Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I don’t often have the opportunity to go back to California, the state where I grew up and lived my first eighteen years. Flights are expensive, time off is scarce, and my wandering eye is always scanning the list of places I haven’t yet been. But my imagination and subconscious pull me back to the golden state often. Remembering the exact shade of firey orange I see from behind eyelids when my head is turned up to the wide, hot sun. Remembering the soft, rolling mountain ranges – cloaked in straw yellow in the fall, scrubby green in spring.

Grey skies above mountain beside Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

I had never been to the Marin Headlands before, but the sound of my shoes scuffing across gold gravel paths told a different story. The wide trail undulated beneath my legs, legs long retrained for the flat midwest, legs now unaccustomed to even minimal change in elevation. As the trail stretched out ahead of me, a long, winding ramp, it reminded me of what these legs are capable of. Of where these legs belong.

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Flora along the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

When we started our hike at the Tennessee Valley trailhead, it was late morning and the gray sky felt heavy. But by the time we caught our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the sun had broken through the cloudcover, reflecting scattered white waves across the bay. The vast ocean, almost unbelievable in scale, unfolded indefinitely toward the horizon. It’s taut shimmer was only broken by the hard diagonals of the headlands. The ridges of land inhaled and exhaled, the chaparral growing in surges of green, the sun pulsing in the veins of the plants’ thin, waxy leaves.

Stairs down toward Pirates Cove, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scramble back up from Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Detritus at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Bird perched on a boulder at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocks at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

The plunge to Pirates Cove began as stairs etched into the mountainside, and then quickly dissolved into a jumble of broken crag. Scrambling down to the beach, I held tight to each boulder, steadying myself against the earth before shuffling deeper toward the rocky surf. My legs shook involuntarily, already exhausted from the slow steady climb they’d endured, and now being thoroughly tested on the swift descent. But they carried me: past a trickling waterfall, spring runoff on its way to reuniting with the ocean; past native plants and opportunistic newcomers flowering just out of reach; past a mishmash of organic detritus, wooden bits washed up from a tumble in the sea; and finally, over the colony of smooth black stones that lined the curved, sandless cove.

Contrail in the sky behind the cliff at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Dudleya succulents at Pirates Cove, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Scrubby brush along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Rocky mountainside, Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean from the Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Climbing back up to the trail, back to the sandy path that flexed against the hillside and down into the main valley, I felt held in place. Like the roots of the coastal shrubs holding together the headlands’ rocky soil, like the heavy mountains of earth hugging and holding the edges of the sea, I felt the elements that make up this familiar ecosystem pull me back into it’s tight grasp. The native sedges reached out and tickled my ankles. The giant windswept cypress trees sheltered the trail, catching the first few drops of rain before they could even think to reach my head. I poured myself into the bowl of the Tennessee Valley and felt welcomed, at ease, like I had rediscovered a place that felt like home.

Tennessee Valley Trail marker, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Pacific Ocean peeking through mountains along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Wild weeds along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Tiny people atop mountain along Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Group hiking Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Darker than Green

Getting to the Tennessee Valley trailhead isn’t easy if you don’t have a car, but if you’re able to find a ride or carpool, you’ll enjoy a scenic trip over either the Richmond Bridge (coming from the East Bay) or the Golden Gate Bridge (coming from San Francisco). It’s a good idea to plan your arrival for earlier in the day, as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Once on the trail, you can choose from a few different hikes. The main trail that leads to the lovely Tennessee Valley Beach is flat and family-friendly. The trail for Pirates Cove is less so, but was a rewarding challenge. If the tide is low and you’ve planned wisely and packed a lunch, you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to eat overlooking the crashing waves. If you didn’t bring a meal and feel ravenous when your hike is finished, head to Tamalpie in Mill Valley for delicious thin crust pizza.


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