A campaign for quietness aims to recapture the wilderness experience at Muir Woods, on the outskirts of San Francisco.
Just 27 kilometres (16 miles) north of downtown San Francisco, one of America’s most densely-packed urban centres with a population of more than seven million, you’ll find a surprising oasis of calm.
If you pause for long enough in the vaulted chamber of ancient redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument, you can actually hear the forest.
Disconnected from the modern world, the only sounds here are the gentle rustling of leaves high in the canopy, the calming trickle of the Redwood Creek and the occasional soft-footed scamper of tiny woodland creatures, if you’re lucky.
Thankfully there’s no phone reception here, so even on its busiest days, there is a remarkable hush as people wander the sprawling forest in awe of the giant Coastal Redwoods.
The oldest and tallest tree at Muir Woods (known just as Tree 76) is reportedly 249 feet high and 780 years old, much younger than first thought.
San Franciscans are blessed to have a protected forest of old-growth redwoods within throwing distance of the Golden Gate Bridge. But its close proximity to downtown San Francisco is a blessing and a curse.
Thrill seekers and Instagrammers have been arriving at the park in Redwood Canyon in such great numbers that it has ruined what lured them in the first place: the peace and tranquility.
Attracting about a million visitors a year, Muir Woods can get unbearably crowded, and noisy. On a single day in summer, as many as 6,000 visitors might converge on the forest to take selfies and compete for one of the 250 parking spaces on offer.
Over the years, this human commotion has put a strain on vital infrastructure and spooked many native animals that live in Muir Woods, including the Sonoma Chipmunk, the Northern Spotted Owl and Winter Wren. Pileated woodpeckers reportedly fled the forest decades ago.
The National Park Service, which operates Muir Woods as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has been figuring out ways to restore natural balance.
It started by implementing a mandatory parking reservation system to cut the number of vehicles visiting the park by 25 to 35 per cent each year, which it hopes will see the number of people visiting drop by around 200,000.
It has also been tearing up parking lots and axing street parking, while encouraging people to use a shuttle bus service. On January 1 this year, officials also hiked the entrance fee by $5 to $15 per person.
As part of a decade-long campaign to restore tranquility (it was the first national park to introduce a quiet zone), visitors to the Cathedral Grove, home to the park’s oldest tree, are asked to talk quietly.
Not everyone complies, but the message is sinking in.
It’s all about recapturing the wilderness experience – and actually being able to hear the forest – despite being so close to a major urban centre.
Life in the Fog Belt
The fog-drenched Muir Woods – named in honour of John Muir, a renowned conservationist and one of the earliest advocates for national parks – is home to around 400 plants and animals. From the tree tops to the top soil, the woods here are crawling with life.
Black-tailed deer come out to feed at dusk and dawn, chipmunks and squirrels are often seen while river otters are reportedly back after a 75-year absence.
On the damp forest floor you might notice a humble yellow blob known as a Banana Slug. With 27,000 teeth, this gastropod plays an important role in the forest ecosystem, along with the yellow-spotted millipedes, by cleaning up the forest floor.
There are around 50 species of birds, a dozen reptile species, nearly 30 different species of mammals and five species of amphibians here, so you can see why park authorities are going back to nature.
To encourage life here, wastewater pipes are bing relocated and footbridges and paths are being renovated. Boulders are also being removed from the Redwood Creek to restore the resident species of steelhead trout and coho salmon.
Get Your Grove On
The Bohemian Grove Trail is the centrepiece of Muir Woods and it’s what everyone comes to experience.
Extending along a narrow valley floor for about 1.6 kilometres (one mile), the trail is wide and level and mostly covered by a wooden boardwalk, making it an easy stroll that passes through three main areas: Cathedral Grove, Bohemian Grove and Founders Grove.
Depending what mood you’re in, you can do a half hour loop, a one hour loop or a 1.5 hour loop.
The first Grove you will come to (after bridge one) is Founders Grove, home to the tallest tree on the entire trail, Pinchot Tree. The tree was named after Gifford Pinchot, the first American educated in forestry.
As you continue on, the trail passes Bridge Two and Three alongside the Redwood Creek. After Bridge Three you will come to Cathedral Grove, one of the most peaceful areas in the woods, populated by ferns, nurse logs and seedlings.
A small sign reminds you to “enter quietly” (main image), and most days you could literally hear a pin drop. It’s a beautiful section of the trail and best experienced early or late in the day before the crowds dispel some of the magic.
From Bridge Four, the best option is to return the way you came. But if you walk along the Hillside Trail you can also take in Bohemian Grove, which is closest to the visitor centre.
Here you will find a giant hollowed out Redwood (right) that you can stand in the middle of. It’s popular for photographs, and I couldn’t resist stopping for a quick snap when I visited a few years ago.
From downtown San Francisco, it’s about a 40 minute drive to Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, although the trip can take up to two hours by public transport.
Due to the new parking restrictions, access to Muir Woods is now strictly controlled so you must book in advance if coming by car. No parking is allowed outside the reserved parking lot.
And if you’re thinking of taking a taxi or ride-share service like Uber or Lyft, think again. There’s no phone reception at Muir Woods for one, so there’s no way to reach the driver when you’re ready to leave. Second, it only adds to the traffic woes.
The best way to visit is by taking the Muir Woods Shuttle service that operates daily from Sausalito between June and August. At other times of the year, it operates only on weekends and public holidays.
From downtown San Francisco take a ferry to Sausalito to connect with the shuttle, but remember to book in advance.
For visitors to San Francisco, you might also consider a day tour that takes in Muir Woods, the Sonoma Wine Country, the Marin Headland and Golden Gate Bridge. That’s what I did, and it’s not only a great way to explore the big attractions, but it takes all the hassle out of getting to and from Muir Woods.
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