Tennessee Valley Trail, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is one of our family’s favorite hikes in the Bay Area. My friend first introduced me to the trail back in college and I’ve been hiking here ever since! It’s a fast flat out-and-back trail – great for a quick hike when you don’t have much time, or a leisurely walk to hang out and enjoy the beach at the end when you’ve got hours to spare.
The trailhead is located at the end of Tennessee Valley Road just off Highway 1 in Mill Valley. There is a decent-sized parking lot at the trailhead as well as ample off-street parking, however, it does get very busy on weekends!
- 3.4 miles out-and-back
- Difficulty: easy
- 150 feet elevation gain
- Path starts out paved and turns into packed dirt
- Kid-friendly; Jogging stroller friendly (until the beach)
- Free Parking
- No dogs
- Location: 591 Tennessee Valley Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Locals know that summer along the coast can be foggy & cold, but I’m still thrown off from time to time. These pictures were all taken in July, yes July! The week before we had hiked the nearby Dipsea Trail and it was sunny & warm. A week later it was cold and felt like winter. So bring layers because the weather can change drastically even in the same day!
Tennessee Valley Trail
The trail starts on the paved path at the trailhead and begins with a gentle descent. We have seen owls in those trees to the left as well as deer and hawks along our way.
About a half mile into the hike, bear right onto the wide dirt trail where you’ll hike through shrublands & wetlands. A little bit further there’s a fork: Upper Tennessee trail to the right, Lower Tennessee trail to the left. They both converge back together before hitting the beach. The upper trail encounters a short, but steep hill, the lower trail is flat but is also seasonal so may be closed during the wetter months. Our kids always choose the lower trail if it’s open to avoid the hill!
The trails come back together and this lake comes into view with the ocean peeking out from behind!
Final stretch to the ocean!
We will often bring a picnic to the beach for lunch. We spread out blankets and then the kids run off to climb all the rocks and explore the beach.
The beach is huge and when we were there not crowded at all! On a warm sunny day, it will be much more crowded! There’s a path that leads up that hill to an incredible overlook. If you look closely you may be able to see one of the WWII bunkers camouflaged into the hill.
Tennessee Valley is actually not named for the state, but rather for the Pacific Mail steamship SS Tennessee which missed the entrance to the Golden Gate and turned into Tennessee Cove in 1853. Her passengers, mail, and baggage (including 14 chests of gold!) were saved, but the ship was a total loss. When the tide is out it’s possible to see parts of the rusting engine protruding from the sand. Look for a couple of large bars with loops on the end sticking out at an angle.
Tennessee Beach Overlook
The path to the overlook is steep with lots of stairs to climb.
If you look back about three-quarters of the way to the overlook you can see the valley that you hiked through to get here.
There are two bunkers, both filled with colorful graffiti on almost every inch.
Anyone with a fear of heights may want to think twice before climbing all the way up. While most of the area is perfectly safe, there are steep drop-offs and no barriers. We stayed far away from the edge and even so my knees felt a little weak the whole time. I would not bring a small child up here or any child who doesn’t listen well – this was the first time I had brought the kids up here (ages 10 & 13). My daughter is a bit of a daredevil and wanted to show me she wasn’t afraid by attempting to push some limits and get my attention. My son resisted coming up here in the first place and wanted to leave as soon as we arrived at the top.
Just head back the way you came when it’s time to go!
Extend the Hike
If you want to extend the hike and make it more challenging there are a lot of options – here are two that lead to different beaches.
Coastal Trail to Muir Beach
From the Upper Tennessee Valley Trail, take the Coastal Trail North to Muir Beach (an additional 2.5 miles one-way; the entire round trip from the Tennessee Valley trailhead is 8.2 miles). We love Muir Beach which is more accessible than Tennessee Valley Beach because you can drive there. It’s also right by the historic Pelican Inn, an English style restaurant & inn.
Coastal Trail to Rodeo Beach
Take the Coastal Trail south from the Upper (or Lower) Tennessee Valley Trail. The entire round trip is 10.2 miles by creating a loop with the Coastal & Miwok Trails. We also will just park at Rodeo Beach and do the Coastal/Miwok Loop and then hang out at the beach.
Our favorite place to stop and eat is the Dipsea Cafe on Highway 1 (just past the turnoff for Tennessee Valley Road). It’s a pretty big place but does get crowded. We’d prefer to hike and then eat, but sometimes we eat first to avoid the later crowd. If we get a late start then we typically just bring a picnic to eat at the beach.
It was all so interesting!
Thank you, Mary! I love that there’s so much to learn & discover on all these local hikes!