Traversing the Headlands

From Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach

VAST LANDSCAPES Golden Gate National Recreation Area spans 77,000 acres, including miles of beaches from San Mateo County to Marin County. VAST LANDSCAPES Golden Gate National Recreation Area spans 77,000 acres, including miles of beaches from San Mateo County to Marin County.

From Sweeney Ridge in San Mateo County, where Gaspar de Portolà first saw San Francisco Bay in 1769, to windswept Tomales Point at the very northern tip of Marin County, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) spans a vast distance and a staggering variety of landscapes. The GGNRA’s 77,000 acres are a boundless potpourri of rural, urban and historic attractions: old growth redwoods in Muir Woods; miles of beaches in San Francisco and Marin, fortifications at Fort Baker, Alcatraz and Fort Mason; soaring windswept headlands teeming with tule elk. The list goes on.

Follow the shoreline from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge out and around the edge of Marin County to Muir Beach. From this stretch of coastline, the Marin Headlands tumble inland toward Sausalito and Mill Valley. When I was a boy growing up in Mill Valley, the Marin Headlands were still military land, containing a treasure trove of bunkers and gun batteries. Steel doors opened into hillsides and led to a labyrinth of underground rooms and passageways that reached deep into the hills—an irresistible attraction for young boys.

The headlands escaped a development proposal in the 1960s that would have brought high apartment towers and single family homes for 30,000 people. In 1971 the GGNRA bought the land, and now a network of trails takes hikers over hill and dale to lighthouses, lakes and quiet coves with views ranging from endless ocean to one of the world’s greatest city skylines.

Recently, a hometown friend and I walked the trail from Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach. The drive between these two points is a twisty half-hour trip over the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais and down Green Gulch—a bit of a project. But by trail, Muir Beach is only 3.5 miles from the Tennessee Valley; 3.5 breathtaking miles.

The first mile from the trailhead in Mill Valley eases down a gently descending roadway toward Tennessee Cove until the Coastal Trail abruptly turns the second mile into a heart-pounding 600-foot climb. But nowhere is the effort of a climb more sweetly repaid. On the exceptionally clear day we were there, the Farallon Islands sat tack-sharp above the rich blue water. Point Reyes, usually obscured by coastal mist or fog, was just as sharp.

One would expect a coastal trail to bob and roll on a fairly level course across the terrain, but the trail to Muir Beach dropped steeply into several creases—especially by Pirate’s Cove—leaving us some work to climb back up. Our 8-mile loop had an elevation gain/loss of 2,400 feet, nearly the equivalent of walking from Stinson Beach to the top of Mount Tamalpais.

We chose to turn back before the drop down to Muir Beach, but if you have never been there, stop by the Pelican Inn tavern for a visit to 16th century England. A hearty ale will fuel you for the return trip.

Nature is most beautiful at the edges, and no edge is more spectacular than this bold meeting of land and sea. The cheek-flushing effort and the immense views will remind you how nice it is to be here.

Ron Erskine
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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.