N of the Golden Gate Bridge
Don’t be fooled by the several tours available for these spots; these day trips are an easy drive. A family of four will save a fortune—and see a lot more—by simply hiring a rental car for about $90 for the day.
While the rest of Marin County’s redwood forests were being devoured to feed San Francisco’s turn-of-the-20th-century building spree, Muir Woods, in a remote ravine on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, escaped destruction in favor of easier pickings.
Although the magnificent California redwoods have been successfully transplanted to five continents, their homeland is a 500-mile strip along the mountainous coast of southwestern Oregon and Northern California. The coast redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens, is one of the tallest living things known to man; the largest known specimen in the Redwood National Forest towers 368 feet. It has an even larger relative, the Sequoiadendron giganteum of the California Sierra Nevada, but the coastal variety is stunning enough. Soaring toward the sky like a wooden cathedral, Muir Woods is unlike any other forest in the world; visiting here is an experience you won’t soon forget.
Teddy Roosevelt consecrated this park as a National Monument in 1908. In the 1800s, redwoods were so plentiful here that people thought they’d never run out, and pretty much every single building in San Francisco and beyond was built of the trees. You could argue that the trees got their revenge on the city, when anything made of them went up in smoke in the fire after the earthquake. Today, Muir Woods is one of the last groves of the trees in the area.
Granted, Muir Woods is tiny compared to the Redwood National Forest farther north, but you can still get a pretty good idea of what it must have been like when these giants dominated the entire coastal region. What is truly amazing is that they exist a mere 6 miles (as the crow flies) from San Francisco—close enough, unfortunately, that tour buses arrive in droves on the weekends. You can avoid the masses by hiking up the Ocean View Trail, turning left on Lost Trail, and returning on the Fern Creek Trail. The moderately challenging hike shows off the woods’ best sides and leaves the lazy-butts behind.
To reach Muir Woods from San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading north on Hwy. 101, taking the Stinson Beach/Hwy. 1 exit heading west, and follow the signs (and the traffic). The park is open daily from 8am to sunset, and the admission fee is $7 per person 16 and over. Check the website for “fee free” days. There’s also a small gift shop, educational displays, and ranger talks. For more information, call the National Parks Service at Muir Woods (tel. 415/388-2596; www.nps.gov/muwo).
Though Mount Tam—as the locals call it—is just barely tall enough to be considered a mountain, it doesn’t keep residents from lovingly referring to it as “the sleeping lady” for the way the peak and surrounding foothills resemble feminine curves. While sunny most days, it’s equally alluring to watch the fog from the West wrap the lady in a blanket most evenings. Mount Tam’s trails, peaks, and vistas are the Bay Area’s favorite outdoor playground, and it’s a mission of most active residents to discover their favorite secret trails and overlooks. You don’t need inside knowledge, however, to appreciate the scenic beauty. The main trails—mostly fire roads—see a lot of foot and bicycle traffic on weekends, particularly on clear, sunny days when you can see a 100 miles in all directions, from the foothills of the Sierra to the western horizon. It’s a great place to escape the city for a leisurely hike and to soak in towering redwood groves and breathtaking views of the bay. Follow the windy roads to the west and you’ll ultimately end at Stinson Beach, a dreamy, quiet coastal community with downhome residents, multimillion-dollar beachfront second homes, and a beautiful, expansive sandy shoreline.
To get to Mount Tamalpais by car, cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading north on Hwy. 101, and take the Stinson Beach/Hwy. 1 exit. Follow the signs up the shoreline highway for about 2 1/2 miles, turn onto Pantoll Road, and continue for about a mile to Ridgecrest Boulevard. Ridgecrest winds to a parking lot below East Peak. From there, it’s a 15-minute hike up to the top, where you’ll find a visitor center with a small exhibit and a video, plus a helpful staff. Visitor center admission is free; it is open weekends 11am to 4pm. Park hours are 7am to sunset year round. For a list of guided hikes, see www.friendsofmttam.org. You are welcome to hike in the area on your own; it is safe, great for little ones, and the trails are well marked.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.