Muir Woods National Monument

Just a quick 12 mile (19Km) drive from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and the more populated areas of Marin County, Muir Woods National Monument is a place of peacefulness, quiet and stunning natural beauty. In this post we’ll discuss the history of this unique old-growth forest, provide helpful suggestions for your visit and explain ways to get there.

A Brief History of Muir Woods National Monument

The land now known as Muir Woods National Monument was originally a relatively inaccessible area known as Redwood Canyon. Redwood Canyon was a 600-acre area near the Pacific coast that contained old-growth coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) trees. At the beginning of the 20th century the California coastline contained nearly 2 million acres of coastal redwoods, but many of these were removed by the growing logging industry. The Redwood Canyon area was one of the last spots targeted by the logging industry.

To stop the encroachment of loggers, the area was purchased by California politician William Kent in 1905. Kent donated nearly half of the land to the federal government in 1907. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt named the land a National Monument, making it the only area in the National Park Service system that originated from land donated by a private citizen. The Monument was named after author and conservationist John Muir, who was instrumental in shaping US policies and laws that reserved areas of natural beauty for public use.

Muir Woods National Monument is part of the larger Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a collection of historically significant sites that stretch for 95 miles along the California coast. GGNRA runs from the southern part of San Mateo County up to the northern part of Marin County, and includes a large collection of properties in San Francisco itself.

As a side note: California has more National Park Service sites than any other state. If you’re visiting the Golden State and want to see some other National Parks, check out Kevin Svec’s great article on four other national parks in CA that you should visit.

Planning Your Visit to Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument currently draws over one million visitors a year and is rated as the top attraction in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In fact, Muir Woods National Monument is so popular that it’s becoming a victim of its own success. The main parking lot for Muir Woods has spaces for 150 cars, and visitors who arrive later in the day can circle the lot for extended periods of time, trying in vain to find a parking space. Some unlucky visitors have been forced to park as far as a mile away from the park. To combat the parking situation, the National Park Service instituted a parking and shuttle reservation system in 2017. Visitors wishing to park in one of the Monument’s lots must make an online reservation and pay a fee for parking (prior to 2017 all parking was free).

Entrance to Muir Woods National Monument itself requires a $10 admission fee for anyone 16 and older (visitors under 16 are free). The National Park System’s “America The Beautiful” passes provide free entry into Muir Woods itself, but do not cover the cost for the parking fee since this is administered by a private contractor.

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Once you enter Muir Woods, the hustle and bustle of the outside world quickly disappears. The Woods are a place of quiet and calm, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of coastal redwoods – some of the oldest living things on the earth. The area in and around Muir Woods has no cell phone or Wi-Fi service – something you should be aware of as you enter the area. The lack of people jabbering on their cell phones or sending text messages back and forth helps contribute to the feeling of calmness and quiet inside.

In all, Muir Woods contains six miles of trails. The trails are either asphalt or wood boardwalk, and are very comfortable and accessible by everyone. There are three main looped trails inside the Woods. The first one takes approximately 30 minutes to walk, the second takes approximately an hour, and the third takes approximately an hour and a half. There are also longer trails that lead from Muir Woods into the neighboring Mt. Tamalpais State Park. The US National Park Service website for Muir Woods National Monument provides a list of hikes you might want to take. This list shows the length, expected time and difficulty level for each hike, along with a description of what you’ll see on the trail.

In order to protect the old-growth plants in the area and to keep Muir Woods safe for visitors, pets (other than service animals) are not allowed. Food and drink are also prohibited inside Muir Woods.

If you plan on taking any photos during your trip through Muir Woods, here are a few tips that you may find helpful:

  • Bring a tripod. Because of the canopy of branches and leaves overhead, the light can be somewhat dim under certain conditions. Having a tripod allows you to take photos at slower shutter speeds yet still produce pin-sharp images. Using a tripod also forces you to slow down your photography and to think through the shots you’ll take. This helps keep you in the slow, quiet and contemplative nature of the forest.
  • If your camera allows it shoot exposure bracketed photos. This will allow you to create high-dynamic range (HDR) images and balance out the contrast between the extreme bright and dark parts of a scene you may see. HDR done right looks very natural and gives your photos an appealing look.
  • Look for lines, patterns and textures in the trees and plants around you. Sometimes the most interesting shot is one of a fallen tree trunk, a section of tree bark, or an exposed root. Try creating black and white images from your photos of features like this. Interesting shapes with lots of contrasty areas are good for black and whites.
  • Don’t forget to look up! The canopy of trees above you is stunning, particularly in spring and summer as it blooms into deep green tones. Shooting upward also affords you the opportunity to produce some great HDR images.

Planning Your Trip to Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument is approximately 16 miles (26 Km) from the heart of San Francisco. Getting there is easy: just drive north on US 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the exit for CA-1 West (you will see signs for Muir Woods). Follow CA-1 until you hit Muir Woods Road, and follow the road to the park. Be aware that the route has a lot of twists and turns, and there are a few blind corners you have to watch for.

If you’d rather not make the drive yourself, there are several tour companies in San Francisco that offer half- or full-day trips to Muir Woods. Some of these trips combine other destinations as well, and they can be good for an overview of the sights in GGNRA or around the Bay Area.

Muir Woods National Monument opens at 8AM every day. Its closing hours are dependent upon the season. It closes as early as 5PM during the winter, and as late as 8PM during the summer. For the most current information on opening hours, consult the US National Park’s website.

If you’d like to see more of my photos from Muir Woods National Monument, please visit my photo gallery!


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