Golden Gate National Recreation Area is comprised of several units. Routes of various lengths and difficulties can be achieved not only in the NRA but also in the adjacent state and local parklands. If you don’t like an overabundance of choices, planning a hike in the area can be challenging.
We decided to start at the Morning Sun Trailhead, just off of Highway 101 in Sausalito, and complete a 14-miles loop through Tennessee and Oakwood Valleys. However, we took a few spur trails, including Tennessee Cove, Pirate’s Cove, and Muir Beach.
Our [accidental] grand total was 19 miles with nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s almost the distance and more than the elevation gain of a round-trip hike on the Whitney Trail. Luckily, the weather was cool and we had started before sunrise. For those not up for such a challenge, keep reading as we have suggestions for a few shorter hikes in the area.
The Marin Headlands were once home to a multitude of military installations, including several high-caliber batteries. If you’re interested in exploring these ruins, check out our blog on Hawk Hill and the Marin Headlands.
Morning Sun Trail
Got a dog? Looking for a tough uphill run? This trail is for you. The Morning Sun Trail quickly climbs to Alta Trail and then connects to various trails heading toward Tennesse Cove or the Marin Headlands.
While this trail is very short and really only serves to connect the parking area to the main trails, the eucalyptus look stunning in the morning fog. Get an early start as the park-and-ride lot at the trailhead fills up quickly on weekend mornings.
From this trailhead, it is about 7 miles to Tennessee Cove. Head Northwest on The Alta Trail, then take the Bobcat and Miwok trails to Wolf Ridge. When you reach the high-point along Wolf Ridge, you will find a once paved fire road which leads to Hill 88 (see the aforementioned blog for more info). You shouldn’t be hiking on the road, but instead head down an easy-to miss dirt trail. This will take you to the floor of the Tennessee Valley.
The Tennessee Valley Trailhead is located at the end of Tennessee Valley Road, North of Marin City. The 1.7-mile trail is wide, well-graded, and stroller-friendly. In other words, it’s crowded. If you arrive late, you may have a hard time finding parking.
To avoid the masses, head out really early and catch the sunrise. There is little worry that you will lose the trail during twilight; just head down the valley towards the ocean. Check out the Lower Tennessee Valley Trail which parallels the main trail and starts about half way through. It’s a single-track and a little bit more quiet. A pit toilet is located about 3/4 down trail but can become unusable (keep in mind that we’re not easily grossed out) by midday.
For those with children slightly older or for those that are interested in shipwrecks, time your hike for low tide. You might be able to catch a glimpse of the S.S. Tennessee. The ship ran ashore in March of 1853. Captain Mellus was headed for the Golden Gate but missed, likely due to heavy fog. All the passengers and the gold were saved before the ship was taken by the sea so no use wading in the turbulent water.
Though a use-trail hugs the rugged coastline from the Tennessee Cove Overlook, it’s not on any official map and we cannot recommend taking it. It’s not maintained and may be unstable in places. Backtrack about a half a mile along the Tennessee Valley trail to a junction. Here you can continue straight to the Miwok Livery or head Northwest along the Coastal Trail towards Pirates Cove.
Pirates Cove is about another mile along the Coastal Trail. The beach is much more secluded, but the final distance of trail is badly eroded. Use your best judgment on whether you want to head down or not, but remember, you have to come back up.
From Pirates Cove, Muir Beach is another 1.5 miles to the Northwest.
The Muir Beach Parking Area has several pit toilets, picnic tables, and interpretive signs. There’s a nice area for picnicking or regrouping during a longer hike, such as our 19-mile trek (map below). The waves broke quite violently at Muir Beach and we did enjoy watching them for a few minutes.
The wetlands near the beach and parking area are currently being restored so stay on trail and mind your trash. The wetlands are home to a diverse population of flora and fauna, such as the California Newt and Red-bellied Frog. Let’s give them a fighting chance.
If you are starting at Muir Beach and want a more isolated hiking experience, skip Pirates Cove and head East down Green Gulch Trail. We found solitude as we strolled through the organic farm that operates there. Climb Coyote Ridge for stunning views of Mount Tamalpais, the Pacific Ocean and Richardson Bay. Combine with the Middle Green Gulch or Coastal Trails for a nice loop. If you’re following in the footsteps of our epic, the Coyote Ridge, Miwok, and Marincello Trails will take you back to the Bobacat and Alta Trails, then finally to your final descent down the Morning Sun Trail.
Hints and Words of Caution
The California coast is awe inspiring, but it is rugged and often unstable. The sandstone cliffs can crumble easily underneath your feet. Remember that the surf is rough out there. Stay ashore, stay on trail, stay safe, and stay alive.
You don’t need to drive out to the Sierra Nevada for over-night backpacking. The Marin Headlands have several walk-in campsites.
To learn more or support your park, visit the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
For more adventures in our National Parks, visit our National Park Service Agency Page.
Other hike in Golden Gate NRA
- Sweeney Ridge – easy, out and back, on the Peninsula
- Marin Headlands – easy to moderate, links to many trails, historic sites