Muir Woods National Monument
and Mount Tamalpais State Park
With a million visitors per year, Muir Woods is the world's most-visited redwood park. Since it's just a 30-minute drive from San Francisco, visitors to the city can drive here, experience a little of California's unique natural beauty, and be back in time for lunch. The park is just as much a San Francisco icon as the Golden Gate Bridge or the cable cars.
The downside of this popularity is the crowds. At its worst, with overflowing parking lots forcing a long walk to the entrance and crowds of tourists jamming the wide boardwalk, Muir Woods can feel a little like a theme park. Even the trails that climb the steep hills around the Main Trail are surprisingly busy. To avoid the worst crowds, arrive before 9 am.
As redwoods go, the trees of Muir Woods aren't all that big. The tallest trees in the park are only about 250 feet high, compared to 370 feet for the tallest redwoods in the world. The park also lacks the strikingly lush look of the best old-growth redwood groves. If you can devote a full day to the redwoods, consider visiting the more impressive Big Basin, a 2-hour, 70-mile drive south of San Francisco. Even more impressive are the redwood parks to the north.
Mt. Tamalpais State Park, which surrounds Muir Woods and borders the wealthy suburbs of Marin County, is extremely popular with locals. Several memorable Mt. Tam hikes are included in this section. The park offers superb mountain and ocean views and even has some old-growth redwoods of its own. However, while all of Muir Woods appears to be old growth, the unlogged forest ends promptly at the park boundaries, and most of lower Mt. Tam State Park is covered with very young second-growth redwoods. At higher elevations the redwoods give way to chaparral and rolling alpine meadows. In general, the further north you go within the park, the better the scenery.
Getting to Muir Woods
It's easy to find Muir Woods; plenty of roadsigns point the way to the park. From San Francisco, drive north to the Golden Gate Bridge. After crossing the bridge, Highway 101 passes over a hill with a tunnel at the top. Just after the highway levels out at the end of the hill, take the Route 1 off-ramp to Mill Valley/Stinson Beach. Cross under the freeway. There's a traffic light just after after you cross under the freeway, then the road winds along the side of a river and enters a developed area. Turn left at the next traffic light, following the signs for Route 1 and Muir Woods.
The two-lane road climbs through a residential area. Shortly after the houses end, turn right at a well-signed intersection onto the Panoramic Highway. The road immediately makes a hairpin turn and ascends an open, chaparral-covered ridge. Turn left at the next intersection onto Muir Woods Road, which is also marked with prominent signs. The narrow and very twisty road is cut into a steep hillside with nothing to keep you from tumbling off the cliff. After a series of hairpin turns you'll reach the entrance to Muir Woods. Chances are you'll have to drive past the entrance and continue to the overflow lot. Parking at Muir Woods is free.
On summer weekends the entire drive becomes very slow. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and on Route 1 through Sausalito grinds to a standstill by noon and gets even worse later in the day, often adding an hour to the drive. The parking lots and the road for several miles past Muir Woods fills up. During these times, signs appear on the Golden Gate Bridge instructing visitors to take the shuttle. The shuttle, Marin Transit route 66, leaves from a small parking lot under Highway 101 at the Muir Woods exit ramp. The bus costs $5 per person (exact change only), runs only on weekends, and takes about 45 minutes each way. If you're visiting at a peak time or just don't like to drive on winding roads, it might be worthwhile to take the shuttle.
Beginning in 2017, reservations will be required to park anywhere near the main entrance to Muir Woods. Energetic hikers who don't mind an 800 foot vertical climb can avoid the main entrance (and the entrance fee) by parking along the Panoramic Highway and walking down the Ocean View Trail or Camp Eastwood Road into the park; however, parking along the Panoramic Highway is hard to find on summer weekends.
Old-growth redwood hikes in Muir Woods
*** The Sun Trail (4.7 miles)
** The Ben Johnson Trail (5.2 miles)
** The Main Trail (2 miles)
Old-growth redwood hikes in Mount Tamalpais State Park
*** Willow Camp and Steep Ravine (8.5 miles)
*** Dipsea and Steep Ravine (3.9 miles)
*** Dad O'Roarke's Bench (0.6 miles)
© 2006, 2015 David Baselt