A Muir Woods tour is usually pretty high up on San Francisco vistiors’ checklist – it’s one of only a few remaining old growth Redwood Forests, where coastal Redwoods soar up to 79 metres to the skies. Many are hundreds of years old and have stood in family groups through fires, floods, earthquakes, wars and other disasters. They are some of the oldest living things on planet earth, and their appearance ellicits awe from us comparitively tiny humans.
Muir Woods was made a National Monument back in 1908, after it was donated to the federal government a few years earlier. It’s owner at the time, William Kent, had been served ’eminent domain’ papers by the water company, which wanted to log the forest and dam it to create a water supply. Kent got around the mandatory siezure of his land by donating it to the government, and then President Theodore Roosevelt, designated it as publicly protected land.
Where is Muir Woods?
Muir Woods National Monument is just 19 km (12 miles) north of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge. Be warned that the roads are very windy, and narrow at times. On the weekends they seem to be favoured by local cyclists so be careful as you’re driving around bends or trying to overtake them. The monument itself is part of the larger Golden Gate Recreational Area, that protects 82 acres of natural environment but isn’t one big stretch of land. Instead it encapsulates pockets of ecologically significant land from San Mateo County all the way up to Marin County.
What is the best way to get to Muir Woods?
Speaking of the windy road and Muir Woods’ distance from San Francisco proper, you’re probably wondering the best way to get there. You have a couple of options, beginning with renting a car (read on for parking information), shuttles, or a Muir Woods tour bus/vehicle. Probably the cheapest and easiest way to get their (unless you have your own car) is to catch the Marin Transit Muir Woods Shuttle from Mill Valley or Sausalito. The service runs on weekends and public holidays throught the year, but there is also a daily service between mid-June and mid-August.
Marin Transit Muir Woods Shuttle Information: Catch routes 66 or 66F from Sausalito Ferry and Marin City hubs. Free for those aged 15 and under, or a $3 round trip for 16+.
Insider Tip: Buy your ticket in advance online and get more information by visiting this website.
There are also multiple tour companies that run buses to Muir Woods. You’ll only have a set amount of time within the National Monument through, so be sure to check how much free time you’re allowed and whether that corresponds with your plans. There are also tours that will begin the day with a trip to Muir Woods, then carry on north to Sonoma and Napa for some wine tasting.
What about Muir Woods parking?
Visiting Muir Woods with your own car or a rental requires a little bit of forward planning. Overcrowding forced the National Parks Service to put paid reserved parking in place. You have to book in advance and choose the time slot that you plan to be at Muir Woods to guarantee your spot. You can either reserve your parking space online or call 1-800-410-2419 to pay the $8 parking fee.
Insider Tip: There is no mobile phone service at Muir Woods, so you’ll need to print your parking reservation information or download it to your phone before you leave.
Why should I visit Muir Woods?
Did you not read the intro about the magestic Redwood trees? You’re one tough customer. Have you heard about the wildlife you might just glimpse inside the leafy ‘walls’? There’s the Columbian Blacktailed Deer, which are so important that when their numbers fluctuate, a ripple-effect is felt throughout the local ecosystem. The tend to thrive on the edges of forests because the lack of undergrowth gives them little food or cover from weather. But Muir Woods’ rainforest-like structure provides plenty of food and cover for them.
Young’uns might be more interested in the largest slug in North America – the Banana Slug. Usually bright yellow in colour (hence their clever name), Muir Woods’ banana slugs are slightly more muted in tone for survival purposes. They will also change colours depending on what they’ve eaten, how much light they’ve been exposed to, whether it’s injured and their age. And they can move at a steady 17cm (6.5 inches) per minute, so don’t get stuck in line behind one.
Meanwhile, look out for the Yellow Spotted Millipede, which protects itself with its own supply of cyanide. Those yellow spots act as a bit of a neon warning sign to predators brave (or stupid) enough to approach our unfriendly millipede. If threatened, the millipede will curl into a ball and spray hydrogen cyanide at the threat, kiling birds and rodents, but not really doing anything to harm humans.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE ON A MUIR WOODS TOUR
We’ve covered some of it above, but now it’s time to take an in-depth look at Muir Woods National Monument and what it has to offer. I recently completed the free Muir Woods Sunrise Tour, and spent four and a half hours hiking and learning about the park, its history, and the lives of those who protected it, with volunteer guide Nelson. I also took notes like the nerd that I am. There are various tours you can join inside Muir Woods, many are much shorter than the one I ventured out on.
See a dinosaur-era habitat
If you’re curious about the kind of earth that dinosaurs experienced when they lived, just go to an old growth forest. Just five per cent of forests are old growth, meaning that they have never been logged. Many of the plants and vegetation surrounding the Redwoods are ancient. Most of the Redwoods inside Muir Woods are aged between 500 and 800 years old, but a few senior outliers have been estimated to be at least 1,200 years old. To put that into perspective, these trees began life around the time Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the West, and 100 years before viking “Erik the Red” Erikkson stepped foot on North American soil.
Hike on Muir Woods boardwalks and trails
There are almost 10km (6 miles) of trails that snake through Muir Woods National Monument, and even more that lead out to the surrounding Mt Tamalpais State Park. Depending on the time alotted and your fitness, you can choose from 30 minute, 60 minute, or 90 minute loops of the National Monument. While the heart of Muir Woods paths are either wooden boardwalk or asphalt, when you get further out, they turn to dirt and can be narrow or rutted with tree roots, as you’d expect in a forest. You can find information on Muir Woods day hikes here.
While you’re wandering around, you might notice a few trees (both large and small) have fallen. They give you a fantastic opportunity to see just how large and wide the trees are, but also teaches you about a Redwood’s root system. They don’t have tap roots and their root system is fairly shallow (1.8m to 3m) so they don’t really get the same firm grip on the earth below as others. It’s not unusual for Redwoods to fall in big storms where lots of rain has begun to errode the soil beneath it, or be blown over in big wind gusts. The security of growing in a ‘family’ (which we talk about below), means that you can entertwine with your friendly neighbourhood trees and support each other during inclement weather.
Related: 5 Great San Francisco hikes
From little things, big things grow
If you’re not familiar with the Paul Kelly song from which I shamelessly stole the title of this paragraph, I suggest you get yourself to Youtube ASAP. In the meantime, here’s a bit about where the towering Redwoods come from. See that little kernal in the palm of my hand, that looks like a tiny pinecone? That’s a Redwood seed. You might not be too surprised to learn that a fair number of Redwoods don’t grow from seeds though, they’re actually family offshoots from a parent tree, and grow in a ring around that parent. Why? Because that tiny seed needs to fall in exactly the right place, be exposed to optimal light, water, and ground conditions in order for it to grow in the wild. Basically, it’s a miracle if it happens.
Redwoods are water guzzlers
It takes a lot H2O to keep a Redwood alive, happy and kicking. Think about the amount of water in a hot tub, then double it, and add another half a tub for good measure. That’s how much each mature Redwood drinks every day of its adult life. It seems impossible, especially in California’s drought-prone summer months, but it’s true. So how do they get all the water they need? Easy, they have evolved to catch the water from San Francisco’s ubiquitous fog, and drink it up through their needles. Pretty ingenious considering the amount of energy it would take them to suck the water up through roots then all the way up to the tallest branches.
Walk amongst the clover that’s not actually clover
You’ll see lots of tri-leaved plants that you’ll probably confuse with clover. And, like me, you might spend some of your hike looking for a lucky four-leafed one as some kind of omen. I’m sorry to ruin your dreams of that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but that’s not clover. It’s actually Redwood Sorrel. They’re perfectly suited to the shady Redwood forest, because they don’t need much light to thrive. In fact, too much light can damage their leaves and make them curl downwards. Native Americans used Redwood Sorrel to draw out infections, and ate them (sparingly) with fish, although eating too much Redwood Sorrel can be toxic.
Muir Woods Special Trees
In a forest full of trees, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re all alike. But no! Some trees are dedicated to important people in Muir Woods’ history.
Named for Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service from 1905, until he was fired in 1910. Pinchot was instrumental in the founding of the Muir Woods National Monument. According to the Mill Valley Independent Newspaper of 6 May 1910, the Redwood was named for Pinchot at the request of the Sierra Club. “Permission to name the tree after Pinchot was given by Secretary Hallinger, who, in his letter to the club, said that it was not the custom to name trees in the national parks after living people, but that in this case he took pleasure in granting the club’s request.”
William Kent was the last owner of the land Muir Woods resides on, and it was he who decided to hand it over to the government to be protected from logging and daming. His tree fell in 2004, but remains in place, with a hiking trail winding around it. The Douglas Fir is said to be Kent’s favourite tree in the woods. Kent declined to have Muir Woods named after himself, living by the philosophy that it was inappropriate for the wealthy to ‘buy’ immortality by naming important landmarks after themselves. So Kent requested the woods be named after John Muir instead.
Kent’s children carried the family name further into history. His son Sherman was a professor at Yale, in charge of the Operation Torch invasion of North Africa during World War II in 1942, and later the head of the US intelligence agency that became the CIA. Adaline Kent was a lauded abstract sculptor, \ and Roger Kent was a politician.
To celebrate the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, it was decided that a 200-year-old tree would be dedicated. The problem was finding an appropriately aged tree without having to cut it down to count the rings. So if you look closely at the Bicentennial tree, you’ll see a little notch. The core sample taken helped to accurately work out the age of the tree. Mission Dolores, in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bicentennial Tree are all the same age.
Muir Woods is open between 8AM (unless you’re going on a sunrise tour) and sunset, 365 days a year. See above for more practical information on getting there.