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 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 Bohemian Grove 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, about two-thirds the height of the tallest North Coast redwoods. 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.
Several hikes in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, which surrounds Muir Woods and borders the wealthy suburbs of Marin County, are included in this section. The park is extremely popular with locals and 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, 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.
Reservations are now required to park anywhere near the main entrance to Muir Woods or to take the 45-minute shuttle ride (available weekends and holidays only) to the main entrance. Parking reservations cost $8 per car, while shuttle reservations are $3 per person. There’s also an entrance fee of $10 per person. Reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance.
Energetic hikers who don’t mind an 800 foot vertical climb can avoid the reservations and fees by parking along the Panoramic Highway and walking down the Ocean View Trail or Camp Eastwood Road (Alice Eastwood Road) into the park; however, parking along the Panoramic Highway is hard to find on summer weekends. I’ve done it, but even at 10 am it feels miraculous to find a spot.
If you do drive to Muir Woods, it’s easy to find; plenty of roadsigns point the way. 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.
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 Sun Trail (4.7 miles)
A scenic loop that climbs to a steep grassy hillside high above Muir Woods, then descends into a narrow, redwood-filled side canyon before joining the Bohemian Grove Trail. This is the best of the loops that climb the hills around Muir Woods.
** The Ben Johnson Trail (5.2 miles)
This loop starts with a long climb up a grass-covered ridge, then descends through old-growth redwood uplands to the Bohemian Grove Trail.
** The Bohemian Grove Trail (2 miles)
The main attraction of Muir Woods, this heavily-used trail follows a stream through a canyon lined with medium-sized redwoods.
*** Willow Camp and Steep Ravine (8.5 miles)
This challenging hike descends scenic coastal bluffs to Stinson Beach, then returns by way of a climb through a redwood-filled canyon.
*** Dipsea and Steep Ravine (3.9 miles)
This enjoyable hike in Mount Tamalpais State Park has a little of everything — superb ocean views, lush coastal woodland, and a cool, damp canyon lined with old-growth redwoods. The redwoods are smaller and fewer in number than Muir Woods, but this loop is a lot less touristy.
** Colier Spring (1.4 miles)
High on the north side of Mount Tamalpais, Colier Spring sustains a tiny, little-known old-growth redwood grove.
*** Dad O’Roarke’s Bench (0.6 miles)
A short stroll through alpine meadows to one of the best scenic views from anywhere on Mt. Tam.
***** Steep Ravine Cabins and Campground ($25 – $100/night + $8, open all year)
Perched on a blufftop with superb views of the remarkably scenic Marin coast, this cluster of little cabins is one of the most extraordinary places to camp in California. Nearby on the same plateau are 7 campsites.
* Pantoll and Bootjack Campgrounds ($25, open all year)
Mount Tamalpais’ popular Pantoll and Bootjack campgrounds are surrounded by great scenery and great hiking, but the campgrounds themselves aren’t really that attractive and get lots of traffic noise.
© 2006, 2015 David Baselt