Wandering Lizard

An online magazine with information related to attractions, lodging, dining,
and travel resources in selected areas of the Western United States

An Early Morning Walk in the Tennessee Valley

A trail just north of the Golden Gate

I woke just as the sky was changing from gray to blue and looked out the window to see if the morning was to have fog or clear skies. It was not a typical year, the summer fogs were few and far between and this morning was to be clear. A perfect time for my hike through the Tennessee Valley. I was staying at an inn in Mill Valley that offered a hearty continental breakfast starting at 6:30. By seven I was dressed, had consumed my coffee, eggs, cinnamon rolls, and a delicious pear, and was in the car for the ten minute drive to the trailhead. (Mill Valley is a perfect location for exploring the southern end of Marin County.)

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California
Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

The Tennessee Valley is a minor water drainage system in the rolling hills of the southwesternmost part of Marin County. There is a small creek running through it which empties out into a very small cove embedded in the rugged coastal bluff bordering on the Pacific Ocean. Sometime in the mid nineteenth century an unfortunate ship captain in search of the Golden Gate made a costly error in navigation and his ship, the Tennessee, wrecked in the cove. The passengers and crew spent the night on the beach and were rescued the next day, but unfortunately the ship was beyond saving. Over the years fierce coastal storms tore at the exposed skeleton and violent tides bore the fragments away to other places, but even today small bits and pieces of the wreck are still evident and a good imagination can easily take one back to the dramatic events of that harrowing day that gave the small valley its name.

The Tennessee Valley is now part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area and the Tennessee Trail is but one small segment in a very extensive network of trails that stretch from the Golden Gate in the South to Muir Beach in the north. Tennessee Beach is almost exactly half way between Rodeo Beach and Muir Beach with three mile coastal trails linking in both directions. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead and even early in the morning there are a number of cars parked there - transportation for the early morning joggers, walkers, and bikers who are fortunate enough to be able to use the trail in their fitness programs. The trail to the beach is just over two miles and the first part of it is a paved road that dates from the days that this area was part of the coastal fortifications protecting the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

As I slipped past the gate and started my walk, wisps of gray ground fog were lifting off of the golden fields and early morning sun was blasting through the huge green Eucalyptus trees that edge the creek. The crisp air still had the early morning chill and was heavy with the fragrance of Eucalyptus. The grasses glistened with dew and small wildflowers were beginning to open as the shadow of the hills receded and warm sunshine spread over the earth. It was well into August, there had not any rain for a very long time, but there was still a wonderful sprinkle of bright color scattered through the fields. I found plants that I had not seen before and assembled a new list of questions for the next Native Plant Society member that I might meet. I walked briskly and exchanged greetings with a few fellow travellers on the road. We all agreed that it was a nice day and that we were lucky to be alive.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

Close to the end of the paved section of the road a once lovely home dating from the military period stood abandoned. A sign on the ramshackle fence proclaimed that volunteers were rescuing the structure from oblivion so that it could be used for a local youth education program. The paved road curved off to the south and a well maintained dirt road angled off to the north. There is no signage at the intersection but it is clear from the lay of the land that the road to the south heads up into the hills and the one to the north follows the stream through the valley. Cottontail rabbits were breakfasting at the edge of the road and small birds were chirping happily in the brush above the creek. As I walked down the dirt road next to the creek it was increasingly evident that the watercourse was the focus of all life in the area. The creek was a thick green ribbon of vegetation set among hills of golden grasses with numerous gray rock outcroppings studding the scene. Above the creek a very few solitary trees punctuated the emptiness of endless blankets of gold stretching over the curvacious hilltops in all directions.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

Shortly after leaving the paved road the traveller is given the option of following the dirt road or taking a foot trail that branches off to follow closer to the creek. I chose the trail and was immediately joined by two deer who grazed along with me for about ten minutes. They were obviously used to people but still independent. There was a very definite distance that they required between themselves and myself. As long as I moved slowly, did not make any sudden moves, and observed the required distances we were acceptable travelling companions. Eventually however my new friends decided to move off of the trail into the fragile environment of the creek itself where I could not go. I watched as they drank from the stream and then disappeared into a thicket of brush.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

The further I got from the trailhead the fewer humans I saw and the more deer that I ran into. (The exercise people seemed to prefer the road over the trail). None of the new deer were as sociable as the first two. One doe with her fawn was positively anti-social. Not obviously hostile mind you, but clearly wishing to protect her new offspring from human association. As soon as she saw me she put her body between the intruder and the youngster and herded junior up the rise further away from the trail. A short distance past mother and child I started running into the quail.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California
Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

I'm sure that I had been passing them earlier and had not noticed but now there was a part of the trail that was clearly ideal quail habitat because I ran into a half dozen covies within a few hundred feet. There were no really small birds and each family seemed to be about a dozen birds strong. As you approached the adults went in one direction and the youngsters in another. The young birds burrowed into cover as quickly as possible and the adults stayed and flirted with me as a distraction. They had obviously practiced the protective maneuver before - they were very good at it.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

Just before the trail reached the beach I ran into a rather large fresh water pond with a few waterfowl. A couple of late rising seagulls were belatedly heading out to sea after resting overnight in the pond and a solitary duck was diving for a morning snack. Another duck was shepherding her family far across the pond and explaining things that they should understand to her assemblage in a sharp series of agitated quacks. A delightful ring of reeds and grasses surrounded the mirror of blue water. Because I was early the wind had not yet come up and the surface of the pond was as glass with perfect reflections in all directions.

I walked around the pond and delighted in the sound of small frogs splashing into the water as I came too close. Unfortunately they were all too quick for me because I really wanted to see one. Among them might be one of the endangered seldom seen red legged frogs that live in this area.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

A few hundred feet further along the way the trail finally opened onto the beach. The back beach is all pebbles and the area closer to the water is fine sand. Huge towers of bluff rise on both sides and the north tower has a dramatic window cut into it by the wind. A fog bank sits just off shore and forces the fishing boat traffic in close to the coast. I sat on the sand and watched them taking dinner to San Francisco for a few minutes and then turned to a bit of beachcombing. The rocks that break the surface near shore reminds one of the dangers of navigating these waters and stimulates the imagination. Flotsam and jetsam on the beach raise the possibility that one is in the presence of the remains of the venerable old Tennessee and give one food for thought during the walk back to the trailhead.

Tennessee Valley, Marin, California Tennessee Valley, Marin, California Tennessee Valley, Marin, California
Tennessee Valley, Marin, California

Some day I hope to go back and try again to see the frogs.


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