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Golden Gate National Recreation Area

A clear fall day is the perfect time enjoy the bay and ocean views on this 5.4-mile loop in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The hike starts in Tennessee Valley. You may wonder how Marin’s Tennessee Valley got its name. The valley, which was ranched prior to the Gold Rush, used to be known as Elk Valley. On March 6, 1853, a Pacific mail ship named Tennessee missed the Golden Gate in the fog and ran aground there. All 500 passengers, as well as the cargo and the mail, were saved, but the ship broke up in the waves. The tule elk that had roamed the valley had been wiped out to supply restaurants serving the burgeoning population of San Francisco that followed the Gold Rush. The valley was renamed for the ship that had been lost.

The stables that abut the parking lot are the site of one of the four ranches that used to be in the valley. Look for Brewer’s blackbirds on the utility wires. They are Ictarids, related to grackles and orioles, and quite unrelated to the blackbirds of nursery rhyme fame that were “baked in a pie.” European blackbirds are thrushes, related to our robin.

The hike starts from the northeast corner of the parking lot. Miwok Trail crosses a bridge over a willow-lined creek. The impact of human use prior to the formation of the GGNRA is apparent in the number of non-native plants, including eucalyptus trees and cottoneaster. This area is rebounding from heavy human use, including chert mining from the 1930s to 1950s; ranchers using defoliating chemicals similar to Agent Orange to remove scrub in the 1960s; the introduction of non-native grasses, and grazing that continued at late of 1985 in the eastern part of the valley.

Soon you leave the shade of the eucalyptus and begin the climb to the ridge. Female coyote brush is starting the get fluffy seeds, ready to disperse with any breeze. White-crowned sparrows have returned from their breeding grounds, and can be seen atop the bushes. The higher you climb, the more dramatic the views of the bay.

When you reach a group of Monterey pine trees, turn left on an unmarked trail that will bring you to Coyote Ridge. At the ridge, turn left on Coyote Ridge trail, which is actually a fire road here.

From Coyote Ridge trail you have views to the north of the picturesque town of Muir Beach, and the Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. You can also see a corner of the Golden Gate Bridge, and part of San Francisco to the south.

Where a sign points right to Muir Beach, turn left and then make a right on Coastal Trail. (Fox Trail goes down more steeply.) Now you have sweeping views of the ocean as you start the downhill stretch.

Coastal Trail brings you down to the valley where you turn left to follow Tennessee Valley Trail. The park service website is not exaggerating when it says that the “road cuts of the Headlands have exposed some of the finest examples of pillow basalt and radiolarian chert found in California.” Whether you look with an artist’s eye or a geologist’s eye, the patterns of the uplifted layers of chert are amazing. These rocks have had quite a journey!


They formed under the ocean from the skeletons of tiny protozoa called radiolarians. These skeletons, made of silica dioxide just as quartz is, drifted down to the sea floor between 1 and 2 million years ago. You can impress the kids by telling them these rocks were forming when dinosaurs walked the earth. On the sea floor they became radiolarian ooze, which eventually compressed into rock somewhere near the equator. The rocks were carried north on the Pacific Plate which then moved east and collided with the North American Plate.

Soon the road becomes paved and you must bring yourself back from contemplating centamillinia to the ordinary world of minutes and hours as you see the parking lot ahead.

From Highway 101 take the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit. Follow Shoreline Highway north and turn left on Tennessee Valley Road. No dogs.

Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to

source Marin IJ