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