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Muir Woods: an escape from San Francisco

photo The towering redwoods in Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, dwarf visitors and create an almost primeval setting. The tallest tree stands 255 feet tall, and the widest is a chunky 13 feet. The trees’ size is even more amazing considering that the root system extends only 6 to 8 feet below ground and has no taproot.

[Photo: National Park Service]

As tall as the Golden Gate Bridge and far more peaceful, the redwoods in this protected forest offer a change of pace and scenery for Bay area tourists.

By MICHAEL A. SMYTH
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002


If you are a tourist who has been in San Francisco long enough to be jangled by clanging cable cars and jostled by crowds at Fisherman's Wharf, you might be ready for a vacation. From your vacation.

Time to get out of town. Leave the paved delights of San Francisco for the cushioned floor of a redwood forest, thousands of years old and minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Muir Woods National Monument is a vestige of what the bay area looked like before the gold rush of 1849 changed San Francisco from a sleepy backwater to a rollicking city. Building consumed numerous stands of redwoods around the bay. Stuck in a valley, Muir Woods was less attractive to 19th century loggers than sites with more accessible lumber, so it survived.

In Redwood Country, Harriett Weaver says that scientists examining stumps near Oakland found what must have been "the most magnificent forest of all. In a single area, most of the trees had been at least 16 feet in diameter, a great number exceeding 20 feet."

Today, most of the bay area's redwoods are like stuffed animal heads, dead and nailed on a wall. The old trees make up the miles and miles of siding, molding and architectural details that give the area's Victorian houses their charm. The rot-resistant wood also is found in casks and tubs, underground as pipes, aboveground as sluices and at the shore as pilings and wharves.

In 1905, William Kent, environmentalist and politician, bought land to protect it from logging and development. A local utility then attempted to force the sale of the land for a reservoir. A federal law, the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, was passed in 1906. With this law and Teddy Roosevelt's conservation-minded connivance, the utility was blocked and the land became the Muir Woods National Monument in 1908.

Kent honored the Sierra Club's first president and renowned conservationist, John Muir, by naming the woods after him. In reply, Muir said, "Saving these woods from the axe and saw, from money-changers and water-changers, and giving them to our country and the world is in many ways the most notable service to God and man I've heard of since my forest wandering began."

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Muir Woods covers 550 acres of Redwood Canyon, carpeting its bottom and running up its sides. As you drive down into the park you may feel its cooling effects. A jacket is always a good idea. It's hard to gauge the size of the trees because you're looking down into them and can't see the forest floor. You're about to cross the threshold into another world, the forest primeval.

Redwoods existed when the dinosaurs did. The trees grew throughout the northern hemisphere until the last ice age. Today they grow in a narrow band along the Pacific Ocean from the Oregon border to south of Monterey. They like sheltered,moist areas, growing only as far inland as the fog reaches. They mature in four or five hundred years, but some have lived to 2,200 years.

East across California's agricultural valley and into the mountains is another giant tree, the sequoia. It grows in a belt on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, a swath less than half as long as the habitat of the redwood. The redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are two species in the same genus, named for the Cherokee chief Sequoyah.

The sequoia is bigger around than the redwood and not quite as tall. It can live as long as 3,200 years. As John Tietjen said, it grows upward for just the first 800 years of its life. After that it grows out. Both species have trees standing with tunnels carved through them.

There are redwoods in state and national parks in far northern California that reach above 360 feet. These are the tallest living trees on earth, though the "tallest tree" wears a moveable crown. As one giant tips to its death, another gets additional sunshine and continues reaching upward.

The tallest tree in Muir Woods is 255 feet tall. If this tree were set beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, its upper branches would push through the roadway to the height of a several-story building. There are numerous trees in the park in the 220-foot range, about the height of the bridge deck above the water at the north tower. The widest tree in the park is a chunky 13 feet. These sizes are the more amazing if one considers the root system, only six to eight feet below ground and without a taproot. It's a wonder they're all not lying on the ground.

Look at the buttressed base of the tree as it comes out of the ground. It looks like a giant bird's foot, buried to the ankle, knuckling its claws into the ground. Or remember Jack and his beanstalk and look up a furrowed, reddish-brown trunk. Crane your neck to see the first branches and imagine Jack disappearing into the green canopy.

In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck said that the redwoods were "out of time and out of our ordinary thinking." He added, "The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect."

A soft path runs along Redwood Creek, the stream that waters the middle of the canyon. This is the place to amble and ponder. Notice how the forest swallows sound, how it finally muffles worries and cares. Catch a leaf with your eye and follow it down the watercourse where it meets spawning steelhead and salmon, arrived from the ocean. Look at the sword ferns, floating in front of the redwood palisades like daubs of paint in an Impressionist painting.

The canyon floor is flat and wheelchair accessible. If you want hill climbing, trails go out of the canyon to the ocean or up Mount Tamalpais, the 2,500-foot sentinel of Marin County which some liken to a reclining woman. Trail maps can be found at the visitor center. On the way there, take a look at the slab of a thousand-year-old tree whose growth rings are marked with significant dates. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic, this tree was already half a millennium old. At 6 feet in diameter, it's considered small for its age. To learn more, inquire about ecology talks, given throughout the day.

Muir Woods is on the south slope of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, 12 miles north of San Francisco. From U.S. 101 (the road across the Golden Gate Bridge) take the California Hwy. 1 (Stinson Beach) exit in Mill Valley and follow the signs to Muir Woods. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. For the most primordial experience, come early in the morning during the week. Call (415) 388-2595 for information.

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