Muir Woods National Monument is a 550 acre park filled with old growth coastal redwoods; a humbling place just outside of San Francisco, California in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In this post, we’ll share some thoughts and photos of these giant trees.
If you’ve never seen redwood and sequoia trees, it’s an absolute must-do on any California trip. These trees grow hundreds of feet tall and are millennium or more old. They only grow on a narrow stretch of land between Northern California and Oregon, and are quite a humbling sight to behold.
As a big fan of these trees and huge advocate of the National Parks, you might think the conclusion of the question posted by my post title is foregone, that it’s a rhetorical question, or that this post is going to extol the virtues of Muir Woods. Well, my actual opinion of Muir Woods might come as a bit of a surprise then…
For at least some tourists to California, I think Muir Woods might not be worth it. Before you think this is simply some contrarian hot take for the sake of standing out among the collective chorus of literally everyone else who heaps praise upon Muir Woods, hear me out. I love Muir Woods, and I think it’s an incredible place. If your trip to California is taking you only to the Bay Area, Muir Woods is a must. No question about it.
However, if you’re taking a California road trip, you have several opportunities to see redwood and sequoia trees. The best of these are in the eponymously named National Parks. Sequoia National Park is located south east of San Francisco, and is easy to hit if you’re also doing Yosemite National Park (and you absolutely should). Redwood National Park is located north of San Francisco, and even though it’s a direct shot on the 101, it’s a 5 hour drive. (Somewhat inconvenient unless you’re continuing on to Oregon.)
While those are the big draws, more under the radar (and closer) options to San Francisco also exist. Big Basin Redwoods State Park is only 60 miles from the city (north of Santa Cruz), is significantly larger, and less popular. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is farther away and inland, but it’s just north of Yosemite National Park, making it a convenient stop when visiting California’s crown jewel.
The blessing and curse of Muir Woods is its proximity to San Francisco. This makes it incredibly convenient for locals looking to escape the cramped confines of the city, thousands of whom descend upon Muir Woods during an average weekend day. So many locals and tourists put a crush upon the park that its infrastructure cannot support the visitors, and the experience is anything but serene and peaceful.
Annual attendance at Muir Woods National Monument exceeds 1 million visitors, which would be enough to put it in the top 20 of U.S. National Parks. Its attendance is about the same as the significantly larger Sequoia National Park, and more than double that of Redwood National Park.
The problem with Muir Woods, as compared to the expansive National Parks that have comparable attendance, is that Muir Woods is small. Beyond that, it has only one parking lot with space for about 150 vehicles. If you visit in the summer or on a weekend, you’ll have an incredibly difficult time finding a spot no matter what time you go, and on a normal day, the lot fills by 8 a.m. Most cars park illegally, which the National Park Service allows because they’re still scrambling to find an alternative.
This has all been incredibly controversial with locals, as many worry about the consequences of so many visitors on the over-burdened park. Just last year, the National Park Service implored locals “to make a sacrifice in the name of love: stay away.” A long-overdue reservation and shuttle service launch in 2018, but that likely won’t be sufficient to reverse the problems of excess use.
As busy as Sequoia and Redwood National Park’s groves of big trees can be, they are nothing as compared to Muir Woods. Moreover, the forests have hundreds of miles of roads and trails weaving through them…and ample parking. While the size of the trees is apparent no matter how many other people are around, there is a lot to be said for a tranquil, ‘at one with nature’ experience. The vast majority of the time, Muir Woods does not offer that.
Okay, I think I’ve made my case. At the very least, hopefully your visit to Muir Woods will be supplemented by a stop at one of the above-mentioned National or State Parks where you can enjoy a peaceful experience.
If not, I would highly recommend going to Muir Woods on a weekday, and arriving by 7 a.m. The photos in this post were taken incredibly early in the morning. Based on a previous visit, we knew hordes of people descended upon the park early in the day, so we got there by around 7. It was actually fairly peaceful there until around 8:30 a.m., with crowds getting heavier by around 9 a.m. (I actually wish I had “realistic” photos of just how crowded it normally is–these photos don’t exactly make my case very well.)
Beyond arriving early, my tip would be to do the longest hike you can, the ones venturing into the adjacent Mount Tamalpais State Park. You can find a trail map here. Most of the trails in Muir Woods are accessible trails that are paved or are on wood boardwalks, with almost no change in elevation. I’m sure there’s an obscure trail somewhere, but all the ones I’ve hiked are squarely in the “easy” category.
They all take you past more or less the same thing: big redwood trees. Which hike is right for you really depends upon how long you want to hike, and how badly you want to get away from other visitors. None of the trails are going to be devoid of people during the middle of the day, but the longer ones will have fewer people.
Be advised that unlike the rest of San Francisco, dogs (or any pets, for that matter) are not allowed in Muir Woods. Same goes for bicycles, smoking, horseback riding, and camping. Picnics are not permitted in the forest, but are allowed in the parking area and other areas with signs allowing them.
Overall, Muir Woods National Monument is an amazing place that will make you feel insignificant (in a good way) standing before some of the largest trees in the world. Experienced without people, it is nothing short of breathtaking, and one of the coolest places you’ll visit in California. Unfortunately, “experienced without people” is nothing more than theoretical, as it is incredibly popular–to the point you should strongly consider alternatives if you’re taking a California road trip. If that’s not an option for you for whatever reason, get up at the crack of dawn to minimize the massive crowds you’ll encounter. (And, if you’re heading to California in 2018 or beyond, be sure to get reservations!)
Have you been to Muir Woods National Monument? Do you agree with my assessment that crowds spoil some of the grandeur, or would you recommend visiting Muir Woods unconditionally? Do you have any alternatives for less-crowded places to see redwoods? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!