GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA: Hiking Sensational Coastal Landscapes Through Changing Seasons in the Marin Headlands at Tennessee Valley
One time, approaching an isolated outcrop of eroded and lichen-encrusted boulders, high in the rugged hills of upper Miwok Trail, no one about for miles, I watch as several monster sized ravens convene on a rocky prominence and hold court like dark royalty deciding weighty corvine matters. There is much mocking and admonitions, flapping about and carrying on, squawky nay saying and jostling for prime perches. Many photos, but not a one turned out. (What do you expect, Gambolin' Man, with your puny little digital?)
Another time, on the final leg of a tough hike, we stop to watch a hungry bobcat hunting at the dusky hour, in an open meadow close to the parking lot, where hundreds of passers-by could have witnessed (if hundreds had been there) the cat pawing at the ground, then pouncing, then pawing some more, but coming up empty before dashing away out of sight into the thickening night.
Not long ago, hanging out by a small hidden creek, I happen to look up and espy the tiniest of nests about ten feet up on an alder branch; on closer examination with the binoculars, sharp textured details of a delicate oval shaped basket, woven of fibers and grasses, are revealed. Must belong to any one of a number of species of hummingbirds who call this part of GGNRA home. (For the record, I've named her Anna.) Next thing I know, here she comes, flitting expertly through the foliage, alighting with perfect precision on her diminutive roost, sitting there contentedly for a goodly while.
Throughout countless visits at different times of the year, through the changing seasons, many animal residents of Tennessee Valley have been spotted: playful aquamarine mammals, stealthy coyotes, ultra cautious rabbits, nonchalant deer, skulky fox, waddling skunks, slinky blue-tailed skinks, darting Western fence lizards, many varieties of slithering snakes and threatened and endangered amphibians, dozens of species of dragonflies and butterflies, all beautiful and intricate beyond description, and a myriad forms and manifestations of avian life, mostly unnamable and unknowable, but common sightings include red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles, ravens, crows, vultures, owls, quail, ducks, and a plethora of pelagic / shore birds, including terns, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and herons.
I've barely touched the surface of possible birds, trees, insects, animals and plants that live in this swathe of the GGNRA's 75,500 acres of open spaces covering three counties and spanning hugely diverse ecosystems amidst the urban matrix called the San Francisco Bay Area. You're not likely to find any natural venue more stunning, any biota richer, in such proximity to a large city, than the parks of GGNRA, and especially the lovely, spectacular and, naturally, over-visited Tennessee Valley.
This "wild" place truly holds the promise - or threat! - of catching glimpses of animals you probably won't ever see in "person", such as the elusive mountain lion, but you will, if you're observant and follow game trails and look for faunal scat areas, come upon plenty of evidence of their comings and goings, this top chain food predator's stealthy movements through a green connector belt that provides access and egress via riparian corridors across a huge swathe of land encompassing more continuous mantel of unbroken green forest than Costa Rica! This, folks, is Marin County, a land blessed with a cornucopia of natural preserved beauty -- portions of the GGNRA, several State Parks, the Marin Municipal Water District lands, and far beyond west Marin to Pt. Reyes National Seashore. My! My! It just doesn't get better than this! -- San Francisco's "back yard paradise." (And you want to know why it costs an arm and a leg to live in the SF Bay Area.)
Tennessee Tennessee, there ain't no place I'd rather be, Baby won't you carry me back to Tennessee . . . Valley, that is, with all due respect to the classic Dead song. Crazy thing is, though, it took - what? - 20 years of residing in the Bay Area - to finally haul my butt out to Tennessee Valley! That's because, all along, I smugly figured, like Oakland so famously described, there wasn't much "there there." Couldn't be. Just look how damn close it is to roaring freeways, metropolitan skylines, modern suburban sprawl, and ugly housing developments - all this bustling activity and endless concrete and asphalt of development run amok, it all seemed much too THERE THERE for a veritable nature get-away to exist in its purlieus, right on its frenzied, artificial fringes. Besides, the crowds, the crowds, the madding crowds. On any given day, especially on weekends, the commodious parking lot is jam packed with enthusiastic hikers of all ages and sizes (90%), perfectly outfitted mountain bikers (8%), and a few equestrians (2%), each special interest "outdoor user group" squeezing in their couple of hours of effortless, all-access, ultimate nature experience at Tennessee Valley. And because it's a mere stone's throw from San Francisco, you not only have to contend with outdoorsy Bay Areans who believe their slice of coastal paradise is unrivaled up and down for hundreds of miles, but millions of tourists from all over the world who also come and visit and contribute to Tennessee Valley's often tiresome overcrowdedness and super-popularity. Yes, Tennessee Valley suffers from being loved to death.
But what the hell. One off-day, you venture over there, and can't believe your eyes at the transcendent beauty of place, at the wide open space right smack dab in the middle of the rat race! And crowds be damned! Don't let the crowds scare you. You can always escape the hoi polloi. Most of these horrible people you'll never encounter anyway, or make contact with, so why worry. (I must admit, people are so damned friendly out there on the trail! Everyone's smiling, and in a such a good mood - the endorphins must be flowin' freely from the electric, eclectic goings-on at this magical gathering place!) But, hey, it's a brilliant Saturday morning, and if you elect to go to an easily accessible, over-the-top beautiful NATIONAL RECEATION AREA, then by God deal with it. Even if, heaven forbid, you find yourself there one gorgeous weekend morning, fret not -- the place is spacious enough to swallow you up. You really can plot an escape to your perfect destination and see more animals than people, hopefully.
The unlimited opportunities for physical exertion and recreation -- hiking, biking, and horseback riding -- certainly attract hordes of outdoor sports enthusiasts, but the multitudes also swarm to Tennessee Valley to soak in its all-access beauty and pervasive picnicking tranquility. The easy hike through the lovely meadow / valley to a spectacular wedge of rugged ocean beach where Tennessee Valley Creek dumps in is the big magnet for 90% of visitors, but even so, TV's many well-tramped upper loop trails in the "back country" accommodate any and all fit enough to be there: the casual walkers, the light joggers, the serious marathoners, the Sierra Club groups, the downhill bombers, the earnest (and gabbing) Marin moms push-running their strollers. Bring 'em all on at Tennessee Valley and everyone's the better off for it!
Whatever your passion, wherever your bliss takes you, at Tennessee Valley you will find it. Amateur and professional ornithologists rejoice in hollows and hidden nooks of nature to engage in superb bird watching. When they're out, the native wildflowers attract throngs of floral admirers to look at meadows and hillsides carpeted in bright orange poppies, purple lupines, checker-bloom, and buttercups. Painterly, still scenes of wispy clouds over green hills and blue ocean. With each visit, you'll find Tennessee Valley becomes ever more magical, albeit ever more familiar, but never prosaic, as its protean charms are subtly revealed through the timeless passage of seasons and its changing, contrasting moods of a landscape in flux, alternating from a wet / lush / moist / green environment half the year to a bone-dry / brown / drought stricken one the remainder. You might have misty fog rolling in one second, blanketing the land and reducing visibility to zero, and the next giving way to warmth and sunlit dappled hills. One moment ferocious out-of-nowhere winds can whip up and howl, and the next calm down to a perfect peace. One minute it's a hot blue day, the next a cool lavender dusk.
As the informational sign board in the parking lot lets you know - and which you've read now a hundred times and will read yet again on your next visit - Tennessee Valley has a steeped and varied history, occupied for countless moons by coastal Miwok peoples, probably since at least 10,000 years ago. There was a big ship wreck in 1853 - the eponymous S.S. Tennessee - parts of which can still be seen embedded in the shore; it went through a big farming and grazing period; and then, in the 1960s, thankfully, the community rallied to save a large chunk of precious Tennessee Valley from a crass development scheme that would have brought the 'burbs right up to where, today, wild gentle hills roll toward the open sea.
No matter which direction you set off, hiking options are endless, varied, and run the gamut from easy to strenuous. Fantastic views can be had of Mt. Tamalpais, Tiburon, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay and skyline, the East Bay, including a far-flung vision of Mt. Diablo hovering on the distant horizon looking quite insignificant, and vast stretches of the Pacific opening up to views of the Farallones 18 miles offshore. Sometimes, high up on Coastal Tail, it seems like you're in the enchanting land of Cinque Terre, Italia, it's so beautiful and exotic. Then you pinch yourself and know you're here, right at home.
No matter the time of year, whatever season you visit, Tennessee Valley will yield a banquet of surprises. You can spend a couple hours or all day having fun at Tennessee Valley. Most always, a hike or ride ends up at the beach, a truly gorgeous place, no matter the number of other visitors, frolickers, and admirers, where you can find a patch of sand to dig in, a sea boulder to perch on, and lose yourself in thoughtless reverie to the hypnotic rhythm of waves breaking ashore. Peace and calm wash over you. Crowds, what crowds?