Tennessee Valley

Hike Report

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The Tennessee Valley trailhead has a reputation as one of the most popular in Marin. I planned to arrive a few hours before sunset – hopefully people would be leaving after a day of enjoying the trails and I would get the better light as I moved around the 6-ish mile loop. The plan worked, and although it was still crowded when I arrived, enough cars were leaving that I was able to snag a parking spot.

I started at Old Springs Trail, which is tucked away near the Miwok Livery horse stables. To get there, walk up the road to the west, pass Marincello Trail on the left, and bear right as you head into the stable area, keeping the largest building to your left. Pass a red shed on the right and the trailhead marker is not much further.

After a couple of switchbacks the trail ascended on a very reasonable grade and some impressive views of the valley opened up. I could trace the wide main path winding all the way down Tennessee Cove. Old Springs is frequented by horse riders and mountain bikers, so keep your eyes and ears open. I had to step off the path to allow a beautiful tan-colored horse and its rider to pass, after which I had the trail to myself for a long time.

There were more wildflowers out than I’d been able to find on other recent hikes. Small yellow ones could be seen in patches on the hillsides, with larger yellow ones (Mule’s Ear?) nearer the trail that seemed to be following the sun. Large plants with pods of white flowers were widespread (perhaps Cow Parsnip). Still not the carpet of flowers I’d hope to find, but a big improvement. At 1.5 miles dense clouds began to roll in. They moved quickly, creating a variety of conditions that was exciting to keep up with, mottling the hillsides with intermittent sunlight.

Tennessee Valley landscape
pacific false bindweed

Just before the 2 mile mark, San Francisco came into sight. You can follow Miwok Trail down into the Rodeo Lagoon area. As for me, I continued on Wolf Ridge Trial, which featured a couple of steeper climbs and affords excellent northern views across the valley to Mt. Tamalpais. Along the way I encountered a Spotted Towhee singing his song on top of a bush. Resting at the high point of Wolf Ridge I saw that I could continue up to Hill 88, part of the old military network of Nike missile control stations, but I skipped it in favor of making progress back down toward the beach. Instead I took some photos of the hillsides framing San Francisco. Sutro Tower, at 7.5 miles distant, was clearly visible.

Wolf Ridge Trail continued to showcase fantastic views until just after 3 miles, when it began to descend rather steeply. The trail was overgrown and full of sliding gravel, so I took my time and was careful about my footing. As the trail leveled out I found myself rambling through a pretty meadow among grasses and flowers. This path eventually rejoined Lower Tennessee Valley Trail. Tennessee Cove is a short half mile from the junction.

sunny hike
Hill trail with dramatic clouds

The beach was small and sheltered by high cliffs. The SS Tennessee wrecked in the cove in 1853 after the captain misjudged the Golden Gate in foggy conditions and the ship ran aground. The passengers and crew were able to escape but the ship foundered. Over the years it was battered apart by the ocean. Some debris crops up on the beach now and then – I came across a large piece of riveted metal. I don’t know if it was from the wreck, but I’d like to think so!

The waves were powerful and the beach was less sandy and more so composed of smooth, tiny rocks. These factors combined to produce a white, foaming edge to the surf. I got as close as I was comfortable getting to try to capture it. Meanwhile, the clouds had gathered at the horizon, which made for a subdued sunset.

ss tennessee debris
beach cove long exposure

Once I was satisfied, I headed back out on Tennessee Valley Trail, which took me up a very gradual grade and around a few turns all the way back to the parking lot. As daylight faded, the moon lit my way, and a small rabbit crossed the path. I also heard turkeys gobbling, which seemed a completely ridiculous sound to hear reverberating at dusk in a majestic valley.