AARP's Guide to Northern California's Muir Woods National Monument
Old-growth redwoods and a break from the modern world — just north of San Francisco
En español | About 10 miles and less than a half-hour's drive north from the famed Golden Gate Bridge, you'll find one of the planet's last stands of old-growth redwoods — an absolutely awe-inspiring sight.
Their home: Muir Woods National Monument, known for its treasure trove of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest living things in the world. The record holder at Muir Woods towers about 258 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, with pedestal, measures 305 feet.) The average age of the park's redwoods is 600 to 800 years, but the oldest tree is believed to be at least 1,200 years old. It's a youngster — redwoods can live up to 2,200 years.
President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Muir Woods a National Monument in 1908, two weeks after the land was donated to the United States by private citizens. (Though named after John Muir, the environmentalist did not play a role in the monument's creation.)
The preservation of its 558 acres now allows nearly a million people to visit this primeval forest annually. Many are residents and tourists arriving for day trips from nearby San Francisco, which feels worlds away from this lovely haven, says Stephanie Weinstein, a park guide at Muir Woods: “It's a pocket of serenity, beauty and a little magic just outside the city."
Location: San Francisco Bay Area
Acreage: 558 acres
Miles of trail: 6
Main attraction: Old-growth redwoods
Entry fee: $15 per person (16 and older), $20 for the year or $80 for a America the Beautiful lifetime pass for ages 62-plus
Reservations: required for all vehicles and shuttle riders; parking is $8.50 per vehicle; the shuttle (when running) is $3.25 per person
Best way to see it: on foot
When to go to avoid the crowds: weekdays, September through April
Plan Your Trip
Getting there. Muir Woods is less than a 10-mile drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge. It's also a straightforward drive from Napa (48 miles northeast of the park) and Sonoma (39 miles northeast of the park) wine country.
Navigation to the park can be tricky: Once you exit U.S. Highway 101, it can be easy to miss a turn and head toward the coast. Consider downloading directions before your trip so you can access them offline; cellphone reception is iffy at best as you approach the woods and there is no cell service or Wi-Fi in the park.
Reservations and fees. To reduce congestion and protect the trees, parking reservations ($8.50) are required for all vehicles. Reservations are also required for the Muir Woods Shuttle ($3.25). But visitors booking shuttle reservations, or arriving with a tour, on foot or by bicycle, don't need parking reservations. Entry fee is $15. Because there is no cellphone service or Wi-Fi, remember to download vouchers and tickets in advance.
When to go. May through September tend to be the busiest months. Weekends year-round are traditionally busy, but the reservation system prevents large visitor spikes. Avoid crowds by visiting midweek, arriving first thing in the morning or at the end of the day (it ‘s open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), which are typically quieter times in the park. Temperatures are moderate year-round, ranging from 40 to 70 F. Rainy season runs late October to early May. Expect dry conditions in the summer and fall.
Restrooms are located in the parking lot, before the park entrance, and a short walk into the park, near the café. There are also benches to rest on along the main trail.
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Where to stay and eat
There are no hotels or camp sites within Muir Woods, but because the park is located in close proximity to many urban areas, lodging options are plentiful, offering visitors a chance to see more of the San Francisco Bay Area and its diverse landscape during a visit.
There are, of course, loads of hotels and rentals in the city, but if you want a less urban base, you could head 22 miles north of the park for Olema House Point Reyes, located on the outskirts of Point Reyes National Seashore. Its Due West Tavern serves comfort food like tater tots and grilled cheese alongside pork belly tacos and oysters from nearby Tomales Bay.
Cottages at Nick's Cove rewards guests who head 38 miles north of Muir Woods with stunning views of Tomales Bay, woodburning stoves and claw-foot tubs. The restaurant's mac and cheese with Dungeness crab provides added incentive for the trek.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has four tent-only campgrounds in the Marin Headlands. Reservations are required; America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass Holders get 50 percent off fees.
Picnicking is not permitted in Muir Woods. Soups, sandwiches, baked goods and beverages are available in the café operated by park concessionaire Muir Woods Trading Company.
Things to do
It's all about hiking at Muir Woods. There are six miles of trails, offering something for all fitness levels. The main trail, Redwood Creek, begins at the Visitor Center and follows Redwood Creek on both sides of the stream. Surrounded by redwoods from the start, the flat path is easily accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. Bridges along the main trail differentiate three loop hikes ranging from a half-mile to two miles. (The entire stretch of trail up to Bridge 4 is paved or boardwalk.) The longest option, requiring about 90 minutes to complete, connects to Hillside Trail. Built in 1908 as a fire line, it has an elevation gain of 90 feet, but is still rated easy.
At the end of World War II, United Nations delegates met in Cathedral Grove, a stop along the main trail, to honor the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 2008, the grove became the first designated quiet zone in a national park. “It creates an area in the park where you truly get to listen to the forest, to the trees,” Weinstein says. “It is incredibly grounding to be able to engage with the woods around you with no distraction from other sounds, just a moment for you and the forest."
Muir Woods is surrounded by California's Mount Tamalpais State Park; many trails connect to others outside its boundaries. If you're willing to take on six miles (with an elevation gain of 150 feet), you can hike from Muir Woods to Muir Beach. Have all day? Consider making the 10-mile trek (with an elevation gain of 1,240 feet) to Stinson Beach.
Staying on the trail is especially crucial in Muir Woods. Redwoods have shallow roots; walking on the forest floor can compact the soil, making it harder for trees to get water and nutrients.
San Francisco: Tony Bennett left his heart here. Don't be surprised if you do, too. From its famed hills and colorful Victorian houses to a bustling Chinatown, San Francisco is a city bursting at the seams with diversions as well as fantastic food. Stretch your legs on the nearly two-mile span of the Golden Gate Bridge; hop a ferry to explore Alcatraz, the illustrious prison Al Capone once called home; or take a joy ride on one of the city's treasured cable cars.
Sausalito: Set on the North side of the Golden Gate Bridge, just eight miles from Muir Woods, Sausalito's delightful main street is lined with shops, restaurants, art galleries and striking views of San Francisco's skyline. Known for its distinctive tableware, Sausalito is the home of the original Heath Ceramics factory, operating since 1959. Here, shoppers in the know snatch up discounted seconds and overstock tile sold for a fraction of normal cost.
Stinson Beach: While many Northern California beaches are rugged, Stinson Beach is long and wide, with soft, white sand. (Lifeguards are typically on duty July through Labor Day.) The laid-back, compact center of town is steps off the sand, and nine curvy, coastal miles from Muir Woods. There're no sidewalks, but there are a surf shop, market and bookstore, along with a few eateries and accommodations options.
Point Reyes Station: Further north, Point Reyes National Seashore, a sanctuary for nearly 30 threatened and endangered species including tule elk and northern elephant seals, is what typically lures visitors here. But locals line up for coffee and pastries at Bovine Bakery, and devour artisan cheese and accoutrements from Cowgirl Creamery.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 27, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent COVID-19 developments.