Traversing Trails: What to See and Do in Muir Woods National Monument

Traversing Trails: What to See and Do in Muir Woods National Monument

By Oliver Jenkyns June 27, 2019

The fresh scent of pine fills the air as the chatter of fellow hikers mingles with the soothing sounds of rushing water. Tan bark, dirt trails, and green foliage surround everything in sight—from the forest floor all the way up to the tallest canopy—as you take in the ancient trees around you. 

Established on January 9, 1908, Muir Woods National Monument is a coastal old-growth redwood forest nestled in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco. Local politician William Kent purchased the land in 1905 after builders cut down several redwoods in order to provide construction supplies for San Francisco. Though Kent set out to protect the forest and its natural beauty, a local water company had other plans and sued Kent in 1907, in an attempt to turn the canyon into a reservoir.

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Situated just north of San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument has been federally protected land since 1908, thanks to the efforts of William Kent and Theodore Roosevelt.

Feeling the pressure to act, Kent reached out to President Theodore Roosevelt in hopes of preserving the canyon and naming it after John Muir, as an ode to the highly revered conservationist. Kent’s actions paid off; merely one year later, in 1908, the forest was declared a national monument and officially saved from the devastating destruction it once faced. Thanks to Kent’s quick thinking and the legislation passed by Roosevelt, the redwoods in Muir Woods today are between 400 and 800 years old. 

With heights up to 250 feet, the towering redwood trees often steal the show. But the red alder, California bigleaf maple, Douglas fir, and tanoak trees are stunning in their own right. Settled along the forest floor are the unsung heroes: The leafy ferns, stocky fungi, mosses, and other brush protect the soil from erosion, outline the edges of the trails, and present a beautiful canvas for the blooming wildflowers that manage to find the sunshine amongst the shade of the canopy. Tucked among the trees and bushes lie the Northern spotted owls, deer, squirrels, and chipmunks that bring life to the ground, while the river otters, coho salmon, and steelhead trout swim happily in the cool waters of Redwood Creek. Native animals and visiting trekkers alike enjoy a lack of insects due to the repellent properties of the redwoods’ tannin—which is also the element responsible for the tree’s red hue.

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The old-growth redwood forest is named after John Muir, the world-renowned naturalist and "Father of the National Parks."

Getting to Muir Woods

Once you make a reservation, set out early to get a parking spot—it can be hard to snag one after 9 a.m.—pay the $15 admission fee, and enjoy free reign on the flat trails nestled among the trees. (Tip: For a stress-free entrance, bypass the parking lot altogether and take the Muir Woods Shuttle.)

Hit the Trail

Come prepared for the Mediterranean climate and shady conditions by dressing in layers; even on warm days, the shade and fog drip can quickly cool down the trails. Head out on the Alpine Trail, which starts at the northern edge of the Pantoll parking lot, to meet up with the Bootjack Trail. This trailhead appears about 0.75 miles down the path and leads you past meandering creeks, down steep slopes, and around small waterfalls. Continue on the Bootjack Trail for roughly 1.5 miles until you reach the paved area of Muir Woods National Monument. Spend time wandering around the wilderness, eating your packed lunch, and hydrating in the serenity before you leave. When the time comes, make your way toward the Ben Johnson Trail to start the strenuous hike back up. 

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Numerous trails wind among the towering trees of Muir Woods, leading hikers past trickling creeks and offering gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape.

The entire excursion clocks in at just under six miles round trip, providing ample time to enjoy the open forest and the trickling waters along the way. Since the canopy provides so much shade, ensure you begin the outing before 2 p.m. to avoid traversing the trails in the dark. 

For even more adventures, check out the other trails that cross through the forested areas, and drive down to Muir Beach before leaving the area. And if a single day is not enough time to take in the majesty of the redwoods, book a room at the Pelican Inn, located less than three miles from Muir Woods National Monument. While you’re in the area, check out some Bay Area coastal trails and mountain hikes, too. 


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