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Ultimate Sunday Hike: Tennessee Valley Trail

Tennessee Valley looking west.

As one of more the popular hikes in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, this lovely 1.9 mile stroll down to Tennessee Cove makes for a great family hike. I find it pretty special that you can drive 15 minutes north of San Francisco, step out of your vehicle and within a matter of 100 yards escape to a virtual wilderness area, with few indications of civilization. This is the defining enchantment of the Marin Headlands, and a reason to thank the US Army, whose occupation of these lands ensured urban development would be held in check until more appreciative sensibilities prevailed.

Access to Tennessee Valley from US 101 is easy using the Shoreline Highway 1/Stinson Beach exit four miles north of Golden Gate Bridge. After exiting, head west and make the first left after the Holiday Express hotel and just before the bridge over Coyote Creek onto the Tennessee Valley Road. Drive two miles to the trailhead. Restrooms are available but no potable water is provided. Dogs are not allowed.

The trail begins as a paved road on the northwest corner of the parking area, and just a short way along, you’ll see a fire road that goes up to Haypress Camp, where overnight backpacking stays can be made (with a permit). Further along, you’ll encounter the Fox Trail fire road that climbs up to Coyote Ridge. As tempting as that may be, continue to end of the pavement as the trail rises gently and begins to afford you glimpse of the Pacific Ocean ahead. If it hasn’t rained recently, take the trail that veers off the main road. This is the most level route to the beach, but can be very muddy at times. Our map shows both routes. Otherwise continue on the road, keeping an eye out in the surrounding hills for coyotes, which are not uncommon here, and other wildlife, such as rabbits, red fox (only at dusk), or even a bobcat.

After the huge eucalyptus tree the road intersects with the Coastal trail from the left and a few more steps uphill the road divides with the right uphill fork a continuation of the Coastal, that goes up to top of Coyote Ridge (making for a great loop hike via a return on the aforementioned Fox Trail). The left fork ambles a bit higher and affords fabulous views of the ocean between the two ridges that close here to form the narrow opening to the valley. On many blustery days, you’ll to hear the roar of the surf as you as you descend (somewhat steeply) towards a small lagoon and marsh that sit just about the cove, excellent for bird watching.

The beach itself is fairly small, with a bench and a few large driftwood logs to sit on, perfect for contemplating the shipwreck of the steamship SS Tennessee in 1853 that gave the valley its name (all passengers survived). As will be pretty obvious, even on calm days, the surf can be hazardous and swimming is not recommended.