Why We Love Mill Valley: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About This Scenic, Woodsy Town

Mill Valley is a city with a soul. Ask anyone — they’ll tell you. They want to tell you. “Mill Valley is an incredibly cool and fun place to be,” says executive director of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Jim Welte. Cool, because the town enjoys deep roots in music, arts and culture. “This is fundamentally an arts town,” says Mayor Urban Carmel. “After lumber, who moved here? Artists.” Fun, because Mill Valley is positioned at the base of Mount Tamalpais (aka the Sleeping Lady), the lush slopes constantly encouraging exploration. “We have the steps, lanes and paths that go up and down our community and connect us to the mountain,” says Carmel. “We’re the gateway to the coast and Muir Woods. This is a town that embraces the outdoors.” 

Mill Valley is home to the Dipsea Trail and its iconic up-and-over footrace (the oldest in the country), the Mountain Play and its al fresco musicals, and (once upon a time) the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway and its open-air gravity cars. The railway may be a thing of the past, but residents still find ways to get around: see them hike, cycle and surf, sometimes all in one day. Families fill the redwood-rimmed village of downtown, catching up with friends in the Depot Plaza and threading in and out of owner-operated shops and world-class eateries. Later, they might just catch a show at the Sweetwater Music Hall. 

The famous Dipsea Race trail leads hikers into Stinson Beach.

An appreciation of Mill Valley’s community feel informs all levels of operation, from local business to bureaucracy. “Our team wakes up every day thinking about ways that we can put a rocket booster on the town’s vitality,” says Welte. “We are constantly thinking of ways that we can push for community, evolution, and what makes the most sense for the town and its residents and business owners.” You’ll find this same enthusiasm within the local government. “I love our city council, we have a fantastic city council,” says Carmel. “They’re smart and engaged, we all get along and it’s very collaborative.”

It helps that Mill Valley is easy to love. “Whether it’s hiking, biking or commuting, you’re enveloped by beauty, both in the nature and the way the town was built — the funky, eclectic nature of 94941,” says Welte. Add to that built-in artistic bragging rights, and you have an area with an appeal that’s impossible to deny. “We have this long history of art in our community, and it’s an important part of our DNA,” says Carmel, ticking off events and evidence, from the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Mill Valley Music Festival to the town’s local theaters to the host of famous creatives who have called the place home (Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir, Sammy Hagar… this list goes on). “It’s a big part of who we are as a town, and you can’t quickly replicate that anywhere else.”

Mill Valley Music Festival

While Mill Valley is rich in pros, it also has its challenges. One seeming contradiction presents the largest issue: the town is at once very crowded and not quite crowded enough. The former leads to unwelcome traffic, an issue that Carmel and his council are addressing via a recently formed commission. “We have seven people looking at all of the different ways to improve public transit, efficiency of car movement, and walking and biking initiatives,” he says, adding that, though traffic may be heavy, Mill Valley has the third highest pavement conditions in Marin, behind only the enclaves of Ross and Belvedere. On the other hand, there’s the need for more housing and a general want of tourism. “We need more people to be in our town,” says Welte, noting that the local economy is entirely predicated on mom-and-pop shops. “These are people who get up in the morning, get their kids off to school and go to their restaurant or boutique where they are the operators.” Bolstering these enterprises is essential, but so is the preservation of Mill Valley’s character. “It’s hard to lift the profile of a town when it’s tucked away; we are a little harder to find, and I think there are lots of people in Mill Valley who like it that way,” says Welte. “It’s a balancing act for us.”

Mill Valley concertgoers enjoying Lord Huron at Sound Summit
Mill Valley concertgoers enjoying Lord Huron at Sound Summit, Photo by Ryan Smith.

Still, being off the beaten path lends to the city’s aforementioned soul. “There’s a magic that you see in people’s eyes when they come into our shop and they’re like, ‘We didn’t realize this was even here!’” says Bonnie Powers, co-owner of downtown boutique Poet and the Bench, of Mill Valley. “They feel like they’ve discovered something, and there’s nothing cooler than that sense of finding hidden gems.”

You Can Always Go Downtown

Downtown Mill Valley, 1929
Mill Valley downtown looking up Throckmorton Avenue in 1929. Courtesy of the Mill Valley Public Library.

Downtown Mill Valley is the heart of the city. “When you have a town where there are walkable areas, businesses collaborating, and a community hub, you’re able to create that sense of place where people walk around, where you’re known,” says Powers. “It’s like Cheers!” Equator Coffee co-founder Helen Russell (who hails from Boston) makes the same allusion. “The people who live here tend to love gathering, and we as a brand love community,” she says. “When you step over our threshold in downtown Mill Valley, you’re walking into this grand iconic location that you should feel belongs to you.”

Downtown’s collection of galleries, shops and restaurants offers a host of reasons for residents and tourists alike to hang around. For their part, Poet and the Bench founders Powers and Jeffrey Levin strive to collaborate with the city council and area businesses, working as a team to draw shoppers and diners and demonstrate the area’s variety and value. “Let’s give people more than one reason to come to town,” says Powers. “Let’s show that the energy is really happening.”

Equator Coffee Mill Valley
Mill Valley Corner Bar food and drink

Counterclockwise from top: Equator Coffee is a popular Mill Valley gathering place; an exciting moment for the team behind Corner Bar, from left: Jason Sims, Tim Dixon, Bill Higgins, Liz and Peter Schumacher; Jeffrey Levin and Bonnie Powers, co-owners of the Poet and Bench, have created a unique shopping experience for those who appreciate custom jewelry and design.

Restauranteur Peter Schumacher — responsible, along with business partner Bill Higgins, for Mill Valley mainstays like Buckeye Roadhouse, Playa and Bungalow 44 — has similar aims. Corner Bar, positioned on the corner of Throckmorton and Bernard, is a new spot featuring Lower East Side vibes, light fare and great drinks, “People always say that there are no bars in Mill Valley, and that’s kind of correct,” says Schumacher. “There’s the 2 A.M. Club and all of the restaurants have great bars, but we wanted to bring a bar-bar to town that stays open late and has energy.” 

That’s not to say that the classics don’t have an energy all their own. For his part, Ged Robertson (the man behind Small Shed Flatbreads, Watershed and more) frequents 60-year-old Italian eatery La Ginestra. “Places like La Ginestra are so amazing — my favorite ornery bartender, run by a great Italian family,” he says. When conceptualizing his own establishments, Robertson aims to give Mill Valley more of what feeds its unique spirit. “If you can have a place where a part of the community can meet and preserve that or create it, then you’re doing yourself a service as well as everyone else.”

Mill Valley Musts

Just passing through? Here are five must-dos that may inspire you to stay awhile. 

1. The Lumber Yard

“It looks like it’s from a movie set,” says Robertson of the historic Mill Valley Lumber Yard, a century-old space reimagined as a business park in 2018. The Lumber Yard is home to Robertson’s restaurant, Watershed, along with a small selection of shops and eateries, and consistently sees neighbors and visitors sipping and snacking at picnic tables and around the fire pit. Positioned over Corte Madera Creek and encased in redwoods, the Lumber Yard is a microcosm of what makes Mill Valley so special. “You feel nostalgia in your system when you come in,” says Lulu Designs Jewelry owner Stacy King of her Lumber Yard shop, built with wood and windows reclaimed from the original operation. “With everything changing in this fast-paced world, the energy of these old spaces is a sensory experience.”

2. Mill Valley Public Library

There are libraries, and then there’s the Mill Valley Public Library. With generous windows framing Old Mill Park’s redwood groves and eponymous creek, the library provides a dreamy backdrop for a quiet afternoon. As a bonus, programming for kids and adults alike means you may learn a thing or two. “This is a town that values culture and education, exactly the kind of things that the library represents,” says Carmel. 

3. Sweetwater Music Hall

You can’t talk about Mill Valley music without mentioning Sweetwater Music Hall. The original Sweetwater opened in 1972 and within a decade welcomed musical acts like Elvis Costello, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison and many, many more. “Every now and then a place pops up, and it’s just got some kind of magic,” says musician Austin de Lone. “Like a star just happened to hit it at just the right angle and all of the sudden something crazy is going on.” The “new” Sweetwater may be bigger (with space for 300 to the original’s 90), but it retains its small-town feel. “One of the great things about the new Sweetwater is that because it’s a bar and a restaurant, kids can come in,” says de Lone. “That’s really nice — and great for the open mic nights.”

4. Tam Junction

Mill Valley Lumbar Yard
Pizza Hacker at Tam Junction.

What was once a traffic jam along Shoreline Highway is now a place to pull over and hang. Start at Proof Lab Surf Shop, which boasts a beer garden supplemented by Equator Coffee and Hook Fish Co. Just up the road you’ll find The Junction Beer Garden and Bottle Shop, the ideal stop post-brunch at Shoreline Coffee Shop, a decades-old diner that Robertson reimagined in 2011. “The diner was interesting because it is a cool place — it was a cool place before I took it over,” he says. “It’s a real meeting place.” The same can be said of the entire commercial neighborhood. Welte considers Tam Junction and its burgeoning businesses to be perfect examples of what we all want more of: outdoor gathering places. 

5. Mount Tamalpais

You can’t fully understand Mill Valley without getting some perspective, best found in the woods, under the waterfalls, and astride the vistas of Mount Tamalpais. While every town in Marin claims her as their own, Mill Valley’s Depot Cafe is where you’ll find the historic Gravity Train, anchoring downtown as the access to Mount Tam. Whether you trek one of the 60 trails within the park, take the winding jaunt to East Peak, or head over and out to the coastline, ascending the mountain is a rite of passage — and the views are incomparable.