“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded that to stay out till
sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir
National Parks are some our greatest treasures, and, whilst they are natural wonders, they only survive today because of efforts by individuals such as John Muir. He is the perfect example of how one person can make a difference. An ardent naturalist, many consider him to be the patron saint of 20th-century American environmental activism. Muir advocated vociferously and successfully for the creation of national parks (such as Yosemite) and wildernesses to preserve the environment, but you don’t need to travel to Yosemite to feel Muir’s impact. A visit to Muir Woods National Monument, north of San Francisco, will take you into the world of giant redwood trees that Muir fought so hard to preserve.
The redwood grove is a gift from William and Elizabeth Kent who, in 1908 donated 295 acres of land to the government in honor of John Muir. Six miles of trails wander through thousands of old-growth coast redwood trees, the tallest living things in the world. The woods are the remains of ancient Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) forests that once covered the California coast until the 1800s. (Today two types of redwood trees are found in California. The Giant Sequoia (or Sequoia-dendron giganteum) grow in places like Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The Coast Redwood trees grow along the Pacific coast from Big Sur to southern Oregon).
Redwoods of all ages populate the grove. Some are over 1,000 years old. Others are new saplings, growing among the cool forest undergrowth with its ferns, moss, rotting trees, and clover. On many of the trees, giant knots called burls bulge from the reddish bark. These are a mass of dormant buds that serve as a redwood nursery and survival mechanism, ready to sprout shoots in the event of a natural calamity, like a fire, when the trees are threatened.
Two of the most popular areas in Muir Woods are the Bohemian and Cathedral Groves where the biggest and tallest trees are found. The tallest redwood is over 252 feet high and the biggest is over 14 feet wide. As you walk through these natural cathedrals, look up into the ancient canopy. You feel a sense of awe, as though you should whisper to avoid disturbing the peace of nature. Around you deer roam through the trees, fearless of the human visitors lingering nearby. Warblers, thrushes, and kinglets flit amongst the branches of the bay laurels and maple trees. Time disappears as you gaze in wonder.
As you wander through the ancient redwood forest, whisper a word of thanks to John Muir for his efforts. Thanks to him our children will be able to enjoy the beauty of Muir Woods as well as icons such as Yosemite National Park and countless other wilderness areas. He is an example of how one man’s legacy can extend over hundreds of miles and many generations. He is one of the planet’s true heroes. Where is our 21st century hero?
A wide-angle lens captures the vastness and grandeur of the trees. Photographing up into the canopy provides an unusual vista. We visit mid-morning on a very sunny day and find the increased dappled light that creates glare, and therefore, patches of overexposure, a challenge. A polarizing filter is helpful to reduce this, as would a visit in the early morning or late afternoon.
IF YOU GO
Part of the Golden Gate international Biosphere Reserve, Muir Woods is 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Take Highway 101 to the Stinson Beach Exit and follow the signs. With nearly a million visitors to Muir Woods every year, parking is very, very limited so it is a good idea to go on a weekday or early in the morning or evening on the weekends. Although there is no public transportation available, from early May to late September on weekends and holidays, there is a shuttle bus that goes from the Manzanita Park and Ride Lot (under the freeway where Highway 101 and Rt 1 split, just across from the Buckeye Roadhouse Park.)
You can stay in Muir Woods for as long or as little as you like. The trails include 30,60 and 90-minute hikes. If you are feeling more ambitious, you can go on one of the longer hikes that will take you up into Mt. Tamalpais State Park that abuts the Woods. The views from the top of the mountains are well worth the effort. Muir Woods is open from 0800 to sunset (Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley, CA; tel 415-388-2595; www.nps.gov/muwo).