Scenic Gem North of the Golden Gate
This hike is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The GGNRA is one of the most amazing, if least known, parts of the National Parks system. It stretches from Tomales Bay south all the way to the Phleger State in San Mateo County in scattered holdings. Its holdings include the most accessible portion of the San Andreas Fault, Alcatraz Island, and the Presidio. Its best hiking opportunities can be found in the Marin Headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
GGNRA has played a significant role in not only the San Francisco Bay Area's history, but of our nation as well. Significant events that helped shape the anti-slavery and Native American rights movements occurred here. Perhaps the most significant contribution it has made to our nation's history is that it helped spearhead the idea that National Park system holdings do not have to be huge contiguous wild areas far from civilization or historic sites that focused on past Presidents.
California Congressman Philip Burton led this charge as the chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks. He served from 1964 to 1983, and he left an indelible legacy. His legislative battles, dogged convictions, and political acumen resulted in the creation of scores of National Park system holdings. He believed that there should be "parks for the people, where the people are." GGNRA is perhaps the finest example of this. GGNRA encompasses wildlands north of the Golden Gate, historic locations like Alcatraz Island and the Presidio of San Francisco, and even recreational beaches.
GGNRA contains more species listed as federally endangered or threatened (36) than any other U.S. National Park holding. The GGNRA is also easily accessible to most of the Bay Area so expect a lot of people when the weather is nice. There are numerous reasons people visit, but hiking is one of the most popular due to the numerous trails that feature jaw-dropping scenery.
This hike is one of the most interesting hikes I've ever done. The trailhead is at the end of Tennessee Valley Road which branches off south from US Hwy 1 just west of US Hwy 101. There are vault toilets on the north (right) side of the TH, and a picnic area on the left. You pass through a vehicle barrier to begin the hike, and the first 1/2 mile is on pavement. This provides access to those of us who need it, and also to vehicles of the working Miwok Ranch. I'm not sure what this ranch produces as I've never seen cows or patties in my 2 visits to the area. Perhaps it's a horse ranch as there is a horse ring at the main ranch at the TH. There is a babbling brook to your left that's shielded from view by some large (introduced) eucalyptus trees, and some interesting geology on your right. These rocks are sedimentary layers that were laid down on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean before being thrust upwards and deposited courtesy of the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the North American continental plate. The San Andreas Fault is the best-known feature of this action.
You continue your trek south through a broad valley along the Tennessee Valley Trail until you reach the Fox Trail branching off to the right 0.4 mile from the TH. The Fox Trail ascends 760 vertical feet over 1.1 miles, and every step brings increasingly spectacular views. Tennessee Valley below you and Wolf Ridge beyond dominate the view until you catch glimpses of San Francisco and San Francisco Bay as you near the top. You are climbing Coyote Ridge, and you reach the top when the Fox Trail reaches a couple of junctions: Coastal Fire Road heads south, and Coyote Ridge Trail heads north 0.1 mile further. You now have a view of the Pacific Ocean and the Green Gulch drainage which you soon begin to enter.
Note: you can shave 2.3 miles off this hike by taking the Coastal Fire Road due south down to the Coastal Trail.
The Fox Trail ends at the top of Coyote Ridge, and your route continues west along the Coastal Fire Road (different from the shortcut described above). This is probably the steepest downhill portion of the hike, and the footing is loose so take care. You'll enjoy expansive views of Mount Tamalpais and the redwood forests along its southern flank as you continue down. 0.9 miles from the top of Coyote Ridge you reach the Coastal Trail. There is a short spur to the west that takes you to a cliff high above the Pacific that gives great views of the Sunset Magazine-esque hamlet of Muir Beach. The Farallon Islands are visible on a clear day. Western gulls soar past, the salty breeze blows by, and the rocky islets of Pirates Cove to the south make this a perfect place for a rest. The view south is one of the most stunning sights I've ever seen. High cliffs above rocky islets lead your eyes to a nice view of San Francisco and the coast running south of The City.
Take the Coastal Trail southwest as it contours roughly 350 feet above the coast, and continue to enjoy the phenomenal views. This entire hike is in California coastal scrub, and this stretch is as good of an example of this ecotype that you'll see. You are likely to see hundreds of sea gulls flying past in flocks of about a dozen birds. Sometimes they stop in mid-air as they kite in the swirling ocean wind. The Coastal Trail reaches the Pirates Cove drainage, and rapidly descends to a button hook only 100 feet above the cove. There is a precarious route down to the cove here if you are interested in checking out some tide pools.
The 0.3 mile stretch from Pirates Cove to the junction with the Coastal Fire Road is a steep ascent of 470 feet. This spot provides one with a true adventure. The Coastal Fire Road heads north from this junction, but an unnamed trail heads south. This trail is very easy to follow even though it travels through encroaching brush. Be careful to check for ticks as you most assuredly will come into contact with vegetation. Poison oak is also all over the place. This spur trail runs along the top of a very steep ridge. It's a true catwalk as the ridge plunges 500 feet and 60 degrees to the east into Tennessee Valley, and is almost a sheer cliff on the ocean side to the west. The wildflowers were prominent and varied when I did this (April 30, 2011). You reach the logical end of this spur trail after about 0.5 mile, and the views here are possibly the best of the hike. One annoyance is the constant sonic buoys that audibly warn ships to keep away from this area. This trail actually continues down to the old artillery bunker that I'll describe later, but one would have to be insane to try it. That portion of the trail descends 45 degrees over loose gravel with cliffs on both sides.
Return back to the junction, and go right (east) on the Coastal Trail as it descends into Tennessee Valley. This portion more closely resembles a fire road than the portion north of the junction. There are steep portions, but nothing that's terribly troubling. You reach a junction with the Tennessee Valley Trail 0.7 miles down, and you want to go right. The signage direct you to Tennessee Cove. 0.5 miles later you reach a small dammed lake that is a great place to spot herons. 0.2 miles later you reach Tennessee Cove.
Tennessee Cove is a small inset from the ocean that features a small, yet nice beach. The creek that flows out of Tennessee Valley deposits large, smooth granules of dark sand just above its mouth at the Pacific. The geology here is exceptionally interesting. There are soaring cliffs on all sides, and there's a hole in a rock to the north that allows the late afternoon sun to shine onto the beach. There are two additional attractions here. Back along the trail just above the beach has a junction with a stair step trail up to an old artillery bunker (which you possibly could also reach from the catwalk described above). See my photoset from April 23, 2011 for pictures. There are great views here, but that must assuredly be getting old by now. The most interesting part of Tennessee Cove can be accessed at low-to-medium tide. Head south around a large rock into a smaller inlet, and a geologic bonanza awaits. I have very little idea what I was looking at, but the rocks were spectacular. Sedimentary rocks tilted 90 degrees, green serpentine, purple rocks, and so many others that beggar my layman's description. I hope some of the resident rockhounds here check out the pics and fill in the details.
Head back up the Tennessee Valley Trail, and follow the signs back to the TH. There is a nice riparian area on your right, and the afternoon sun lights up Wolf Ridge above. You may even see a flock of wild turkey at the TH. Those goofy birds are all over the Bay Area!
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.