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.We also cover the current situation with Muir Woods National Monument parking – a critical factor to consider when planning your trip. We will wrap up with our recommendations on the best time to visit Muir Woods National Monument.
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.
Getting 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.
Muir Woods National Monument Parking
Unfortunately, the Muir Woods National Monument parking is extremely limited. When you combine this with the large number of visitors every year, you can expect to encounter issues.
The Muir Woods National Monument parking lot has spaces for 150 cars. In the past, visitors who arrived later in the day often ended up circling the lot for extended periods of time, trying in vain to find a parking space. Some unlucky visitors were 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 for all Muir Woods National Monument parking. 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).
Planning Your Visit to Muir Woods
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. A reservation-based system for parking and shuttle rides has helped with congestion, but has also reduced access to the Monument.
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. Visitors should be aware that pets, bicycles, horseback riding, camping and smoking are strictly prohibited in the park. As with all properties in the National Parks System, the use of drones is prohibited by law.
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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.
Hiking in Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument offers plenty of opportunity for hiking, regardless of your level of experience. The Monument offers 6 miles of beautiful trails, some of which extend into neighboring Mt. Tamalpais State Park. There are 3 loop trails of varying length. The shortest takes approximately 30 minutes to walk, the medium-length path takes approximately an hour, and the longest hike takes approximately 90 minutes. All of these walks afford views of old-growth coast redwoods, the tallest living things in the world. You can see a list of the trails on the NPS website, or you can link to a map of the Monument grounds and all the trails here.
Trails inside Muir Woods National Monument are either asphalt or wooden boardwalks. Longer trails in the canyon area or to Mt. Tamalpais are dirt walking surfaces. These trails can be more challenging to hike due to their narrow and steep paths, as well as frequent tree roots along the trail. The most up-to-date trail information is available at the Visitor’s Center.
Photography in Muir Woods National Monument
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.
When Is The Best Time to Visit Muir Woods National Monument?
As you would expect, many visitors want to plan their visits for the best time to visit Muir Woods National Monument. Naturally, the Monument both benefits and suffers from the changing conditions throughout the year. That said, there is no one time of year that’s better than others to visit. In the spring visitors experience new growth and vibrant greens. In the summer, the days are longer and the sunlight is more direct, which makes for beautiful scenes. In the fall, the changing leaves blanket the trees and ground with a multitude of warm colors. And in winter, you’ll experience the quiet and barrenness of a land in hibernation.
There are, however, some good rules of thumb to take into consideration when planning your trip:
- If possible, visit the Monument when it first opens or at the end of the day. The sun won’t be directly overhead which will provide more balanced colors and lighting. You may also experience the warm yellowish glow of the early morning and late afternoon sunrises and sunsets.
- Mornings and afternoons are also the times of day with the fewest visitors.
- The morning especially nice, because that’s your best chance of seeing sunlight filtering through the cool, moist morning air. It’s a magical sight to see – almost like something out of a fairy tale.
- Try to visit mid-week if possible. Weekends are always the busiest time.
- It’s hard to plan this ahead of time – but if you can find a day that’s slightly rainy or overcast, those are also good days to go because the number of visitors is generally lower.
In short…the best time to visit Muir Woods National Monument is whenever you can make time to go!
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