Muir Woods National Monument

It’s going to bother you a bit to walk through the Muir Woods National Monument.

Jealousy is going to erupt and you’re going to wrestle with some elemental life questions. Some spiritual…some pretty basic.

Among them will be:

  1. Did Noah “literally” build an ark? Maybe he used trees like these.
  2. If Buddha was right, and we’re all connected…my meager contribution to things seems pretty unfair to these trees.
  3. How is it that these “woods” grow within an hyper-aggressive rollerblade outing of downtown San Francisco?
  4. Why did my forefathers and mothers “settle” down on the east coast? How about rousting yourselves up off your butts and striking forth in the gold rush?
  5. What is it about this area and “rushes” anyway? Why does it seem this one, tiny fraction of the United States, serves wellspring to essentially every worthwhile human endeavor since the mid-1800s?

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Somehow wilderness and completely accessible, the John Muir Woods National Monument is 560 acres of just about the only way worthy of remembering the iconic conservationist. Coastal Redwoods so tall, a reasonable person could easily mistake them for railways bound for low-earth orbit. Giant Sequoia so wide, you might mistake them for Atlas’ fingers. Both of these, caught rocketing toward oblivion by a cloud of soft green pine. A canopy enjoying the sun’s rays, and permitting a few to pass to dance over your children’s backs and the forest’s floor.

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Broad and flat coastal pine needles engineered for breathing Pacific air, spread out like a living net; catching nothing but clear blue sky. Which is good, because the number of open-mouthed tourists staring straight up into the canopy would ordinarily cause a Carbon Dioxide warning.

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San Franciscans and anyone lucky enough to make the pilgrimage, enter a forest immediately felt as sacred. Six miles of trail (one of which is appropriately named Cathedral) are benchmarked by trees who first took root before the age Christ, before Buddha’s enlightenment, before pterodactyls soared the same skies these trees now pierce.

And while you’re standing there…dumbstruck…every one of the locals, every single one as they pass, will say something like, “Wait till you see Sequoia National Park.”

Part of a larger contiguous state and local park system, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Muir Woods National Monument is quite possibly the perfect family outing. Just a couple hours will stir your children’s imaginations and plant in them a thirst for discovery. All this, on a stroller accessible boardwalk.

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Address – 1 Muir Woods Rd. Mill Valley, CA 94941
Phone – (415) 388-2595 [Might have a hard time getting ahold of someone. It seems manning the phone takes a back seat to face-to-face interaction…which is almost non-stop during business hours.]
HoursMuir Woods National Monument is open every day of the year from 8:00 a.m. to sunset. The Visitor Center is open everyday at 9:00 a.m. The Muir Woods Trading Company and adjacent Café open at 9:00 a.m as well. They close about an hour before sunset.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT! 

Have a plan! There is no cell phone service in or around the monument. If you’re meeting people, meet ahead of time or agree to a specific time and place just like Grandpa did it!

Bring WATER!
Bring a MAP!
Have a PLAN!

Suggested Stay: A morning or afternoon hike. You could easily spend all day hiking multiple trails but, not all trails are as family-friendly as those we chose to explore. Parking is a royal (though well advertised) pain in the neck. We recommend getting a very early start. Our 9:30 a.m. arrival to the park proved too late for a reasonable parking spot. We spoke with a couple Rangers about parking. Both recommended taking a shuttle or stopping by for a late afternoon hike and forest sunset.

Getting There: TAKE. THE. SHUTTLE. Taking the shuttle or (if you can) hiking in from Mount Tamalpais State Park is absolutely the way to go. Parking is such a persistent concern that this time, next year, it won’t be an option. Muir Woods National Monument is planning to make daily parking “by reservation only.” For now, you can try your luck but, we wouldn’t recommend it.

If you drive in, you’ll start your day with that rare brand of explosive rage only traffic seems to induce. You’ll enter the woods in a state completely counter to the emotional wavelength you should be registering. We got lucky and after 45 minutes of muffled profanity, found a spot. The only highlight of our parking trials came in that undeserved sense of superiority we felt as we pulled in to our spot while smugly watching groups of youthful hipsters continuing their less-fruitful search.

Again…TAKE. THE. SHUTTLE. Though we got lucky and didn’t need to shuttle in, we spoke with some of the people who had. We also poked our head into one of the buses to speak with a shuttle driver and to secretly inspect it’s cleanliness. Thumbs up! Driver was helpful, bus was miraculously clean for having spent the morning shuttling dusty hikers, and though we can’t give you a “first hand” account of the drive, everyone with whom we spoke gave it a sterling endorsement.

Perfectly understandable and absolutely on-time, the buses were filled to capacity with people whose research acumen clearly exceeded our own. No one looked uncomfortable. If not for the leather jacket-wearing European smoking a cigarette while dropping game not seen since Lloyd “put out the vibe” at the Snow Owl Charity Ball, the whole Shuttle Scene would have been void of the usual “public transportation awkwardness.”putoutthevibe_zpsc5606bc1The shuttle originates at three points roughly 45 minutes outside the monument. You can jump on at Pohono Park and Ride, Sausalito Bay and Bridgeway, and the Marin City Hub. Sausalito and Marin are open only during peak season, June 20 – August 12. You can reference the snapshots we’ve provided below but, we recommend clicking here for the most current information. Additional information can be found at www.nps.gov/muwo or www.parksconservancy.org. The shuttle is equipped to handle all manner of family transport, including your stroller, but we wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll catch side glances and sighs of exasperation for sure. If possible, stick with the kid-carrier backpacks.  
img_1411 img_1412 img_1413If you’re interested in a more luxurious shuttle experience or just pressed for time, you can hire one of the many bus “touring companies.” Click here for a current listing of the available tour guides.

Lastly…Some advice from the Shuttle Driver – Avoid booking the last return-trip of the day. Plan on leaving the park on an earlier shuttle. The final pick up is always booked with billeted passengers and people with “special circumstances.” Leave on something other than the final shuttle otherwise, you’ll have to hike to cell phone reception only to buy an expensive Uber ride.

While You’re There:

  • Visitor Center – The Visitor Center is small and located behind what is sure to be a lengthy line to pay for park admission. You can expect standard park fees for admittance. If you have a park pass of some variety, you’ll still need to check in for accountability purposes. A bit annoying on holiday weekends, but probably a non-issue otherwise. Though small, there is a neat model of the park, several “conservationist” volunteers milling about, and plenty of park memorabilia for your children to almost break and plead with you for “the only thing I’ll ever ask for again.” There are also five or six Interpretive Rangers on deck at any given time. We were lucky enough to chat with three, including Muir’s lead interpretive ranger, Emily. Ranger Emily was kind enough to sit down and chat with us about the monument and her experiences in the National Park Service. Stay tuned for more on that interview in a later post. 

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  • The Junior Ranger Program – All Junior Ranger Programs are unique to the park’s attributes and Muir Woods is one of the more interactive we’ve seen. Available in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, the program is geared towards kids ages 6-11. The activities in the program are designed around your senses. Kids are encouraged to look for felled trees to count “age rings”, make shaded sketches of redwood needles, and hunt for the illusive banana slug. Using poetry, drawing, and investigation skills, they do a wonderful job of reaching learners at all levels. Muir Woods’ Junior Ranger program was especially great because its activities were structured to support broadening the children’s concept of time. You could see light bulbs going off all over the monument as kids pieced together just how long these old logs had been sitting around. Also of note, the Junior Ranger badge is a unique and worthy reward for ranger-ing well done. It’s carved from recycled Redwood, and adorned with etchings of tiny pinecones. Even the most “unimpressed” child will give it a second look.

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  • Trails – There are many trails throughout Muir Woods. From a steep escape to the summit of Mt. Tamalpias, to a relatively flat three-mile stroll to Muir Beach, the monument suits most hiking fancies. All that said, folks with kids generally stick to the main “boardwalk” trail. The trail is one mile all the way to the far bridge, crossing three others along the way.  The trail is either paved or boardwalk throughout. It is flat and stroller-friendly. We saw all kinds of strollers, wheelchairs, and even a man on crutches exploring without limitation. It’s a marvel how the monuments early architects were able to make the park nearly 100% accessible without compromising the wilderness feel. You can take various paths off the main trail. We took a couple along the way. The “off-shoots” aren’t at all stroller friendly but are nevertheless manageable. We walked alongside some pretty steep cliffs, and fully exercised our best “helicopter parenting” routine.

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Teachable Moment
…As we hiked the canopy trail, fully grown adults heading in the opposite direction would position themselves to ensure they were closest to the mountain, leaving our five and two year olds to negotiate the intimidating precipice. In all fairness, our kid’s little feet, low centers of gravity, and our tight grip as they’d scamper made them well-suited to the task but nevertheless, it seemed bizarre. When we’re on the trail, no matter whose kids they are…we always make sure they stick to the “inside of the trail.” Grown-ups handle the cliff. From now on, we’ll be teaching the girls to move quickly to the mountain side of the trail to eliminate any confusion.

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Ounces = Pounds:

We’ve developed a system of two packs. The Osprey Poco Premium’s detachable daypack stores our changes of clothes and diapers. The first aid kit is also in the Poco and is stored in the large bay beneath the saddle. Our Osprey Manta 25 with “hydration system” (we call it our “Feed Bag”) is where we keep our mobile grocery store. We overpacked as usual but, even though the monument expressly discourages unplanned adventures, its lay-out keeps you exploring. Having some extra food is in our estimation a worthy contingency. We ended up heading down to Muir Beach to meet up with friends. We were glad for the extra food!

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Highlights:

  • Total accessibility! Having just visited the sparsely appointed Channel Islands National Park, we were particularly aware of the many, fully functioning, water-fountains and toilets. A boardwalk, full service café, and clearly marked trails were a nice change of pace.
  • The interpretive ranger staff. As with most parks they really make the visit. They are helpful, kind, and engaged. Like you, they’re interested in getting your children “hooked” on appreciating their own planet.
  • Sunsets in the Muir Woods are not to be missed. We left for Muir Beach before experiencing this for ourselves but, the pictures taken by total amateurs spoke a thousand words. We need to go back.
  • Muir Beach! From the Visitor Center, a flat three-mile trail heads straight to Muir Beach. We opted to drive because the girls had reached their limit and most of the trail is along the road anyway. The beach and its corresponding trails are windy. We recommend a wind breaker and a hat.img_1014
  • Our entire time at the monument we kept marveling at how it was all so close to San Francisco. A huge, bustling city, just a short drive out of the woods.

Lowlights:

  • Parking. As mentioned above, there are plans for big changes. If you’re traveling on a weekend or anytime you expect big crowds, we can’t overemphasize the usefulness of the shuttle. 
  • Trash on the trail. We picked up what we could but, there was a healthy amount collecting in the steep, unaccessible ravines. It wasn’t just an “Oops! It fell out of my pack” amount. To be frank, it was heartbreaking. It’s hard to imagine the type of person capable of looking at Cathedral Trail and then launching their empty can of “Bud Heavy” into the ravine for an overtasked park ranger to collect.
  • Poison Oak. Know what it looks like.
    poisonoak_wb_biggerleaves poisonoakgreenphaseLuckily, we didn’t encounter any but, there are warnings of Poison Oak, both verbal and written on pamphlets and placards and just about all over the place. We were also warned of stinging nettles. Fuzzy plants which sometimes grab the attention of curious kids.
    nettlegra_hhi2 nettlegra_rwf4Chipmunks and brazen foxes have been known to bite if you get to close. Didn’t see any of those.
  • The bathroom lines for women were long every time we stopped. And we stopped often. You’ll find restrooms at the entrance to the park but, if you can wait, signs will point you to a larger accommodation about a quarter-mile down trail. Dealt with lines in both. Luckily, there are several resting benches close by.

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Food Tips:

We suggest bringing food but, the Muir Woods Trading Company café is just past the Visitor Center. It was packed but, we think that had less to do with slow service and more to do with the mid-50’s temperature generating a huge demand signal for coffee and hot chocolate. It looked like most stopped in to get caffeinated before setting off on their hikes.

Let’s be Real:

There’s not much to complain about here. We ventured off the boardwalk trail several times and still found the hikes easy to moderate. Our two pseudo-independent hikers did just fine.

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In fact, other than the grown-folks monopolizing the mountain-side of the trail…and our girls insisting on using the edge of the boardwalk as a balance beam…holding us to a snail’s pace for a significant chunk of the walk, it was a perfect day.

Soundtrack:

Klimbim by Don Ross

Quick Reference Map:

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