People from all over the world visit Muir Woods. It’s part of the San Francisco experience.
I was there in 1962. I returned 57 years later in November. The wonderful redwood giants hadn’t changed much, but the facilities, including parking lots and trails, have suffered from too many people and too little maintenance.
The National Park Service has coped with the crowds by regulating usage. You can still park near the entrance during the week, but you must pay $8 online in advance for parking lots as far as a quarter-mile away. To control traffic flow, you must specify your arrival time in a half-hour time period. (I specified 10:30 to 11 a.m., and got there at 10:55 a.m.)
On weekends, you must ride a shuttle from Sausalito, Marin City, or the Pohono park-and-ride lot, but it costs only $3. The entrance fee is $15 if you are 16 or older, but seniors can buy an annual national-park pass for $20.
This national monument is about eleven miles from San Francisco, and the road into the Muir Woods is relatively smooth (by mountain standards), but very curvy.
Once you have found parking and bought your entrance ticket, everything is easy. You walk through the entrance gate on a wide boardwalk past a visitor center, complete with cafe, gift shop, and restrooms. Following the year-round Redwood Creek, you pass through the Founder’s Grove, Bohemian Grove, and the quiet Cathedral Grove. On the left, bridges 1, 2, 3, and 4 cross the creek to a dirt path paralleling the boardwalk. This provides a series of loop trails, varying in length from half a mile (bridge 2), a mile (bridge 3), or two miles (bridge 4). The boardwalk is wheelchair-accessible. The dirt path on the other side is relatively flat and easy but rocky.
Of course, the stars of the show are the coast redwoods, the world’s tallest living trees. You can respect their height. They grow up to 380 feet high. You can respect their age. The oldest tree in Muir Woods is estimated to be 1,100 years old. You can respect their ability to survive. Only five percent of old-growth redwoods remain. You can respect their work. They provide habitat for hundreds of species, minimize erosion, and produce clean water and air that counters climate change. It’s an honor to walk under these quiet giants.
My guess is that more than ninety percent of the visitors never go beyond this valley of redwoods. They came to see redwoods. They see them. They go home.
If, however, you want a challenging hike, you can leave the crowded and formal boardwalk for a more private walk in nature up off the valley floor. For this hike, I recommend a map, water, a little food, and good boots that fit. The Ben Johnson/Dipsea Trail is only four miles long, but difficulty is listed as moderate/strenuous.
I crossed the fourth bridge to reach the Ben Johnson Trail. I climbed up the steep, old trail filled with rocks, roots, and occasional stairs with random risers, and passed Deer Park Fire Road. As I reached the connection to the Dipsea Trail, I was catching my breath when a young woman, Salina, invited me to the only bench where we shared lunch. (She had sushi; I had a ham sandwich.)
Salina had moved from Hong Kong to Boston, and was enjoying California. An avid hiker, she asked me to join her on the hike. But when I looked up at the next section, it was a steep wall. I told her to go ahead while I followed respectfully behind. She scampered up the trail. In a few minutes she was out of sight. It took me about a half hour to climb the same distance.
When I reached the top of the ridge, the view opened to reveal broad meadows and distant mountains. It was a nice scene, but fog obscured views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco skyline. On the last half mile, I walked down through a fern-thick forest back to the parking lot. It was hard on the knees but a good hike.
On the drive home, I saw the Golden Gate Bridge and the white city in the golden hour. It was like dessert after a good meal.
You can see beautiful redwood forests at Henry Cowell or Big Basin, but Muir Woods is a fine, old classic worth seeing. Enjoy.
Reservations are required. To visit Muir Woods on weekdays (recommended), buy your parking fee online at GoMuirWoods.com and print out your ticket. You can pay your entrance fee online or at the park. Cell phone and WiFi services are not available in the park.
For UPS directions, use the address of 1 Muir Woods Road, Mill Valley, CA 94941. As insurance, get a map that shows the road network of Muir Woods National Monument, and the surrounding Mount Tamalpais State Park. The most direct route is 17 north to 85 north to 280 north. Follow 19th Avenue north to 101 north and cross the Golden Gate Bridge. It is 11 miles to the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit. Follow the Muir Woods signs on 1 north, turn right on Panoramic Highway, and turn left on Muir Woods Road.