MERCED — Muir Woods is one of the oldest and most popular national monuments in California.
Located just north of San Francisco, it's on the must-see list of many visitors to the area especially those who are visiting the West Coast for the first time. Nearly 1 million visitors a year give it an international flavor. On my recent visit, I heard more than a dozen languages spoken.
The monument's popularity is due to the fact that it protects one of the largest groves of old growth redwoods in the central part of the state (less than 4 percent of redwood forests are old growth).
It's also close to San Francisco. Located on the north side of the Bay in Marin County, it's about a three-hour drive from Merced County if there isn't any traffic. Because of this distance and the park's reputation for being crowded, it took me a long time to get around to visiting it.
On the way home from a wedding in Petaluma last month, my fiancé and I finally made it there.
Heading south on Highway 101, signs north of the Highway 1 exit warned us to take the shuttle because the parking area at Muir Woods already was full. The parking area was easy to find and the bus was there waiting. The bus runs on weekends and holidays from May through October. It leaves every 20 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last return trip (after Sept. 15) at 6:30 p.m.
We paid the $5 per person fee and took our seats. The bus climbed up Highway 1 and Muir Woods Road through the Marin Headlands, arriving at the park "the long way" because the shorter route (the Panoramic Highway) has vehicle length restrictions. The ride took less than 30 minutes. Along the final approach we saw long lines of vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road, some dangerously close to the pavement a testimony to the park's popularity.
The shuttle was definitely the way to go during the busy season. Entry into the monument is $7 per person for anyone 16 and older. If you have a National Parks pass, you only have to pay for the shuttle. Everyone enters through the massive main gateway a monumental structure that conveys a clear message: "This is the gateway to the great forest."
The main trail is paved and follows the east side of Redwood Creek for about a mile. While the redwoods in the grove aren't as large as some of the truly huge trees in Humboldt County, they are nevertheless quite impressive. The grove was purchased by a San Francisco businessman and donated to the federal government in 1908. At that time it was one of the last remaining stands of old growth redwoods around the Bay. It was named in honor of John Muir and his efforts to protect the nation's natural wonders.
Four bridges cross Redwood Creek. The first three connect with a paved trail on the west side of the creek perfect for an easy, paved loop walk through the grove. Along the main trail just beyond Bridge 3 is the Cathedral Grove, my favorite part of the hike.
The paved trail ends at Bridge 4. Many hikers turn around at this point, but if you have no particular need to stay on the paved trail you can cross the bridge and climb a short distance to the Hillside Trail, an unpaved route that parallels the main trail with nice views down to the creek. It connects with the paved trail at Bridge 2. We used it to make a two-mile loop that took about 90 minutes with many stops to enjoy the view. Several other unpaved side trails connect with Mount Tamalpais State Park. Along the way you're likely to encounter large yellow banana slugs.
Your best bet to avoid large crowds is to go on a weekday in the winter. Although Muir Woods isn't the best place to find quiet and solitude, it is fun to see people from around the world marveling at the largest trees they've ever seen, and the grove is impressive, even if you've seen a lot of other redwoods.
Although my favorite place to see huge redwoods in the Bay Area is Big Basin State Park, Muir Woods is well-worth visiting, especially if you're looking for an easy hike that anyone can do, even with limited mobility. Ranger talks are offered throughout the day. A small café offers food and a statue of John Muir that's a perfect photo backdrop.
If you go to Big Basin instead, my favorite hike is the easy three-quarter mile Redwood Loop among some of the park's biggest trees.
For a longer hike and three unforgettable waterfalls, the 11-mile Berry Creek Falls loop is my recommendation. During a weekend trip last December, we saw very few people and the falls were flowing nicely.
For more information about Muir Woods, go to www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or call (415) 388-2595. For Big Basin, go to www.parks.ca.gov/" target="_blank"__gt__http://?page_id=540 or call (831) 338-8860. For other great places to hike among old growth redwoods, check out www.redwoodhikes.com/" target="_blank"__gt__http://.