runners have, sort of like getting eaten by a mountain lion. That fear is getting lost while on the trails.
I got to experience this twice over the past week.
Janet and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in California (San Rafael) where she got to spend time with her ailing mother, we both got to work on some tasks related to her mom's move to her current living situation and we both got to visit her ailing Aunt Janet, and I got to get in some trail running.
We were staying in San Rafael (Marin County, California) and there are gobs of open spaces and parks in Marin (Marin County open spaces, China Camp State Park, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Pt. Reyes, etc. etc. ) suitable for trail running. It's a trail runner's paradise.
During our previous visits I'd spent most of my time exploring the Sleepy Hollow Open Space, near our motel. The last time there I'd made it all the way to the "Metallica Gate" and I was longing to explore a little more. With this in mind, I emailed a trail runner who I'd met at a family gathering a couple years ago to see if I could hook up and to get some guidance on other areas to explore. We didn't get together but I did get to explore.
China Camp was within running distance of our hotel and it rained on Christmas day so I thought that running mostly on paved surfaces would be desirable. The soil in that area is very, very sticky and I didn't want to run with big gobs of mud stuck to my feet. Using a published map I saw that I could run around the point and take some residential streets up to a fire road access point.
Every thing was fine to the residential road access point (Sunny Oaks Dr) and my run up to the fire road. I totally misjudged the distance to the Echo Trail entry point and started into the China Camp area on some unofficial trail. I ran downhill then back up hill and ended up on some very obscure trails and at one point bushwhacked uphill through an open stand of oak trees.
Eventually I got to a more well-traveled trail and ended up circling back around to my trail start point. What a relief! No mountain lion snack and back on familiar ground.
The next day I drove to a starting point and ran a loop up the Bay View and Echo Trails. This clearly showed me my error from the previous day as the trailhead was very well signed. The same fire road took me up higher and I was able to loop back down to my starting point.
Day three had me feeling more cocky and I had more time. This time I started from the same point as for day two but continued further along the fire road. I should have been more concerned as my map didn't seem to match the spare signage that I saw.
However, I was confident (filled with hubris?) and continued onward with what felt right. Never a good or smart thing to do.
When I finally emerged from the forest it was at a trail head at the end of a cul-de-sac in a residential area. My map didn't show any of the street names so I set off in what I thought was the right direction. Eventually I ended up at another cul-de-sac trail head and headed back uphill.
After much more uphill I ended back up on a section of the trail that I'd just descended!
So back down to the residential area again to look for someone at home on a weekday. I turned the other direction at the end of this street and kept my eyes open. By this time I was getting nervous as I was supposed to be picking up Janet and her mom to go to lunch with some friends and I was now late. Within a couple of blocks I saw a man working in his garage and asked for directions to San Pedro Road. I knew that I could follow it back to the car.
When I got to San Pedro Road it was clear that I was a long ways from the car. In fact, more than 4 miles away! I called Janet to let her know I was delayed by getting lost and set out running as fast as I could. Just after crossing the park boundary I saw a trail head. This looked much more inviting than running along the edge of a curving, shoulder-less road.
The trail name was intriguing, Shoreline Trail, and much more pleasant than the road. So off I went and it was a good choice. The trail pretty much paralleled San Pedro Road, except where it dipped way inland to bypass a wetland area. Unlike the other trails I'd been on it was also very smooth and rock- and root-free enabling me to move right along.
The mileage indicators at the Ranger Station were disappointing (4.6 miles to the campground and my car!) and I think were wrong because I covered the distance pretty quickly.
In any case I kept moving and in a reasonable time came out to a point where I could see the car across a big wetland area. Not wanting to make another wetland trail detour I took to the road shoulder for the last half mile or so. Boy was that car a welcome sight.
Once again saved by luck and pluck. With so much more open space to explore, who knows when I'll be back to China Camp. But I'll certainly remember it for a long, long time.