After three days spent exploring San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods, we picked up our rental campervan. Our next four weeks were set aside for exploration of America’s most renowned national parks.
First stop was Muir Woods, under an hours drive northbound from the Golden Gate Bridge and part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area. The Muir Woods National Monument protects 240 acres of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).
Before the advent of logging in California, it is estimated 2 million acres of old growth redwood forests grew along the California coast. By the early 1900s however, most of these forests had been logged, demand for lumber increasing with the discovery of gold and to facilitate the railroad expansion.
Despite this, a small valley named the Redwood Canyon survived, mainly due to being relatively inaccessible. In 1905, a US Congressman William Kent and his wife Elizabeth purchased over 600 acres of the land in order for it to be protected. Kent was quoted to have said “If we lost all the money we have and saved these trees, it would be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?” His sentiment is definitely appreciated by the many visitors to the woods today.
Significantly for some of our later stops (such as Bridges National Monument), in 1906 the US Congress passed the ‘Antiquities Act‘, giving the President the ability to declare areas of scientific value ‘National Monuments’ by Proclamation.
Next, in 1907, to foil plans by a water company to create a dam in the redwood valley, Kent donated the land that is now Muir Woods to the federal government. President Roosevelt then declared the land a National Monument in 1908, thereby protecting its beauty to this day. Kent suggested the woods be named after his friend John Muir, the now renowned Scottish-American naturalist whose activism and writing brought about the protection of many iconic American parks.
Muir (left) and Kent (centre) (Source)
Leaving history aside, the first practicality to be aware of when visiting US National Parks is that most charge a fairly hefty entry fee even for day use. In most cases a single fee of around $20-30 applies to cover all occupants of a single vehicle. If you plan to visit multiple parks (particularly some of the bigger names such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon), your best bet is to grab an America the Beautiful Pass at your first stop. This will set you back $80 at time of writing, and will cover your visits to all national parks and monuments for 12 months.
Having found parking and collected our pass and a map we donned our hiking gear and entered the woods, immediately taken by the quintessentially American wooden entry gate and thick boundary of trees. We had only a couple of hours to spare at the woods, as we needed to make some headway up the coast in order to stay on schedule. We decided on a basic loop taking in the main trail, which is paved/boarded and well signed taking the majority of visitors through key redwood groves. We would substitute some of the route along the hillside trail, avoiding the bulk of the crowds, and continue along the Ben Johnson and Stapelveldt trail to extend the walk (this portion of the walk was pretty much free from crowds so is a good option if you are up for it).
The main trail (a 3.2km loop) itself is absolutely stunning, meandering along the redwood creek to take in a number of notable groves. Mid-sized redwoods and Douglas Fir stand along the trail among a dense understory of tanoak and other broadleaf trees. While these weren’t the biggest redwoods we were to come across in our tip, the fact they were our first and the overall beauty of the trail ensured they were nonetheless very impressive. The Cathedral Grove is a popular stop, and despite the crowds, signs reminding visitors to remain quiet help it retain a peaceful quality.
The bohemian heritage of the woods is also commemorated during the trail. The Bohemian Club held a summer encampment here in 1892, erecting a huge statue of Buddha constructed of lath and plaster that has since disintegrated.
Other than the spectacular trees found across the woods, the famed banana slug also calls them home. We weren’t lucky enough to come across the large yet elusive mollusc, and if you want to go searching for one your best chance will be after rain.
John Muir is quoted as saying of the woods “This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” While arguably this title could be shared among many other of California’s forests, Muir Woods’ accessibility and the snapshot it provides of the ecology of redwood forests made it an excellent first taste of what the US national park service has to offer.