Muir Woods National Monument, a 30-minute drive north of San Francisco, is a quiet, peaceful getaway to old growth coast redwoods, burbling creeks, and lush greenery on the southern slopes of Mount Tamalpais. The Redwood Creek-Bootjack-Ben Johnson Loop takes you on a tour through this magnificent scenery then up a moderate climb to the upper slopes of Redwood Canyon.
Muir Woods is a popular spot, but it can be quieter when the park opens at 8:00 a.m. and in the evening before sunset. If you plan to drive, parking reservations are required for private vehicles as of January 2018. You’ll choose a 30-minute window to arrive, such as 9:30-10:00 a.m., and then show up anytime within that window. Once there, you can stay as long as you like. You can also get to Muir Woods via shuttle, which runs from bus stops in Sausalito and requires reservations. Learn more and make reservations at www.gomuirwoods.com or by calling 1-800-410-2419.
The story of how this land became a national monument is as compelling as its surroundings. In 1907, just two years after purchasing a 612-acre tract land on Mount Tamalpais for $45,000, landowners William and Elizabeth Kent found themselves in the race of their lives to protect it from the North Coast Water Company, who had begun legal proceedings to seize part of it to build a reservoir in Redwood Canyon. Desperate to save the redwood forest, William Kent sent an urgent telegram to his friend, Gifford Pinchot, Director of the U.S. Forest Service, wanting to donate part of the land containing the redwood forest to the federal government.
With the help of another friend, Frederick E. Olmsted, an official with the U.S. Forest Service’s San Francisco office and relative of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the three men collaborated throughout December 1907, strategizing to gift the land to the federal government as a national monument instead of the national forest Kent had originally envisioned. The switch is thought to have been due to a 1905 Forest Reserves policy that Olmsted believed would put the trees in danger of being harvested if declared a national forest.
Instead, the men turned to the newly established Antiquities Act of 1906, which gave United States Presidents the authority to protect land if it had special historic or scientific value. The men leaned on the scientific value of the coast redwoods in Redwood Canyon as the rationale for national monument status, as well as its educational potential. Since the forest was so close to the major city of San Francisco, they reasoned that a large number of people could learn and benefit from it. Their vision was prescient: Over 100 years later, in 2017 alone, visitation would surpass 1 million people.
The monument application process moved quickly, and on January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation officially declaring Muir Woods National Monument. The North Coast Water Company was furious at the coup, arguing they had started their proceedings before the land was gifted to the government. They continued to fight for it through 1908, but eventually gave up after a spirited legal defense by William Kent. In the end, Kent triumphed, preserving the old growth redwood forest and turning into the public park he dreamed of. And with that, let’s get to it!
Start your hike from the Muir Woods Visitor Center, passing under the Muir Woods National Monument sign onto the Redwood Creek Trail. A 5-foot wide raised wooden platform leads to tall redwoods, sweet-smelling bay laurel, bigleaf maple, thimbleberry, and sword fern. Redwood Creek flows peacefully on your left, nourishing the redwoods’ shallow roots and streamside plants before continuing south to the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach.
In 200 feet, arrive at the first of four footbridges over Redwood Creek. Across the bridge is the Bohemian Trail, which runs parallel to Redwood Creek between Bridges 1 and 3. To the right is the café and gift shop.
Stay straight on the Redwood Creek Trail to the Founders Grove at 0.2 miles. A courtyard with a bench faces the Gifford Pinchot tree and a plaque in front of it honors Pinchot’s contribution to the creation of Muir Woods National Monument. Check out pictures of John Muir, William Kent, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt on a display, then continue northwest on the Redwood Creek Trail.
A quiet refuge of coast redwoods awaits in Cathedral Grove at 0.5 miles. Coast redwoods are the tallest trees on earth, stretching up to 379 feet tall and living for up to 2,000 years. The tallest coast redwood in Muir Woods is over 250 feet tall and many of the larger redwoods here are between 500 and 800 years old. Their shallow roots extend just 10-13 feet below the ground, the equivalent of a person being anchored by their big toe.
Halfway through Cathedral Grove, keep your eyes peeled on the eastern side of the trail for a plaque honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the architects of the United Nations. On May 19, 1945, delegates from the United Nations Conference on International Organization, a precursor to the United Nations, gathered here to commemorate President Roosevelt. He passed away on April 12, 1945, just weeks before the conference started.
Continue on Redwood Creek Trail towards Bridge 4, then bear right at the Bootjack and Ben Johnson Trails sign onto the Bootjack Trail at the 1.1 mile mark. Here you’ll cross over into Mount Tamalpais State Park and start your counterclockwise loop around Redwood Canyon. The clear dirt trail stays mostly level for the first half mile then steepens as you climb above Redwood Creek.
Cross a wooden bridge over Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Redwood Creek, at 2.0 miles, The bridge and rock wall beneath the trail were built by the California Conservation Corp and Mount Tamalpais State Park staff in 2013 after a severe winter storm eroded the bank.
After the bridge, take a sharp left at an unsigned junction, ascending a wooden staircase.
Climb 500 feet in the next 0.7 miles on wooden steps with words like “Bootjack,” “Ranger,” and “Group Only” carved in yellow—repurposed Mount Tamalpais State Park signs!
At the 2.7 mile mark, reach a small clearing with a flat-topped rock and a sign that says Van Wyck Meadow: Population 3 Steller’s Jays. The meadow is named for Sydney Van Wyck, Jr., a past president of the Tamalpais Conservation Club and lawyer who helped establish Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Southwest of the meadow, turn left onto the TCC Trail towards the Stapelveldt Trail, entering a drier forest of young redwoods and Douglas fir. TCC stands for the Tamalpais Conservation Club, a hiking club who built this trail during World War I and is still active today.
Although the toughest climb of your hike is over, the trail still gradually ascends over the next 1.4 miles as you hike south through ephemeral streams and tunnels of huckleberry.
Reach the highest point of your loop, 1300 feet, at a wooden bridge and a bench 4.1 miles into your hike. Cross the bridge, then turn left to go downhill on the Stapelveldt Trail.
Almost immediately, bear left again, following a sign for the Ben Johnson Trail towards the Muir Woods Visitor Center.
Zigag down tight switchbacks, passing a sign for the Ben Johnson Trail at 4.7 miles. You’ll stay straight here onto the Ben Johnson Trail towards the Redwood Creek Trail.
The redwoods become larger as you descend and some have hollowed out, blackened cavities in their trunks. The cavities were caused by fires over 150 years ago believed to have been set by Coast Miwok, the original people who inhabited this land, to help clear out the forest.
Just before you hit the Redwood Creek Trail, turn right onto the signed Hillside Trail at 5.7 miles, heading southeast towards the Bohemian Grove Trail.
The Hillside Trail is a quiet and scenic alternative to the Redwood Creek Trail, running parallel to it on a forested slope 100 feet above Redwood Creek.
Descend to a junction with the Bohemian Grove Trail and Bridge 2 at 6.5 miles, then turn right onto the Bohemian Trail. A large tree with a hollowed-out trunk offers a peek inside and photo op.
The Bohemian Trail ends at Bridge 1. Cross over it and rejoin the Redwood Creek Trail at 6.7 miles. Take the stairs up to the gift shop to browse for souvenirs, or check out the café for a drink and a snack. A small porch has benches and tables here, and there are public restrooms in the back. When you’re finished browsing, return to the Muir Woods Visitor Center via the Redwood Creek Trail.
There is a great story about how Muir Woods National Monument got its name, revealed in letters between President Theodore Roosevelt and William Kent. Kent had always wanted the monument named after John Muir, a prolific writer, explorer, national parks advocate, and conservationist who wrote about the value of nature and its power to enrich people’s lives.
But it almost didn’t turn out that way. In January 1908, President Roosevelt wrote to Kent to ask his permission to call it “Kent Monument” instead of “Muir Woods National Monument.”
To his suggestion, Kent replied:
Your kind suggestion of a change of name is not one that I can accept. So many millions of better people have died forgotten, that to stencil one’s own name on a benefaction, seems to carry with it an implication of mandate immortality, as being something purchasable.
I have five good, husky boys that I am trying to bring up to a knowledge of democracy and to a realizing sense of the rights of the “other fellow,” doctrines which you, sir, have taught with more vigor and effect than any man in my time. If these boys cannot keep the name of Kent alive, I am willing it should be forgotten. (www.nps.gov)
To which Roosevelt responded:
By George! you are right. It is enough to do the deed and not to desire, as you say, to “stencil one’s own name on the benefaction.” Good for you, and for the five boys who are to keep the name of Kent alive! I have four who I hope will do the same thing by the name of Roosevelt. (www.nps.gov)
As for Muir, he was surprised and flattered by Kent’s gesture, writing to him on February 6, 1908, “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. You have done me great honor, & I am proud of it.” (www.nps.gov)
• Muir Woods does not allow pets, with the exception of federally recognized service dogs.
• Park hours are 8:00 a.m. – sunset.
• As of August 2018, the entrance fee for Muir Woods National Monument is $10 for adults (16 and over), free for children (15 and younger). Visit www.nps.gov/muwo for more information.
• A parking reservation is required if you plan to drive to Muir Woods. Reservations can be made on www.gomuirwoods.com or by calling 1-800-410-2419. As of August 2018, the fee for a parking reservation is $8 per vehicle ($11.00 for electric cars).
• Shuttle buses run from bus stops in Sausalito to Muir Woods. Reservations for the shuttle are also required. Fees are $3 round-trip for adults, free for children 15 and under. Reservations can be made on www.gomuirwoods.com or by calling 1-800-410-2419.
• There is no cell service or WiFi in the park, so be sure to download or print your confirmation before you arrive.
• Taxi and rideshare services can make pick-ups and drop-offs at the Muir Woods entrance. Just be sure to schedule your return ahead of time (remember, no cell reception). If you get stuck, there is a payphone behind the restrooms in the courtyard and a park service phone in the visitor center that rangers may let you use at their discretion.
• Bike racks are located in the Muir Woods courtyard and a limited number of bike locks available to borrow for free at the Muir Woods Visitor Center.
• You can also hike-in to Muir Woods via connecting trails from Mount Tamalpais State Park, Panoramic Highway, and other spaces in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.