Groundwater flow and chemical transport in subterranean estuaries are poorly understood despite their potentially important implications for chemical fluxes from aquifers to coastal waters. Here, a numerical study of the dynamics in a subterranean estuary subject to tidal forcing is presented. Simulations show that salt transport associated with tidally driven seawater recirculation leads to the formation of an upper saline plume in the intertidal region. Computed transit times and flow velocities indicate that this plume represents a more active zone for mixing and reaction than the dispersion zone of the lower, classical salt wedge. Proper conceptualisation of this surficial mixing zone extends our understanding of processes within the subterranean estuary. Numerical tracer simulations reveal that tidal forcing may reduce the threat of a land-derived contaminant discharging to the marine environment by modifying the subsurface transport pathway and local geochemical conditions. Mixing and stratification in the subterranean estuary are strongly affected by both inland and tidal forcing. Based on the estuarine analogy we present a systematic classification of subterranean estuaries.