Day Trips: Muir Woods National Monument
February 16th, 2017
As you head north on the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll see the rolling, bright green hills and steep bluffs guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and the beginning of the darker canopy of trees, hinting at the giants further on.
Off the main highway, the narrow road traverses the steep hillside in a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns, climbing toward Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais. Through chaparral and rolling alpine meadows, you arrive at the entrance of Muir Woods. This national monument is the site of a virgin forest of California coast redwood trees, among the oldest and tallest on earth.
When told this ancient forest would bear his name, John Muir said, “This is the best tree-lovers’ monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.”
And he would know. Having personally guided Teddy Roosevelt through Yosemite Valley. Having walked Sequoia and Grand Canyon, survived a wild Alaska, and helped to establish the Sierra Club. But this stand of redwoods just over the bridge had captured his imagination and endeared him to the region.
A Popular Place
Past the crowded parking lot and kitschy gift shop, a wooden boardwalk begins the Main Trail. Consistently damp nearly year round, with dense fern and groundcover, this small valley receives twice the rain of most other parts of the Bay Area because of its unique coastal geography.
Further on, the crowd thins and the silence descends upon you. Cathedral Grove is the beginning of the larger trees and the forest becomes denser. Even the youngest visitors fall quiet in the presence of these massive, sacred giants. People snap away with cell phones and pocket cameras, but photography can’t possibly capture the enormity. Well before the first Europeans stepped foot on the continent, some of these trees were already saplings.
Beyond the boardwalk, the trails begin in earnest. Redwood Creek cuts through the middle of the park, the main loop straddling the creek on either side. Side trails offer a different perspective, winding upward. The Hillside Trail parallels the main, all the way to the Ocean View Trail, where after a steady climb you’ll reach a ridge with panoramic views of the powerful surf below. It’s a great spot to take a break and soak it all in.
But the largest, old-growth trees are found on the damp valley floor, nourished by the creek. This is the most magical part of the park. The muted sound of footsteps on tamped, rich earth. Filtered rays of sunlight fight to reach through dense branches. And cool, moist air fills your lungs. On a foggy day—which is far from uncommon—treetops are lost in the mist and the feeling becomes positively primordial.
Surprisingly, these aren’t the tallest redwoods in the state, but at 250 feet, they’re taller than the drop from the Golden Gate roadway to the water, and are plenty impressive. The breathtaking size and beauty of these remarkable coastal redwoods are guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve returned home.
Watch the weather; the park has had some closures due to heavy rain recently. From San Francisco, Muir Woods is 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Hwy 101. Take the Mill Valley/Hwy 1/Stinson Beach exit, then take Hwy 1. Go right on the Panoramic Hwy, then left on Muir Woods Rd.
Muir Woods is open every day from 8:00 a.m. to sunset, but the visitor center opens at 9:00 a.m. if you need a trail map. Your best bet is getting here either very early or late in the day if you want to find parking—before 9:00 a.m. or after 4:00 p.m.—or you may want to look for signs for the shuttle (which costs $5 for an adult round-trip; free for kids under 15). The entrance fee is $10.00 for adults, 15 and under are free.