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Tennessee Valley

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

November 26th, 2010

3.9 miles
430 vertical feet
Total Time: 2:51

Starting elevation
192 feet
Max elevation
192 feet

Rating: 6/10

Directions: From San Francisco, take 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the Highway 1/Stinson Beach/Mill Valley exit and follow it underneath the freeway. After just over half a mile, turn left onto Tennessee Valley Road. Follow the road for about 2 miles, all the way to the large dirt parking lot at the end of the road.   View Driving Map

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The parking lot was overflowing by the time we arrived at 11am on this sunny Friday after Thanksgiving. Perhaps it didn't help that rain was forecast for Saturday; maybe people wanted to get in a hike before the rain returned. Or maybe this hike is simply that popular. Whatever the case, cars filled the lot and much of both sides of the road leading up to the lot. We managed to squeeze into one final spot at the top of the hill, near the other family we were meeting for the hike.

Despite its popularity, distance, and proximity, I had never been to Tennessee Valley before. We started off from the parking lot on the trail, which starts off as a wide paved road heading slightly downhill past eucalyptus trees. After about 0.6 miles, the paved road veers left toward a picnic area, on the Chaparral Trail. We instead continued straight on the trail which now becomes a wide dirt road.

Tennessee Valley Trail, approaching the lower/upper split

We next passed a smaller side trail on the left side of the trail, the Lower Tennessee Valley Trail. We didn't really consider it, opting instead to stay on the main trail, the Upper Tennessee Valley Trail. Soon we had our first glimpse of the ocean to the left. Soon after that we came to the first climb of the hike. Near the base of this little hill is an intersection with the Coastal Trail.

First glimpse of the ocean

Only 482 miles to the Oregon border

At the top of the short climb, we could now see a lagoon before the beach and ocean. We were only about a half mile away now. Soon we passed the lagoon and came to rest at a bench just before the beach, about 1.8 miles from the trailhead. We stopped here for lunch, eating of course turkey and cranberry sandwiches.

At the crest of the hill, we now have a view of the lagoon and ocean

Closer look at the lagoon and ocean

From the bench we had a view of the beach and the many people enjoying it. After lunch, we joined them. The beach sits in Tennessee Cove, a little pocket which gets its name from an 1853 shipwreck. While it had been relatively mild on the way to the beach, now that we were stopped and near the ocean, it was quite cold. We stayed a bit, watching the gulls soaring past steep cliffs.

Crab shell and legs at the beach (it wasn't whole)

Northern end of Tennessee Beach

Looking south along the beach

Looking up the hill toward the bunker (the switchbacking trail is out of view to the right)

Sea gull soaring next to the rocky walls

Sea gull

Sea gull

After enjoying the beach, we returned to the bench we'd stopped at and turned left, up a short but steep trail leading to an old bunker at Tennessee Beach Overlook. After a few switchbacks we were greeted with fantastic views looking out to the ocean and down to the beach where we just were. We walked right into the bunker itself, most likely a remnant from World War II. It's empty, but has great views of course. As you walk around here, especially if you have children with you, keep in mind that the cliffs are quite steep. Also try to stick to the trail to avoid adding to the erosion of the cliffs. Unfortunately we saw many people cutting straight up the steep slope from the beach, completely bypassing the perfectly good trail to the top.

Looking down at the lagoon from the switchbacks

Looking down at the beach from the overlook

View from the inside of the bunker

After enjoying the view, we went back down the switchbacks, then headed back up the main trail toward the parking lot. This time, we took the Lower Tennessee Valley Trail. This avoids some extra climbing, at the expense of missing some views. But we'd seen the views already on the way in (and would be walking with our backs to the view anyway).

Soon enough we rejoined the main trail, and continued on up the gentle incline back to the parking lot. It was still full, and in fact even more cars were packed along the sides of the road. If you're looking for a nice quiet hike with any chance at solitude, stay very far away from this hike. But if you're looking for some nice ocean views and a nice beach, add this hike to your list.

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