Mill Valley: A Local’s Guide
Sandwiched between San Francisco to its south and the Wine Country to its north, commuters, day-trippers, and travelers see Mill Valley in a 2-3 second blur driving on Highway 101. Residents of Mill Valley are content to see boatloads of local and faraway travelers descend on and into the touristy, neighboring towns of Sausalito and Tiburon. Most tourists’ familiarity with Mill Valley is through a bus or car ride to the overcrowded Redwood Park known as Muir Woods. Mill Valley is more than Muir Woods; this local resident is ready to go public and share some of the most treasured places in Mill Valley.
Hit the Trails:
Unfortunately for tourists, the most remote trails are often unmarked, and you will need a local guide. Adventurous hikers can become local explorers by purchasing a detailed and comprehensive map of all the marked and unmarked trails called “A Rambler’s Guide to Trails of Mt. Tamalpais Muir Woods and Marin Headlands”: http://amzn.to/SPXkGm.
Tennessee Valley (Marin Headlands)
It is the shortest distance to a Marin County beach with wide trails leading you to the rocky coastline. This trail is a must for hikers and mountain bikers. It’s just a mere 10-15 minute drive from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Whether you are heading north or south on 101, take Hwy 1 and make a sharp left (a few blocks away) onto Tennessee Valley Rd. Park in or outside the parking lot. Pack a picnic or pick up some take out from Cafe del Soul in Tam Junction for lunch.
Most of the trails are quite steep, so prepare yourself for a butt-busting workout! Near the entrance of the lot, look for the sign that says Miwok Trail on your right (if you are facing the parking lot). The trail has lots of steps and will split off into a few directions at a ridge. If in doubt, stay left. Eventually you will wind up on the Coyote Trail and pass the Fox Trail. You can shorten your hike by heading left to connect onto the Tennessee Valley Trail, which will take you about a mile back to the car. This is about a 2-3 hour hike depending on your pace and the many stops you are likely to take because of the views. Or, if you are in the mood for a more challenging route, carry on the Coyote Trail until it dead ends. Make a left onto the Coastal Trail, hike for .7 miles until you will reach Tennessee Valley. This extended hike will take 3-4 ½ hours and gives you better views of the coastline. Make another left if you want to head back to the car or a right for about a ½ mile walk to get to the beach: http://1.usa.gov/1waDR22.
Food on the Way
Cafe del Soul, Tam Junction
For a quick, casual lunch or meal to go, Cafe del Soul serves up all natural and organic wraps, salads, soups, rice bowls, and smoothies. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel good about what you are eating. It is conveniently located a few minutes away on Route 1 exit (Stinson Beach and Muir Woods) from Hwy 101: http://cafedelsoul.net.
Dipsea Cafe, casual Californian/Mediterranean
The Buckeye Roadhouse, Steakhouse (reservations recommended)
Blithedale Ridge Fire Road
The Blithedale Ridge Fire Road is a connecting point to different paths lined with small waterfalls, wooded creeks, vibrant fauna, Redwood Trees, and panoramic views. It is one of the most accessible and prettiest places to mountain bike or hike making it a busy destination on the weekends. This long ago railroad track is where mountain biking first originated. Most mountain bikers head up toward Mt. Tam, however, there are plenty of Fire Roads that will take you up, down and around for hours of exhilarating fun.
For hikers, a local favorite trail is a 2 to 2 ½ hour loop. Take a right (a few minute’s walk on Old Railroad Grade) up the H Line Fire Road (not marked but a wide trail). You will pass a few water tanks and will make a sharp left onto Blithedale Ridge. This is a fairly strenuous uphill ascent, but it’s the ultimate outdoor workout. After a few miles, you will see the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo to your left, so wind around for a few miles till you see a tiny narrow trail on the left (unnamed signage) called Temelpa. The trail widens with steps and intersects with Summit Road. Continue on the narrow trail (a shortcut) and make a left onto Summit. Follow the road straight (before the hairpin turn) until you hit the dirt road, and you will soon be on Old Railroad Grade Trail. Stay on the wide fire road for a few miles and you will loop back to where you started. For more trails beneath or near Mt. Tam, check the link to the Open Space map: http://bit.ly/1mh978I. WARNING: Not all trails have signs (particularly the smaller ones).
Off of Hwy 101, take the E. Blithedale exit and head west toward downtown. As you approach downtown, the street turns to W. Blithedale. Take W. Blithedale for a few miles and on the righthand side is a sign and wide trail labeled Old Railroad Fire Road. Parking is limited, so get there early and be prepared to walk or bike a ½ mile to the trailhead if those few spots are taken.
Dipsea Steps/Sun Trail/Tenderfoot
Early summer, every year, Mill Valley holds America’s oldest trail foot-race (since 1905). Runners gather in downtown Mill Valley and either have to qualify or take their chances in a lottery. Runners climb 676 steps and run 7 miles on a narrow, windy, steep incline/decline for this mentally and physically challenging race.
This mainly wooded and panoramic hike is about 2-2 ½ hours long without a lunch stop. The Dipsea Steps and Walsh Dr/Bayview will descend onto to Panoramic Highway, above Muir Woods, and beneath Mt. Tam. Eventually, you will loop back down to the Dipsea steps through the narrow, wooded path of the Tenderfoot/Cypress Trail. Marin Magazine lists some hikes around Marin County that will take you off-the-beaten path. Scroll down to the Mill Valley Hikes, and you will find further description and hiking directions for this hike: http://bit.ly/1iDZi1p.
Pack a picnic lunch and stop along the way for views of Mt Tam, the Pacific Ocean, and Stinson Beach. On route is the 100+ year old German Tourist Club which offers a unique shady spot for a picnic. Check ahead for their schedule and calendar of Beer festivals and events: http://touristclubsf.org.
The next best thing to a picnic is a brunch or a lunch break at the Mountain Home Inn, and it is the halfway point or downhill part of the hike (http://www.mtnhomeinn.com/food). With limited seating for dining, make sure to make a reservation or go at an off-peak hour. Sit back and enjoy the million dollar view of the San Francisco Bay Area. If none of these options suit your palate, head back to Mill Valley, where there are many food options a short walking distance from Old Mill Park.
Downtown Mill Valley
Surrounded by Redwood Trees, lots of unique boutiques, a nearby Redwood Park, and library, this little town casts a spell on locals and visitors. Mill Valley has two exits off of Highway 101. The shortest way to get to downtown is to take the E. Blithedale exit. You know you are in the center of town when you see the “Gravity Car”. It is permanently parked in the back of the Depot Plaza (behind the Depot Bookstore and Cafe). From 1896-1930, this artifact once carried passengers from Mt Tam to Muir Woods, which at the time was known as “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.” Look for available street parking. Be mindful of the time left on your parking meter because the meter maids take their job quite seriously! Walk around Miller Ave., Throckmorton, and E. Blithedale for eating, shopping, and entertainment (see favorite food places below). Map: http://bit.ly/1sxXSNo.
The Mill Valley Library and Old Mill Park
Darkened by thick, enormous Redwood Trees and a trickling creek, in Old Mill Park, the Library is home to Mill Valley’s history of the Miwok Indians, settlers, homesteaders, the lumber mills, and the old railroads. Old Mill Park, directly outside the Library, is a quiet and serene place for a picnic lunch or for a peaceful respite. Off of Throckmorton Ave, about 2 blocks away from the Depot (the downtown square), is the Mill Valley Public Library. http://www.millvalleylibrary.org/Index.aspx?page=712.
Surrounded by lush greenery and Redwood Trees, is an overfilling waterfall during the winter months or a heavy shower-like flow in the summer months. About a 5-8 minute drive from downtown Mill Valley is Cascade Falls. This short scenic 5 minute drive on this narrow, windy road is well worth the visit. From downtown Throckmorton Ave., head away from Old Mill Park and the Library. Continue on until you see a small dirt lot (2-3 spaces) on the righthand side of the road. It is easy to miss, so look for the small sign that says Cascade Falls. Walk up the quarter mile trail to the falls.
El Paseo, Downtown Mill Valley
With owners like Culinary Celebrity, Tyler Florence, and Rock Star, Sammy Hagar, El Paseo gets a standing ovation for its rock’n menu, European-style decor, and romantic atmosphere. With their hearty yet elegant, American food, their signature strip steak just falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. This special occasion destination consistently and deservingly winds up amongst the San Francisco Chronicle’s (SFGate) top 100 Bay Area restaurants. Pedestrian comfort food never tasted so refined! http://elpaseomillvalley.com.
Ever since Mill Valley natives, Justin and Tyler Catalana opened Mill Valley Beerworks in 2010, it has been a rousing success. Creating their own Craft Beer and carrying other specialty brews, they developed and maintained a cult-like following and reputation that extends beyond Marin County. This little Gastropub is on the outer edge of downtown, and is known for converting non-beer drinkers into craft beer enthusiasts. In addition to cranking up some of the Bay Area’s Best Craft Beer, these brothers have also crafted a seasonal, rotating menu that puts it at the level of the finest eating establishments in San Francisco In fact, Mill Valley Beerworks also holds a spot on the San Francisco Chronicle’s (SFGate) top 100 Bay Area restaurants: http://millvalleybeerworks.com.
The Canepa family owns and operates a small market, that has not only survived, but thrived alongside the large health-oriented markets and national supermarket chains. It stays true to its roots of personalized service, carrying the basic necessities, locally-grown, organic produce, lots of artisan food, and supports non-profits. Not only are they a multi-generational family owned market, but they also run a organic and sustainable small farm in Sonoma County. Every town should have a Mill Valley Market and whether you are looking for some fresh produce, artisan cheese, deli sandwich, take-out, or an eclectic wine or spirit, Mill Valley Market has been feeding and servicing its town since 1929. Pick up a quick and delicious picnic lunch or snack from their deli and take-out counter: http://www.millvalleymarket.com.
Honorable Mentions, Downtown
Piazza D’Angelos, Italian
Bungalow 44, American
Pearl’s Phat Burgers
Tamalpie, Miller Ave.
Tamalpie is a casual indoor/outdoor restaurant with views of Mt. Tam, hence the name. The Neapolitan Pizzas are named after nearby hiking and biking trails. With its daily changing specials of pizza, Italian-oriented dishes, salads, and more, this place will satiate any palate. Stop by for lunch or dinner, and enjoy dining al fresco. The 2-minute video tells the story: http://bit.ly/1jUrm5y.
Honorable Mentions, Miller Ave.
Joe’s Taco Lounge, Mexican
Sweetwater Music Hall
It’s no surprise how this iconic Music venue has not only attained national recognition, but how Rock n’ Roll legends have randomly dropped in to jam to the delight of small, rowdy crowds. The new location for the Sweetwater is located in the 100+ year old Masonic Hall. One of their investors is Grateful Dead legend Bob Weir. Join the club, and dance the night away! http://www.sweetwatermusichall.com
142 Throckmorton Theater
The Throckmorton Theater is a small theater that packs in a whole lot of entertaining performances of musicians, creative dance, independent films, one-person theater, and comedy. With occasional spontaneous appearances from Dana Carvey, Robin Williams, Kevin Nealon, and Richard Lewis, Tuesday Comedy Night with Mark Pitta and Company will tickle your funny bone. From all over the world, music performers from Spanish Guitarist, soulful Nigerian musicians, and even well-known performers, like the B52s have played at the Throckmorton Theater. Sign up for their newsletter to get the inside track of their latest performances. Also, be prepared to reserve tickets for those coveted shows because with its limited seating, tickets will sell out: http://www.throckmortontheatre.org.
Marin Theater Company
Often overshadowed by neighboring repertory theater companies in San Francisco and Berkeley, Marin Theater Company may be the best kept secret from San Francisco Bay Area theater-goers. With its original, dynamic, and emotionally charged plays, their focus is on 20th century American playwrights. They are loyal supporters of up and comers. Consistently, Marin Theater Company picks up high marks from Bay Area theater reviewers: http://marintheatre.org.
Just about the prettiest place on earth to see a musical is from mid-May to mid-June at the Mountain Play Theater on top of Mt. Tam. For over 100 years, their music, their sets, and actors have made the hills come alive with “The Sound of Music.”
Because there is little parking for the thousand plus attendees, it is highly recommended and easy to take the shuttle bus to and from the Mountain Theater. Park the car by Tamalpais High School on Miller Avenue between Camino Alto and Reed Blvd, or in Tam Junction at Manzanita Parking Lot. Lunch and snacks can be purchased at the theater, but many visitors pack their own gourmet picnics.
Bring layers of clothing, durable/comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and a hat because the few spots under the trees tend to be reserved; it can get quite toasty up on the mountain once the play starts. Since the amphitheater is rustic, take blankets and cushions (can be rented). It’s general seating, so get there at least a few hours early for the best seats.
For the hikers wanting some exercise and stunning views of Redwood Trees, follow the crowds down the trails to downtown Mill Valley. A shuttle bus can take you back to where you parked your car. Hiking Map: http://new.mountainplay.org/8951/2013_Hike_Down_Map.pdf. Mountain Play Info: http://new.mountainplay.org/tickets.html.
Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival
Hard to imagine viewing or buying art at the Annual Fall Arts Festival? Artists have to compete with upward scenic views of the imposing Redwood Trees in the historic Old Mill Park. In the third week of September, thousands of visitors flood into this intimate park to view the first class artists selling their wares. You can watch some talented performers entertain small audiences in this wooded venue. Don’t bother trying to find parking near the park or downtown Mill Valley because there is a convenient shuttle service that can take you to and from the festival: http://www.mvfaf.org.
Mill Valley Film Festival
Rated as one of the top film festivals in the United States, is Mill Valley’s biggest Gala and event of the year. Because of its non-competitive style and its reputation of launching new films and talent, it has been coined the “Filmmakers Festival.” With 200 films from around the world, and over 40,000 filmgoers, this small community attracts Hollywood’s A-list celebrity talent.
Get tickets as early as possible because many of the shows sell out. Stay away from films that are headed for commercial or box office success; focus on the small, independent, foreign films with the storylines and themes that are of interest to you and best fit within your schedule. Their catalog of films over the 11-day festival is extensive, so there is something for everyone’s taste. The festival is usually in early October: http://www.mvff.com.
Mountain Home Inn
This out of the way, small rustic boutique hotel is strategically perched on a hilltop with panoramic views of the Bay, San Francisco, Mt Tam, and the Pacific Ocean. It is in close proximity to hiking and biking trails above Muir Woods (less touristy part) and is steps away from the most scenic parts of the Bay Area. Between Mount Tam and Stinson Beach, this is the only place to stop for lunch. With its cabin-like feel, spectacular views, it defines the casual outdoor dining experience for visitors staying overnight or for day trippers: http://www.mtnhomeinn.com.
Mill Valley Inn
This fairy-tale Inn has cozy cottages and provides a comfortable and elegant interior with views of sky-high Redwood Trees. The Mill Valley Inn is located in downtown where everything you need or don’t need is a few minutes away. Book ahead because there are few rooms, and you won’t feel any closer to being a local.
When choosing a home, consider a house close to the the centrally located neighborhoods in the Homestead Valley or downtown Mill Valley: http://bit.ly/1ldr0X3.
Before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mill Valley was a reprieve from the fast-paced life of San Francisco. The locals of Mill Valley are fortunate to have the Redwoods and a multitude of activities outside their doors. There are many hidden hot and cool spots to explore year round. Avoid the temptation of following the hordes to the touristy spots because Mill Valley is most definitely more than Muir Woods.