SF Gate: Mill Valley | Location is everything at the intersection of redwoods, bay shore, shopping, and dining

PHOTO COURTESY OF MILL VALLEY LUMBERYARD

PHOTO COURTESY OF MILL VALLEY LUMBERYARD

If there were a place that epitomized the intersection of the best of Bay Area living, Mill Valley might be tops on many insider’s lists. Mill Valley’s backyard is the Muir Woods National Monument, an attraction so popular you now need reservations just to park there. Mill Valley’s front yard is Richardson Bay, opening to panoramic views of the Golden Gate, San Francisco, Alcatraz and Angel Island. And towering above it all is the iconic 2,572-foot Mount Tamalpais, birthplace of the sport of mountain biking, iconic in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels, and occasionally dusted with snow on rare winter mornings. All this just a short drive or ferry ride from San Francisco.

Mill Valley has repeatedly been named among the nation's best small towns, including a ranking from Smithsonian Magazine and CNN Money, and accolades from the New York Times.

Mill Valley, of course, once had mills, turning those cherished redwood forests into lumber. John Reed built the first sawmill in 1836 along Cascade Creek, shipping wood to San Francisco.

In 1892, the Chronicle reports, Robert Dollar opened Dollar Lumber Co. near the first mill at what is now 129 Miller Avenue, along the Old Mill Creek where it intersects with the Arroyo Corte Madera del Presidio stream.

Dollar Lumber shipped redwood lumber by boat from Sausalito to San Francisco to help rebuild the city after the great 1906 earthquake and fires. Over the years, the property changed hands eight times and is now owned by Jan and Matt Mathews. The pair owns a development company specializing in restoring and re-purposing historic buildings. From 2017-2018, they turned that historic lumber yard into a picturesque destination featured in the photo above, with retail, a restaurant and bakery, offices, and event space.

The proximity to streams, trees and hills makes Mill Valley an iconic location for trail adventures from bicycling to hiking, or even running. The grueling Dipsea trail race over the hills to the sea started in 1905. It includes 7.4 miles of trails, from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, but it's quite exclusive. Only 1,500 runners are allowed, mainly locals.

Despite its idealized adventure-sports location and picturesque views, Mill Valley is even more widely known for encouraging visitors to stay indoors and stare at a screen, as long as that screen is at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The festival, now in its 42nd year, spans eleven days and brings in 200 film makers from 50 countries. The festival, and the aforementioned sort of refined rustic chic dining and retail, draw celebrities to Mill Valley by the droves — but some have always been here.

Mill Valley hairstylist Alessandra Nociaro recalls going to the Throckmorton Theatre comedy club years ago when Dana Carvey and Robin Williams would just pop in for an unannounced set on Tuesday nights. As a hairdresser with At The Top Salon And Gallery, unexpected connections with celebrities like Sammy Hagar, the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, and actor Pete Coyote became routine. She cut Sammy Hagar's son's hair, and styled Craig Chaquico from Jefferson Starship. Weir played with Jerry Garcia and Bonnie Raitt at Sweetwater, and in 2012 Weir helped revive the bar as today's Sweetwater Music Hall. Hagar used to own El Paseo steakhouse, though it recently closed.

Nociaro confirms Mill Valley is evolving and diversifying, and while celebrities are still there, it's more refined now. "It's not as crunchy, not as hippy," she said, adding that the changes create challenges. "My experience is it's a struggle to afford this lifestyle, and you have to have a strong sense of self to not get a sense of entitlement."

"You get used to this beautiful place," she added. And although she says parking is harder to come by, every type of organic, sustainable, free-range gourmet food is not. The tourism agency, Visit Marin, describes Mill Valley as, "…reminiscent of a charming European village." Appropriate, given the multinational nature of the iconic film festival.

While it may not be an affordable part of the Bay Area, Mill Valley is idyllic, iconic, and incredibly close to everything, including fame and fortune.

More information:

Population: 14,392 people

Median Age: 46.7 years old

Education: 98.4% high school graduate or higher education

Median Home Price: Around $1,500,000

Median Household Income: $141,698

Housing Units: 6,452

Fun Fact: The "crookedest railroad in the world" up Mt. Tam began in Mill Valley

Data: Census.gov