Just 11 miles north of San Francisco, California, at the southern end of a chain of National Forests that extends to the Canadian Border, lies Muir Woods. I have been in National Parks and Forests all over the nation as a photographer, but this one is special.
Everyone knows about the size of the massive redwoods, but few know just how old they are. The average age of the redwoods in Muir Woods is 700 years, with the oldest at least 1,200. And that's pretty young for a redwood.
The park is relatively small by National Forest standards at only 554 acres and just six miles of trail. But those six miles take you some of the most breathtaking forests I have ever visited. There are no sweeping vistas in Muir Woods, just winding trails among the redwood trees where you crane your neck, attempting to see the tops of the trees. At over three stories, the coastal redwoods are the tallest living things.
The history of this majestic forest goes back 13,000 years when it was occupied by a small tribe of Coast Miwok people. By the 1800s, when William Richardson received a land grant from Mexico, the Miwoks' population dwindled to around 300 people. The land changed hands numerous times until Muir Woods was declared a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
Parking is minimal at the park, so the best way to get there is by shuttle from Sausalito. The shuttle is only $3.25 with kids free, while parking at Muir Woods costs $8.50. Entrance to the park is $15 per adult, with again, kids under 16 free.
You begin your experience at the Muir Woods visitor center, where you can find snacks, restrooms, and souvenirs. The lower trails leading from the park are concrete and board and fully ADA accessible. The upper trails are small and treacherous dirt trails for only the heartiest of hikers. The park was at capacity when we were there, but you never felt like you were among a crowd. There was a reverence that the park inspired, and everyone spoke in hushed tones.
Even before I began looking up at the stately redwoods, the thing that struck me was the density of the forest. Unless you were looking up one of the streams that run through the park, visibility was only a few yards in any direction. You could see the land as the Miwoks did hundreds of years ago. Many of the trees you are looking at were the same trees they hunted among.
Keep in mind, these are coastal redwood trees, not the giant sequoias you have seen pictures of with cars driving through them. Although broad by the standard of most trees, the redwoods are tall rather than wide. I have seen live oak trees with broader bases, but staring up trying to find the tops of the trees or any sky at all is a challenge.
Although there are hundreds of diverse animal species in the park, including bats and coyotes, bears have been gone from the woods for decades. There is no camping in the forest and as the trails are heavily traveled, even in the deepest part of the woods, spotting wildlife is rare. But you come here from San Francisco, California for the trees.
My favorite spot in Muir Woods was Cathedral Grove. There is a plaque placed there in 1945 by delegates from all over the world honoring President Roosevelt and the founding of the United Nations. But it was the remains of the fallen tree that attracted my attention. In 1996, just after July 4th, an 800-year-old redwood fell as a few dozen onlookers watched in silent awe. No one was injured, and the tree remains where it fell to this day.
One interesting fact about Muir Woods in these modern times is that there is no cell phone or WiFi service in the park. This only increases the beauty and attraction of walking among the trees in an almost cathedral-like reverence.
If you find yourself in San Francisco, California, and want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a walk among the ancient redwoods of Muir Woods is a perfect day trip.