Mill Valley, nestled at the base of Mt. Tamalpais, exudes charm with its natural surroundings, quaint local businesses and eclectic arts scene. Incorporated in 1900 with 900 residents, today the population has swelled to over 14,000. Trek to the waterfall at Cascade Falls, window shop downtown or enjoy a free Shakespeare performance at Old Mill Park’s amphitheater and you’ll understand why folks flock to Mill Valley.
If you ask a local the main reason they made Mill Valley their home, you’ll probably hear the word proximity. Whether they live on a steep hilltop or in a lush valley, they’re just minutes away from some of the most prized settings in the world: Muir Woods, Mt. Tam and the edge of the Pacific Ocean, all located within the Mill Valley zip code.
The primeval redwood forest in Muir Woods, situated on Redwood Creek, is a top destination for Bay Area visitors. Amazingly, the tallest tree in Muir Woods is about 250 feet tall and estimated to be around 780 years old. Advance parking or shuttle reservations are now required. It’s an extra step, but well worth it.
The highest peak in Marin is Mt. Tam, “the Sleeping Lady,” at an elevation of 2,572 feet. Spectacular vistas of San Francisco and even the Farallon Islands on a clear day reward hikers and mountain bikers who make the pilgrimage to the summit.
Take the 1.7-mile hike on Tennessee Valley Trail and you’ll end up at the Pacific Ocean. The scenery is glorious, with the secluded beach flanked by rock cliffs.
Stolte Grove and the adjacent garden are two of the many hidden gems in Mill Valley. Located in the Homestead Valley neighborhood, the park contains a redwood stand with a creek running beside it. The lavish gardens next door showcase dozens of huge hydrangea bushes and trumpet vines growing wild.
Residents love that they don’t need to cross the bridge for big city culture. This little city is home to annual events including the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival and Mountain Play, a live musical theatre production at Mt. Tam’s outdoor amphitheater.
The O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, a community art center presenting programs in the visual, literary and performing arts, is celebrating its 50th year. Located on a two-and-a-half acre campus, the pièce de résistance of the property is the sculpture garden with works by Dick O’Hanlon. There’s also an art gallery open to the public with juried shows that feature local artists and change monthly.
For evening entertainment, check out the calendar at Sweetwater Music Hall and dance the night away to live music from rappers to rockers. If professional live theatre in an intimate venue is more your style, try the Marin Theatre Company, where the west coast premiere of Sovereignty is now playing. The Throckmorton Theatre, an art center, offers a diverse lineup of live music, comedy and workshops in a beautifully restored theatre. Or perhaps you’d prefer to see a film at The Sequoia Theatre, a 1920s movie house showing the latest flicks and the Live in HD Metropolitan Opera series.
Before going out on the town, visit one of its many fine restaurants. No matter what you have a hankering for, you’ll find a Mill Valley eatery serving it.
Downtown is home to first-rate fare at new and established restaurants. The recently opened Gravity Tavern serves robust meat and fish dishes and not-to-be-missed tater tots. The 55-year-old La Ginestra, known for its Neapolitan cuisine and handmade pasta, is the perfect place for a family meal.
A new favorite is the Watershed Restaurant located in the Lumber Yard, which is built on the site of Mill Valley’s first sawmill. With community seating and a lovely outdoor patio, the ambience feels welcoming. Chef Kyle Swain changes the California cuisine menu frequently, based on what’s available from local farms, ranches and fisheries. I thoroughly enjoyed the signature dish—halibut crudo with avocado, cucumber, horseradish green and lemon oil. The thick cut fries with aioli were also delicious.
The Dipsea Café on Shoreline Highway overlooks Coyote Creek. An abundance of natural light graces their country kitchen décor, creating a lovely spot for brunch. For a sweet treat, try the cheese blintzes with orange zest-cheese filling, blueberry-strawberry sauce and sour cream. Before you leave, take a gander at the historic photos of Mill Valley adorning the walls.
Across the road, the Shoreline Coffee Shop has dished up a mix of American and Mexican food since 1962. The avocado toast is yummy and their breakfast burrito is always tasty.
Travel a few blocks up the street and savor the dining experience at the Buckeye Roadhouse. House specialties include oysters bingo, chili-lime brick chicken and smoked beef brisket from their on-site smokehouse. You can also eat your meal in their warm and inviting bar.
If you’d rather cook, head to the 90-year-old Mill Valley Market, locally owned and operated by the Canepa family for four generations. Much of their produce is locally sourced, such as greens from Green Gulch Farms and honey from Mill Valley beehives. They have an outstanding selection of hard-to-find European items including Kinder chocolates, Branston Pickle and Duerr’s marmalade. The extensive wine selection includes bottles from California and all over the world. If you’re more of a beer person, they carry over 400 brands. Mosey down the aisles to see what delicacies you’ll uncover.
Don’t spend all of your time eating, though. Unique shops abound in Mill Valley. One that strikes my fancy is Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop in the Lumber Yard. Their inventory consists of modern reproductions of classic English touring bikes. E-bikes rule in this store. I covet the Ruffian, handcrafted in Germany, or maybe the Elby with a range of 90 miles on one charge.
Also in the Lumber Yard is Lulu Designs, a jewelry store and working studio with an all-female team of master metalsmiths. Owner Stacy “Lulu” King uses gemstones from India and a proprietary blend of bronze in her pieces, which owe inspiration to botanicals and textiles.
ToyHouse, a specialty store for children, is a great place to find just the right gift for the kid who has everything. Their collection includes toys, games, trains, dolls and everything else a youngster dreams about. Locally owned and operated, ToyHouse makes shopping easy by providing a place for kids to play while you browse and by offering complimentary gift wrapping.
Before we finish our journey, there’s one place you can’t miss: the Mill Valley Library. The award-winning building boasts floor to ceiling windows delivering views of redwoods and the creek. The cozy, wood-burning fireplace is usually roaring when the temperature dips. Free After Hours events include wine and free classes taught by instructors with remarkable credentials. I’ll be at the Naked Truth event this Friday sipping a glass of red while watching live storytellers perform sans script.
I don’t live in Mill Valley, but I sure spend a lot of time there. Whether I want to kick up my heels or spend the day relaxing, I always discover something delightful to do in Mill Valley. You will, too.