Ironically, the area that is now Muir Woods National Monument was saved because in the 19th century it was just too hard for loggers to get there. Located just 12 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, this old-growth stand is now wonderfully accessible to anyone who wants to take a walk in the woods. If you’re looking for a backcountry experience, you’ll have to go elsewhere, but if you want a leisurely stroll in an ancient forest, Muir Woods is a great choice.
The 560 acre park is 256 feet above sea level and is a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is surrounded by Mt. Tamalpais State Park.
The park is cool, shaded and moist year-round, due to summer coastal fog and winter storms. Daytime temperatures at average between 40 and 70 degrees F, with an annual rainfall of about 40 inches. Most of the precipitation occurs during the winter and spring months.
There are two species of Redwood in the USA: the Coast Redwood and its cousin the Giant Sequoia (also known as the Sierra Redwood) They are both found in California but grow in very different regions.
The Coast Redwood grows only along the northern California coastline, from Big Sur in the south to just over the Oregon border in the north, and only up to forty miles inland and below 2500 feet.
The Sequoia grows only in about 75 isolated groves in the Sierra Nevada, the eastern mountains of California.
The Coastal Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, reaching heights of over 368 feet (112 meters). They are one of the widest trees on earth, reaching diameters at their base of over 30 feet (9.3 meters) and one of the oldest trees in existence, the oldest on record having lived 2,200 years when it was cut down.
The Latin name for the coast redwood is sequoia sempervirons, the ever-green sequoia, often translated as "ever-living." Redwoods are survivors from an ancient time (250 million years ago) with the adaptations to continue to be the dominant tree in the forests where they grow.
Only 5% of the original old growth redwoods exist today.
Most redwoods live for 500 – 700 years. Most trees die from windthrow (falling over) or from excessive fire damage. Redwood roots only penetrate 10 – 13 ft and spread 60 – 80 ft. The trees have no known diseases and do not suffer from insect damage. The thick bark (12 inches) will protect the tree from all but the most intense fires. The foliage is far from the forest floor and thus protected. The color of the tree comes from tannin and related compounds in the heartwood and bark. Redwood forests generate the world’s greatest volume of living matter per unit of land surface.
Frequent fires ignited by lightning are an important part of the forest ecosystem. These fires will remove less fire resistant trees, recycle nutrients, and modify the ground vegetation.
The Native Americans living in the area, which later became Marin County, were Miwoks. They were, for the most part, coastal dwellers, with the largest centers of population located near present-day Bolinas, Sausalito and San Rafael. These areas put them close to a dependable food supply of clams, mussels, limpets and acorns. Most likely the Miwoks never lived in Muir Woods; however, it is probable that they did pass through the area and, on occasion, hunt in this vicinity.
Western man came upon the scene with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the mid 1700’s. The Spanish practiced occasional logging to provide timbers for their ships and missions. Some grazing was done on coastal grasslands, and of course, crops were planted to provide the settlements with food. The most important legacy left by the Spanish on the environment of Marin County was their very great cultural influence, which is still seen today, especially reflected in architectural themes.
In 1838, William Richardson received a Mexican grant of land, Rancho Sausalito (Little Willow Ranch), which contained all the Marin land southeast of Mt. Tamalpais, and included Redwood Canyon and the lands now within Muir Woods National Monument. The tranquil Spanish way of life was maintained until gold was discovered in California, at Sutter’s Mill, in 1848. This caused a mass migration of those who hoped to make their fortunes in the gold fields. The password of the day became...get in, get rich quick, and get out. San Francisco became the center for this horde of humanity, and the tradition of leisured living came to an abrupt halt. Timber, meat and crops were now needed in much greater quantities. As a result black tail deer populations were reduced, and elk, antelope, grizzly and black bear, cougar and coyote disappeared completely. Early settlers regarded the Redwood as inferior lumber and continued to import lumber from the east. However, in the 1850’s carpenters started to recognize the durability and workability of the Redwood and the cutting began. Most of the easily accessible timber in Marin County was logged between 1850 and 1870. Luckily Redwood Canyon escaped much of this onslaught because of its inaccessibility, and the extreme difficulty of logging such steep slopes.
Early visitors arrived either on foot, horseback, buggy, or via the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Railroad, dubbed the “crookedest railroad in the world” because of the many twists and turns made by the tracks as they climbed Mt. Tamalpais. In 1908 the first automobile reached Muir Woods over the wagon road from Mill Valley. This early use of the Monument was quite casual as people wandered as they wished, and vehicles passed through the length of the canyon. Needless to say, such indiscriminate use caused severe damage to the understory (ground cover) vegetation, and eventually necessitated stronger regulatory measures. Cars were excluded from redwood groves in 1924, and the elimination of picnicking, the fencing of trails, and the prohibition of plant, animal and rock collecting soon followed. Also, small tracts of private land were added to the Monument to prevent incompatible land uses on contiguous lands.
Noting that Redwood Creek contained one of the Bay Area’s last uncut stands of old growth redwood, Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thatcher Kent, bought 295 acres here for $45,000 in 1905. To protect the redwoods the Kents donated the land to the Federal Government and, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument. Roosevelt suggested naming the area after Kent, but Kent wanted it named for conservationist John Muir.
John Muir: Philosopher, Scientist, Author: Young John Muir’s family emigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1848. Muir had a lively interest in nature and after brief studies at the University of Wisconsin he left school for what he would call “the University of the Wilderness.” On his lengthy wanderings Muir contemplated man’s relationship to nature, concluding that all life forms have inherent significance and the right to exist. Humans, Muir decided, are no greater or lesser than other forms of life. Muir eventually won public acceptance of conservation as an environmental ethic and inspired generations of wilderness advocates.
Today Muir Woods stands as a reminder of the way much of the surrounding Marin County land once appeared. Here may be found an environment, which can heighten our awareness of the gaps between “progress” of the 20th Century technology and the quality of our lives.
All mature Redwoods can reproduce in one of two ways: seed or sprout
Redwoods have both male (pollen) and female (ovulate) cones. They form on the tips of high branches in mature redwoods in the fall. Pollen from the peppercorn-sized male cones is fertilizes the female cones after being transported by wind and gravity.
Over the next year, the female cones mature into hard-sided cones from .5 to 1.5 inches in length. Protected by the hard scales are from 60 to 120 seeds. The seeds of the redwood are tiny, about the size of a small oatmeal flake.
Some seeds are released from the cone while the cone is still on the tree, drifting down to the ground or blown by the wind. Other seeds remain in cones until the cone falls to the forest floor, dries, and opens.
Very few of these seeds will ever produce a tree. Many seeds cannot penetrate the leaf litter to reach the soil. Some will land in water or on animals and will be carried away from the redwood forest. Many more will reach the soil but will be destroyed by fungus, bacteria, and insects. Many will be washed away by rain, and some will be eaten by animals.
Seedlings will grow best under shady conditions, under the protection of larger trees. When larger trees fall, opening light gaps, seedlings will spring up to fill the void. After their first few years, redwoods can grow very rapidly, 2 to 6 feet in height and up to one inch in diameter a year.
Sprout (burl) Reproduction:
Redwoods are one of a very few coniferous trees that can also reproduce by sprouting. As early as one year after beginning to grow, a redwood can begin to produce bud collars, most commonly referred to as ‘burls’. The dormant root buds will continuously form, sometimes creating large bulbous growth on the tree's roots, base, or trunk. Hormones within the tree keep these burls from sprouting until the tree faces some form of stress. Fire, erosion, flooding, browsing, or other injury to the tree will trigger a release on the buds, causing them to begin to grow.
Redwood sprouts, or suckers, can grow rapidly, receiving their early nutrition from the roots on which they grow. They are genetic clones of their parent tree, often forming "family circles" around the parent tree. Under optimal conditions, sprouts may reach heights of 8-10 feet in their first year. Eventually the tree will grow its own root system and is able to survive even if the parent tree should topple. Some trees sprout in such proliferation that many of the sprouts cannot compete and die back. Successful saplings continue to compete, thinning themselves out naturally. Some day these sprouts will grow their own burls and produce their own sprouts.
West coast redwood trees dominate Muir Woods’ forest. Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, tanbark oak, and bay laurel grow along side the redwoods. At the lower end of the canyon, red alders line the stream and buckeyes cluster nearby. Bay laurels growing toward the light may assume contorted shapes or topple over. Each season at Muir Woods has its own character. Fall is warmest: ladybugs swarm, crayfish are active in Redwood Creek, and the leaves of big-leaf maple turn yellow and drop. During winter, steelhead (migratory rainbow trout) and silver salmon migrate up Redwood Creek to spawn, and toyon berries turn a vibrant red. In spring, birds nest, wildflowers dot Redwood Canyon, and blacktail deer birth spotted fawns. Summer is the season of fog, azaleas, aralias, buckeyes, Steller’s jays, and chipmunks.
Below the cool redwood canopy a number of plant layers develop with a variety of niches. A diversity of plant communities also contributes to the variety of life within the small Monument area.
Muir Woods’ nearness to cities has been detrimental, but it is buffered by surrounding undeveloped land. This has helped to maintain the integrity of the Redwood Creek watershed and its wildlife—best seen during the early morning hours.
You may notice the relative silence in these woods. Animal life in a redwood forest is limited because the shaded conditions provide scarce food. Many animals that do live here feed at night, as owls and bats do, or in early morning and around dusk, as deer do. Mammals most often seen are the Sonoma chipmunk and blacktail deer. You may hear the scolding of Steller’s jays or the raucous cawing of raven. Warblers, kinglets, and thrushes migrate through the woods in spring and fall. Western garter snakes, rubber boas, several species of lizards, salamanders, and newts represent reptiles and amphibians.
The Main Trail Loop: An easy one-mile hike along a level, paved trail. Follow the paved path along one side of the creek. Cross over one of the four bridges and make your way back.
Fern Creek Trail: Hike to a picnic area at the Alice Eastwood Campground 1-1/2 miles away. This is a beautiful, meandering moderate uphill hike along Fern Creek. Hike along the Main Trail to Fern Creek on your right. Follow trail signs to Camp Eastwood.
Bootjack-Ben Johnson Loop: Recently reopened from last year's landslide. See if you can find evidence of the slide as you hike along Redwood Creek. Follow the main trail to the end of the pavement. Bootjack is a moderate to strenuous six-mile loop trail. The first part ascends to Van Wyck Meadow. From Van Wyck take the TCC trail down to the Ben Johnson trail and back to Muir Woods.
Redwood Creek Trail to Muir Beach: This gentle downhill trail follows Redwood Creek on its way to the ocean. Take a full day and enjoy exploring Muir Beach. The Pelican Inn, at Muir Beach, is an elegant spot for lunch.
Muir Woods’ main trail begins at the visitor center and follows Redwood Creek on both sides of the stream. Though a level, easy stroll, you can shorten your walk by crossing on the second or third of four bridges and returning to the visitor center. The path is wide, paved and wheelchair and stroller accessible. Numbered signs begin after the second bridge. The numbers correspond to the stops described in our Nature Trail Booklet. You’ll find a close-up map of the main trail on the inside cover of our guide.