In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.

John Muir

Just north of San Francisco, across the mighty Golden Gate Bridge, there exists a tiny sliver of a forgotten world. Here, primeval forest holds its claim on a small canyon. Redwoods tower, a brook babbles, ferns grow in all shades of green, and humans escape the urban jungle for a more serene experience. Named for the acclaimed naturalist John Muir, Muir Woods National Monument is a reminder of what was, and what might be again: nature in its majesty growing wild and free.

Muir Woods

John Muir was born in 1838 in Scotland. At the age of eleven, his family moved to the United States, and here, Muir fell in love with the wild areas of the American West. Instrumental in preserving what became Yosemite National Park, as well as the giant trees of Sequoia National Park, John Muir is credited for being one of the main drivers behind the creation of the National Parks Service, and being one of the founders of the American conservationist movement. While Muir Woods has no truly special connection to John himself, it is a fitting tribute to the man without whom such places might not exist.

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.

John Muir

At one point in the not too distant past, most of the area north of San Francisco looked like this. Old growth redwoods, many of which exceed 300 feet in height, covered the area along the coast from here all the way into southern Oregon. And then came the loggers. Big money was to be made in logging; redwood became the most fashionable wood to do one’s home and furniture. And so the forests were cut down, quickly and without mercy. Muir Woods National Monument protects 240 acres of the last remaining old growth redwood forest in the area. It sits in a steep valley, and logging companies found accessing the area would cost too much to be worth it. So this small sliver was spared from destruction. In 1908, Muir Woods National Monument was created, making permanent the reprieve from deforestation.

Looking up at the redwood canopy

While the monument is named for John Muir, it was another man, William Kent, who paved the way for the area to be saved. When a water company intended to dam the Redwood Creek and flood the valley, he and his wife, Elizabeth Thatcher Kent, bought 611 acres of land. The couple then donated it to the federal government when the water company threatened eminent domain to flood the area anyway. Muir Woods therefore became the first unit of the National Parks Service to be created upon land donated by a private individual.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir

A walk through Muir Woods National Monument is a perfect way to clear one’s head, trading the hustle of the city for the slow calm of the forest, if only for a few hours. While some trails head up the hills surrounding the valley, for most visitors, it is a simple loop (done leisurely in a couple hours, or more if one stops to admire each tree as I did) that makes for an ideal day in the monument. One side of the loop (the right if coming in from the entrance) is flat, a mixture of boardwalk and tightly packed earth, fully accessible. The other side, separated from the first by the creek running down the center of the valley), is hilly, with narrower trails dotted by tree roots and such that one must climb around. However, if you are able to navigate this section, it is worthwhile; the dense crowds of the boardwalk thin out substantially, making for a more serene experience.

A view down at the boardwalk from the hilly side

Redwood Creek is spanned by four bridges, each numbered with visible signs. Bridge four is the easiest spot to make the crossing to do the complete loop.

Redwood Creek runs down the center of the valley

Only an hour or so outside of San Francisco, and less than 30 minutes from Marin’s hub in San Rafael, Muir Woods National Monument is crowded. Advance reservations for parking are required, coming with a timed entry, and they sell out basically every day. It is the trade-off of having such an easily accessed natural space, convenience for crowds. All in all, it is worth it, though one needs to be prepared for both the flood of people and the wildlife used to such a phenomenon. While stopping to admire one of the largest trees I was nearly climbed by a chipmunk eager to see what snacks I had in my backpack!

This guy tried to climb me after I took his picture

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

It is a great debt that the world owes John Muir, one that his name on a national monument does not even begin to repay. A visit here to Muir Woods National Monument is the first step in honoring the man without whom such places might not still exist. It is a walk in an old growth redwood forest, a glimpse of the sun through the dark canopy, a stop by a small creek, or an encounter with an eager chipmunk that pays homage to the famed naturalist, and to the wonder of nature itself. Muir Woods offers a chance to recharge from city life, and to bask in the majesty of the wild.

These knobs are called burls, and come from the tree feeling a bit stressed out

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