Travel: Muir Woods
WRITTEN BY: JORDAN SEVERNS
PHOTOS BY: BIANCA ANCHETA
IN MARIN COUNTY—NOT FAR FROM ALL THE URBAN SPRAWL OF THE BAY BUT ENTIRELY ISOLATED FROM IT—LIES A MAGNIFICENT MONUMENT TO THE ENDURING BEAUTY AND POWER OF NATURE, JUST BEGGING TO BE ADMIRED AND EXPLORED.
You’ll find Muir Woods in an isolated canyon a few miles north of San Francisco, about a two-hour drive from Modesto. The National Monument safeguards over 550 acres of land, 240 of which are comprised of an old growth redwood forest. Essentially, an old growth forest is a forest has been allowed to reach a significant age without much disturbance from the civilized world, allowing it to exhibit rare ecological phenomena. In this case: the truly stunning ancient, massive redwoods at the heart of this national park.
The coastal redwoods are the tallest of all living things. The tallest of the redwoods in Muir Park is over 250 feet, and the largest in the world, further north, are nearly 400 feet tall. For comparison, that’s the height of the average adult human stacked head to toe about 50 times! On top of that, the “old” in “old growth” is no joke. These trees average around 700 years old, while the oldest of the trees is at least 1200 years old, or five times the age of the country in which it dwells.
The sense of history in Muir Woods is palpable. Because of its ancient and protected status, the park stands as a representation of the way all of Marin County would have appeared centuries ago, in a world almost untouched by man. In fact, for quite some time, the majority of Marin’s occupants, the Miwoks, probably didn’t ever live in the woods. The Spanish missionaries who populated the region in the eighteenth century only used it for light logging, some grazing, and agriculture; even the gold rush that tore up the region’s wildlife a century later left Muir Woods largely untouched thanks to its inaccessibility, leaving it a nearly literal look into a time before humans occupied the region.
When it comes to wildlife, the Muir Woods are noticeably quiet. The intensely shaded conditions caused by the height and density of the trees limits the amount of food available for animals. There are animals like owls, bats, and deer who visit to feed during the darker hours of the day. You might hear the occasional pattering of the Sonoma chipmunk, or the calls of jays and ravens, who are seasonally joined by migratory thrushes and kinglets. A number of small reptiles also make their home in the woods, but overall it is the flora, not the fauna, that give the woods their character and color.
The time of year in which you visit Muir Woods will have a notable impact on the region’s mood. In spring, you’ll find newborn fawns discovering life and birds nesting in the trees. Summer brings fog, chipmunks, Steller’s jays, and a variety of new plant life such as azaleas. The warmest time of year is the Fall, accented by the large yellow maple leaves and swarms of ladybugs. During winter, migratory salmon and trout make their way up Redwood Creek to give birth, and the woods’ toyon berries turn a brilliant red.
As for activities, Muir Woods is home is home to several trails of varying length and difficulty. The woods’ main trail is an easy hour walk along Redwood Creek, following both sides of the stream and crossing over several bridges. The path is wheelchair and stroller accessible, meant more for a leisurely stroll than an intense hike. There are a handful of intermediate trails, but if you’re looking for a real, day-long challenge, the Bootjack trail is a three-and-a-half-hour hike through Van Wyck Meadow, a historic gathering site, as well as canyons and switchbacks. A similarly intense Ocean View Trail takes you down a five mile trek offering views of the Pacific Ocean and the range of vegetation the Muir Woods has to offer. To prepare for or celebrate a successful hike, stop by Muir Woods Café, located in the heart of the monument, where deli sandwiches and cold deserts await you.
Famous naturalist John Muir called this land “…the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” It was because of his intense love for this massive, ancient look into our planet’s past that politician and businessman William Kent, who donated the land for the monument, insisted it be named for Muir. So the next time you’re looking to get away from it all and spend some time in the natural world, treat yourself to a trip to Muir Woods, and see what all the fuss is about.