Conservationist John Muir once said that the eponymous old-growth redwood groves just north of San Francisco in the Marin County headlands are “the best tree-lovers monument that could be possibly found in all the forests of the world.” Muir Woods National Monument is indeed a national treasure, protected since 1908 when Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation establishing the 560-acre preserve.
Attracting throngs of domestic and international tourists (nearly one million each year) who mostly travel by tour bus and car from San Francisco, these soaring trees can be a challenge to enjoy. Parking is very limited and crowds can be thick and distracting. But, if you’re an early riser, you can see Muir Woods much as it was thousands of years ago: quiet, misty and remarkably magical.
The parking lots are gated until 8AM but you can park on the road just past the entrance and start a dawn walk in the woods in complete solitude, especially for those who arrive at the break of dawn. Early morning is really the only time of day to experience the majesty of this primeval place on the six miles of trails and paths that bring you deep into the ancient groves, many of which have trees older than 600 years. It’s a fleeting opportunity (the crowds come quickly) but the further you hike into the woods, the more powerful and majestic the trees become and the distractions fewer.
The park’s trails follow meandering Redwood Creek, whose waters originate high on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, and along hillside terrain where the trees rise improbably high into the sky, their canopies soaking in the fog, rain and mist that sustain the forest. These trees are true survivors of the ages: fire, drought, earthquakes, climate change, and nearly two centuries of intensive logging in the coast region. But Muir Woods carries on and, in the early hours, it comes alive with Steller’s jays, Sonoma chipmunks, Western gray squirrels and the occasional black-tailed deer, who graze a forest undergrowth dominated by blankets of redwood sorrel and thickets of sword ferns. Delicate wildlflowers like trillium, clintonia, and redwood violet decorate the forest floor in winter and early spring.
Muir Woods is located 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge and is reached via Highway 101 and California Highway 1. The monument is open every day of the year; between 8AM and sunset, the entrance fee is $5 per person (16 years and older) and ages under 16 are free. For post-visit diversions, Muir Beach is about 3 miles away and Stinson Beach is about 10 miles away.