A mere 50 miles west of East County stands a forest whose ascent inspires awe and wonder. It is home to the tallest living things on Earth: the California coast redwoods. They tower up to 370 feet above the forest floor; their diameter can span 22 feet and their bark can measure a foot thick. Most of them are between 500 and 800 years old; some have lived for 2,000 years. Impressive numbers – but no competition against the direct experience of this place. Muir Woods National Monument must be seen, its air must be breathed, its stillness must be heard.
At the turn of the 20th century, a place called Redwood Canyon was slated to be condemned, cut down for timber and replaced by a dam and reservoir. In 1905, a wealthy congressman named William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, got wind of the plan, bought the land and deeded it to the federal government. Under the terms of the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 proclaimed it a national monument.
Roosevelt’s choice for the park’s name was logical: Kent National Monument. But Kent had a different candidate in mind. One of his old friends, a philosopher, naturalist and author, had for many years been devoting his life to bringing to public awareness the concept of conservation as an ethical imperative. His name was John Muir. Roosevelt acceded to Kent’s choice, and named the monument Muir Woods.
A walk through Muir Woods is an exercise in more than neck-craning. In the presence of the mighty redwoods we feel small, but not alienated. The ancient rainforest is alive with marvels on the small scale, from mushrooms to mosses. A multitude of birds inhabit these trees, from Stellar’s jays to migrating warblers and kinglets. Arrive at 8 a.m. when the park opens or linger at sunset when it closes and you can catch a glimpse of black-tailed deer.
Redwood Creek flows through the heart of Muir Woods, providing a habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout, a feast for our eyes and music to our ears. Four bridges cross Redwood Creek, allowing us to stop and savor the profusion of life along its banks and in its current – a current amplified by the wet spring of 2011.
Lace ’em up
For the hardcore hiker, Muir Woods is a hub from which many adventures radiate. It’s easy to leave the tourists behind and hop onto trails leading up to Mt. Tamalpais or down to Stinson Beach.
Take the Hillside Trail north to where it intersects with the Ben Johnson and Bootjack trails. If you’re in an ocean mood, head west on the Ben Johnson Trail and hook up with the Dipsea Trail, which ushers you down to Stinson Beach. The Matt Davis Trail provides a scenic loop back to Muir Woods. Got a taste for rarified air? Take the Bootjack Trail up to the Mountain Theatre and head northeast on the Rock Spring Trail to West Point. From there, the Old Railroad Grade fire road will hoist you to the panoramic vista of Mt. Tam’s East Peak – 2,571 feet above sea level, the highest point in the North Bay.
The ancientry of Muir Woods is no guarantor of its immortality. Although coast redwoods are hardy organisms and can fend off fire and wind, insect and earthquake, their chief nemesis is the sinister species known as Homo sapiens. A few hundred years ago, California was home to more than 2 million acres of old-growth redwoods. Now, 150,000 acres remain, only half of which enjoy federal or state protection.
In the early days of Muir Woods National Monument, throngs of motorists, picnickers, campers and plant collectors took a severe toll on the ecosystem – aided and abetted by an indulgent park staff. Today, park volunteers in concert with the National Park Service continue to restore this hallowed grove to its former glory. Paved and planked walkways bordered by low wooden fences, plus well-maintained trails in the upper elevations, have cushioned the blow dealt by the park’s 1 million annual visitors.
Old-growth havens such as Muir Woods provide more than visual splendor. They’re a natural soundscape, a welcome shelter from the noise of urban life. What’s at first mistaken for the absolute stillness of the woods is soon identified as the subtle music of wind in the trees, flowing water, the chatter of birds and rustling of mammals – a realm free of the constraints of time, the numbing daily grind, the trivialities of mass entertainment. A realm of renewal.
According to John Muir, the woods named after him is “the best tree lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” It would be hard to dispute the claim. Muir Woods is a place that combines majesty in perfect harmony with tranquility. And most fortunate of all, it’s within striking distance of our neighborhood.