Tennessee Valley Hike: Hiking Marin County
The Tennessee Valley Hike in the Marin Headlands is one of the most popular hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are a variety of options ranging from a level, paved trail called the Tennessee Valley Trail that goes from the parking lot to a beach, to more challenging paths that climb high in the hills and feature impressive views of the ocean, Marin County and San Francisco.
In this article I will cover two options, the aforementioned easy trail, and a more challenging loop trail that takes about 2 hours and features impressive vistas. Because there are so many options it is easy to escape the crowds on the Tennessee Valley Trail if you want to, even on weekends.
If you are looking for hiking options for all ages as well as easy access from San Francisco, Tennessee Valley is the hike for you!
TENNESSEE VALLEY HIKE — GETTING THERE
Getting to the parking area for Tennessee Valley is extremely easy. However finding a parking space especially on weekends can be challenging. If the parking lot is full, people often park parallel on the street approaching and leaving the parking lot. Make sure you’re out of the road when parking or you may be subject to a ticket. Also use a lot of care – there are people on horses, families with strollers and bicyclists whizzing by.
From Highway 101, take the Stinson Beach / Mill Valley exit, and follow Shoreline Highway (U.S. 1) until you see the Tennessee Valley Rd. sign at the new traffic light, which makes access to Tennessee Valley Road much easier. After you turn on Tennessee Valley Road, note the speed limit is 25 MPH (strictly enforced) and cell reception fades quickly to zero once you leave Shoreline Highway.
You may wish to take Golden Gate Transit, which has stops on either side of the intersection of Tennessee Valley Road and Highway One. It is about a 30-minute walk from the Tam Junction stop to the Tennessee Valley Trailhead. (If you are coming from the city want to take public transportation to a hike in Marin, it might be easier to take MUNI to Rodeo Beach.)
Warning: Be sure to lock your vehicle and take valuables with you. There have been a number of auto burglaries in the Marin Headlands.
TENNESSEE VALLEY HIKE QUICK FACTS
- One of the most popular hikes in Marin County. Parking lot frequently fills up.
- Dogs prohibited – click here for a list of dog-friendly hiking locations
- Very poor cell service – must climb mountain peaks to get any service
- Picnic table(s) and primitive restrooms at parking lot / trailhead
- Tennessee Valley Trail is wheelchair accessible to Tennessee Cove
- No drinking fountains that I could find – bring your own water
- Multiple hiking options (see map below)
- Tennessee Trail Parking Lot to Beach = 1.7 miles each direction, mostly level
- Great for kids of all ages
TENNESSEE VALLEY HISTORY
The S.S. California Also Sailed Between Panama and California Transporting Mail
(Reportedly the S.S. Tennessee Looked a Great Deal Like the S.S. California)
The Wreck of the S.S. Tennessee in 1853
On the foggy morning of Sunday, March 6, 1853, Captain Mellus of the S.S. Tennessee was trying to navigate to the San Francisco Bay with a shipload of 550 passengers and 14 chests of gold. It was before fog horns were installed in San Francisco Bay and conditions were quite treacherous. The ship had originated in Panama and was sailing from the south. Captain Mellus realized too late that he had passed the San Francisco Bay opening — the Golden Gate — and had instead sailed into what was then called Indian Cove. Since he was unable to turn the ship around, he unloaded the passengers and the gold and planned to wait for higher tides to try again.
However, huge waves came in overnight and dashed the ship against the sandy bottom of the cove, ultimately breaking the back of the S.S. Tennessee. Remains of the ship engine can reportedly be seen during low tide.
Indian Cove was re-named Tennessee Cove in honor of the S.S. Tennessee.
Marincello – The Proposed Development That Never Was
Many people who visit Tennessee Valley have no idea that the road leading to the trailhead would have originally provided access to Marincello, a mixed residential-commercial development funded by Gulf Oil in the early 1960s. Connecticut developer Thomas Frouge saw the beauty of the area as well as the proximity to San Francisco and proposed a 2,100-acre development of houses, offices, apartment buildings, a hotel and an enormous shopping mall. When approved by the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1965, Marincello was going to house 30,000 people in apartment towers and single-family housing.
You can read more about this history in this Wikipedia Article about Marincello, but the short version is that citizens rose up to protest the development, and after several attempts finally succeeded in shutting it down. The original gates stood until the 1970s when they were torn down. You can still take the Marincello Trail hike south of the parking lot and see the road that was bulldozed into the side of the hillside for this development that never happened.
You might think as a Marin County real estate agent I am sad there is no Marincello but that could not be further from the truth. I love the beauty of the Marin Headlands and consider it a huge asset to the quality of life here in Marin County.
Special thanks to “Ranger Bob” a.k.a. Bob Holloway, who provided me some of the information on the history of the area.
TENNESSEE VALLEY MAP
TENNESSEE VALLEY HIKE
Option 1: Exercise Loop Hike on Fox Trail
(Highlighted in Yellow on Map Above)
Once you arrive at the Tennessee Valley parking lot, you have several hiking options (see map above). I only had about 2 hours and wanted a hike that provided exercise, views, and was a loop walk so I would not need to re-trace too many steps. My friend and I decided to take the Fox Trail, which is the second trail you’ll pass on the right after you go through the metal gates of the trailhead. I would say it’s about 10 minutes into the hike as you walk along the Tennessee Valley trail.
The first trail to the right, the Haypress Camp Trail, dead ends a ways up at the Haypress Campground and does not connect to the rest of the trail system. Do not take this first trail. Excellent signage at the turnoff will warn you that this trail does not connect to the Coastal Trail.
Take the second trail, the Fox Trail, and hike up a moderately steep trail to the 3-way intersection of the Coyote Ridge Trail and the Coastal Trail. Keep going left to stay on the Coastal Trail, which will proceed along the ridge and then begin its descent to the Tennessee Valley Trail.
Fortunately in this area the trails are very well marked so it is difficult to make a wrong turn. Also once you gain some elevation your cell phone should start working again so you can consult Google Maps if you get lost. For more information on this hike, scroll down to see my photo walkthrough.
Option 2: Easy Level Hike to Tennessee Cove
(Highlighted in Red on Map Above)
Kids in tow? Tired after looking all day at Marin County open houses? You may want to opt for this hike instead. Most people do. It appears that Tennessee Valley Road used to go almost all the way to the water, but at some point in the distant past a parking lot was built and the road from the parking lot to the ocean was turned into a wide, fairly level hiking trail. As you approach the ocean, it turns into a clay path, but is still very walkable and works well with strollers and wheelchairs.
This main trail allows bicycles and horses, and believe me it can turn into a real circus especially on weekends, which is why I always go with the almost-deserted option #1 above. There is a small path off to the left that goes through some marshy woodland and re-connects with the main trail closer to the ocean. I suggest you take that unless you need the wider, more-graded path.
This path is known as the Tennessee Valley Trail and runs between the parking lot and the beach. This is 1.7 miles in each direction according to the National Park Service map.
Below is a photo of the trailhead, and a photo walkthrough of option #1.
Tennessee Valley Hike Photo Walkthrough
Pictured above is the trailhead for the Tennessee Valley Trail while standing in the parking lot with the restrooms to the right. Notice the big new “no pets” sign to the left. Rangers will give tickets to violators. I overheard some visitors joking “Only in California would they ban dogs but allow horses on a trail!” (Watch where you step….)
Here’s another shot of the parking lot, with the trailhead at our backs. The Marincello Trail is straight ahead then left up the hill.
This is the intersection of the Tennessee Valley Trail and the Fox Trail. The Fox Trail is the second trail to the right after the trailhead, and is the beginning of our upward climb loop trail.
As the trail continues upwards, the views become more and more spectacular. This is the beginning of the Fox Trail before it becomes steeper. Bring water!
If you look closely you can see the parking lot where we began way down below on the left. I took this photo almost at the top of the Fox Trail as I paused to catch my breath. At this point in the hike my cell phone again had reception with AT&T. As you can see the trail is well-maintained and there is no poison oak encroaching, though there is poison oak just off the trail.
We are rewarded with this gorgeous view of the San Francisco skyline in the distance in one direction, views of Mount Tamalpais in another, and then views up and down the Pacific Coast in the other. An incredible 360 degree view!
From the Fox Trail we merge left onto the Coastal Trail and the views keep getting better as we hike towards the ocean. This is the intersection of the Pirates Cove Trail and the Coastal Trail. Remain on the Coastal Trail to begin hiking back down to the Tennessee Valley Trail, but take a moment to savor the beauty in all directions.
As we begin our descent on the Coastal Trail, we can see Tennessee Cove in the distance to the right. This trail will dead-end at the Tennessee Valley Trail at the valley floor (next photo) and we can either turn right on our Tennessee Valley Hike to see the cove, or turn left to return to the parking area.
The intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Tennessee Valley Trail. Turn right to see the cove and look for remains of the shipwreck, or turn left to return to the parking area.
The trail back to the parking lot is quite well-maintained and often heavily-trafficked. As you can see, it gets a little muddy after a rain but is still very walkable. This trail will turn into an old asphalt road and then end at the parking lot. You can also branch off to a more natural but narrower trail to the right and parallel along this path.
Back at the parking lot you will find restrooms as well as a picnic table or two.
If the Tennessee Valley hike isn’t enough for you, there are several options from the parking lot. You can take the beautiful Marincello Trail, which is very popular with bikers. Keep to the right and listen for bike bells. You can also take the Miwok Trail (above right). The Miwok Trail trailhead is at the entrance to the parking lot on your left with your back to the Tennesee Valley Trail.
It is impossible for me to write an article about the Marin Headlands without including a photo of our beautiful bridge. I took this after my Rodeo Beach hike which you might also enjoy. Be sure to also check out the Marin Headlands Visitor Center. If you have children along, you might want to take them to the nearby Bay Area Discovery Museum. Finally, I would like to thank the National Park Service Rangers and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for all the wonderful work they do to make experiences like the Tennessee Valley Hike possible.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my article about the Tennessee Valley hike. If this is your first visit to my Marin Real Estate and Lifestyle Blog, please have a look at my other articles. They all feature original articles about the things that make Marin County such a great place to live. Also in my blog is my popular monthly Marin real estate market update. Should you have any real estate questions or needs, please call or text me at 415.847.5584 and I’ll be in touch right away.