Friday, October 7, 2016

The Beauty of California's Muir Woods


One of the places I was most excited to visit during my trip to San Francisco was Muir Woods. Technically titled Muir Woods National Monument, this majestic forest is part of the U.S. National Park Service for a good reason: it contains amazing, gigantic, and OLD redwood trees. I couldn't wait to wrap my arms around one.

To save money, I and my fellow travellers had decided to stay in a hotel in Corte Madera rather than in San Francisco itself. It made for a bit of a trek when we wanted to explore the city of San Fran, but it also meant we were pretty close to the Muir Woods access road, which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Muir Woods is an amazing place to visit in California

One of the friends that I was traveling with had unfortunately developed a really nasty migraine and was forced to miss this adventure. This post is as much for her as it is for my faithful blog readers. I want her to get to see some of what she missed, poor thing.

Muir Woods National Monument is located about 42 minutes north of the heart of downtown San Francisco. The access ramp is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but there is a bit of a drive involved. A very twisty, very turn-y drive on a narrow road full of hairpin curves and sharp drops just off the side. Please drive with patience and caution, and if you get carsick at all, take your anti-nausea medication! I don't even get carsick and I was feeling a little pukey but the time we arrived at our destination. Just a word of warning to you all.

Five ladies fitting inside a Coastal Redwood tree

I had read and read to come early to Muir Woods, mainly because of the parking. There are only three parking lots - a tiny one right by the main ticket windows, a larger one just down the road from that, and a third one a little further along. By the time we arrived, on a Monday in late September (so, off-season) at 10:00 a.m., all three parking lots were full and we just found a spot on the side of the road. If you plan on going to Muir Woods any later than mid-morning, I highly recommend taking a tour bus, or catching the shuttle, because you probably won't find parking if you drive yourself, and that's a long trek down a twisty road just to find out you have nowhere to park.

We got lucky, however, and happily made our way to the main ticket windows and the entrance to the Muir Woods trails.

Here at last! We made it to Muir Woods!

It is $10 for adults 16 and older to enter the park. Under 16 and your admission is free, so this is a great family activity. There are select free days, such as Veterans Day, but I suspect those days are also crazy busy. (Another argument for arriving early, I read, was that before 8 a.m. the ticket windows are closed but you can still hike the trails, so early birds get free admission. I am not sure if that is true, or if you will get charged for trespassing or whatnot, but that is something I did read. Don't blame me if you get arrested!)

I have always wanted to hug a giant tree

Once inside the 'park', I was instantly impressed. First, the park is extremely well-maintained and designed. The main path is really a wooden boardwalk, wide and smooth and in excellent condition. It is very wheelchair and stroller friendly, so once again, a great activity for families with any type of dynamic. Information boards dotted the sides of the boardwalk, giving facts about the flora, fauna, and history of the area.

The well-maintained boardwalk that creates Muir Wood's main path

Right away, you can begin to see the giant redwood trees standing proudly. I instantly started filling up my camera's memory.

Some facts I gleaned from the information boards in the park:

1. The trees in this forest are called Coastal Redwoods, not to be confused with the Giant Sequoias that are more common south of San Francisco. I had been flipping between those two terms, thinking they were the same type of tree, until I learned that. The Coastal Redwoods enjoy the cooler, wetter climate north of San Francisco, particularly the famous wet fog that rolls into the bay area from the ocean.

A Coastal Redwood from top to bottom

2. There aren't many Coastal Redwoods left. It makes sense, because the rest of the region has been cleared for towns, cities, and fields. (Think the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, which we also visited. There wasn't a redwood in sight during our Sonoma adventure, I can tell you that!) That's why Muir Woods is so important - it is one of the few remaining areas that harbours these majestic and giant trees.

3. Muir Woods is a relatively young forest. Coastal Redwoods can live to 2,200 years old, but the trees in Muir Woods average about 700 years old. Would that be a teenager in tree years? There are a few oldies that have been dated at 1,200 years, but that's about Muir Wood's oldest crowd. Pretty crazy to think of what the world was like when those trees were just seedlings!

A slice of a tree that was 'born' in 909 AD

Other notable vegetation in the area were the big, lush ferns that carpeted the forest floor beneath the redwoods. I also was very intrigued by a plant that looked a lot like horsetail (also called puzzlegrass or equisetum). Upon closer inspection, this 'plant' was actually off-shoots of the redwoods themselves, called basal sprouts. Apparently, coastal redwoods have a handy ability to set off sprouts from basically anywhere on their trunk. This helps them to quickly recover after damage from fire or insects.

The basal shoots of a Coastal Redwood

My group of ladies and I were originally only going to walk about half of the main trail to Bridge 3, just so we could take a peek at the notable Cathedral Grove, and then head back. We had a big to-do list that day, and didn't want to spend all day hiking the forest. However, it was so peaceful and beautiful there, once we hit Bridge 3 all of us unanimously decided to keep going. We walked all the way to the end of the boardwalk, crossed Bridge 4, and hiked back to the Information Centre on the elevated dirt path, Hillside Trail, that overlooked the main trail.

The trail was by no means strenuous. As I said earlier, the main boardwalk is flat and smooth, easily accessible to all. When we crossed Bridge 4 and made our way to the dirt path, we had to exert a little more energy, as the trail sloped upwards and at one point we had to climb a couple of flights of stairs. But that was the hardest we had to work. Otherwise, the trail is leisurely and easy for people of all ages to complete.

A map of Muir Wood's main trail

To complete the big loop, all the way to Bridge 4 and back, took us about two hours. We stopped for a ton of photos and I made some video clips for the blog, which leads me to believe if one was to just hike the trail, you could be done in an hour or an hour and a half easily. We enjoyed ourselves and took our time, and two hours was the perfect amount for us.

While you hike, remember to be as quiet as possible - there are about 500 signs encouraging visitors to be silent and respectful. Apparently many animals use the area for mating and raising families, and naturally millions of loud visitors would interrupt those processes. We barely saw any wildlife. As my friend Jennis pointed out, it was almost unnaturally quiet - the visitors were quiet, but even stranger, so was the wildlife. We didn't hear a single bird call until Bridge 3. (On a side note, Jennis is the friend who organized this girls' trip and brought all of us down with her to San Francisco. I've thanked her a billion times in person, but I'm thanking her on a global platform now. THANK YOU, JENNIS!)

The spider-isn canopy of the Muir Wood's redwood forest

We completed our hike around lunch time. We popped into the gift shop but it was busy and crowded (there were several tour buses parked in the lot by the time we finished our visit), and the lunch line at the little cafeteria was insane. Good thing we had thought to bring muffins in the car! I highly recommend you bring a lunch or a snack with you, because you might find yourself in that cafeteria line-up forever.

Muir Woods National Monument is something I would definitely like to see again; maybe next time I will attend with my family in tow. I would also make a whole day of it, because there are several more natural trails that branch off the main boardwalk that I would like to explore. Those trails lead you into the heart of the forest, and give you a less 'touristy' interaction with the redwoods.

Look up, wayyyyyy up!

Even so, seeing the Coastal Redwoods in all their glory was completely worth the trip. Muir Woods gets five stars from this girl - I highly recommend you visit!

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great blog! We found the information you provided on the plants found in the Monument to be very interesting in particular.

    The trail you highlighted was the same one we took and covered in detail in "A Morning of Hiking in Muir Woods"

    We hope to come back and explore some of the longer hikes once we are back in the area.

    Thanks!

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    1. Your post is great! Thank you for sharing and collaborating. I wish I had seen some banana slugs. They look fascinating.

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