The backdoor to this popular park

There’s a secret backdoor to Muir Woods National Monument that most visitors don’t know about – and it’s sure to delight hikers who discover it.

If you park above the 554-acre preserve on the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Highway, directly across from the scenic Mountain Home Inn, you can embark on a lightly traveled trail that descends into these famous redwood groves. This is a two to three hour hike, 5 miles in total, and an incredible, almost magical journey back in time to a place where some of the few remaining ancient coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) in northern North America thrive. California.

Hikers are dwarfed by the majestic, ancient redwoods of Muir Woods. (Ben Davidson Photography)

Hiking the Canopy View Trail from Mount Tam is a kind of Alice in Wonderland experience.

Instead of falling down a rabbit hole, you hike south on Alice Eastwood’s car-free access road to the easy-going Scenic Trail, which parallels the Mill Valley Scenic Highway. Continuing south you’ll find a grassy slope covered in coastal scrub and stands of laurel and oak, French broom, sticky monkey flower and fragrant fennel – with the seamless patchwork of the redwood canopy of Muir Woods which lies under you to the west.

After about 1/4 mile, turn right down the Canopy View Trail, where a huge granite boulder makes an impressive perch for panoramic views of Muir Woods and, on fogless days, the Pacific Coast.

The Mount Tam Lost Trail takes a steep descent into the Fern Creek Canyon and upper Muir Woods from the least populated part of the national park.  (Ben Davidson Photography)
The Mount Tam Lost Trail takes a steep descent into the Fern Creek Canyon and upper Muir Woods from the least populated part of the national park. (Ben Davidson Photography)

Continuing, a steep descent takes you through shady groves of California laurel, oak, and Douglas fir until the redwood forest suddenly appears at the Lost Trail junction. The Lost Trail makes a steep descent into Fern Creek Canyon and the upper parts of Muir Woods, but it’s best to continue straight on the Canopy View Trail, which winds through the woods to the bottom of the canyon.

With every turn, the majestic cinnamon-red redwood grows taller and taller, and the woods get deeper and more shady. As you descend, it’s hard to avoid feeling smaller and smaller, just like Alice. When you reach Redwood Creek and the bottom of the canyon, you’ll be joined by throngs of Lilliputian-stunned visitors gazing in awe at the massive redwoods that soar to impossibly lofty heights.

Despite the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, don’t expect to encounter a restless white rabbit or a hookah-smoking caterpillar. You’ll likely see a noisy black crow or two, chipmunks and squirrels, woodpeckers, robins and Steller’s jays. The larger animals that inhabit these dense, shady woods – black-tailed deer, coyotes, gray foxes, raccoons, spotted owls, skunks, bobcats and others – are mostly nocturnal and rarely seen.

At the junction of the Canopy View Trail and the Redwood Creek Trail, the park’s main thoroughfare, you can turn left to head to the Muir Woods Visitor Center, where there are restrooms, a cafe, and a gift shop with a wide range of redwood-related trinkets. talents are waiting for you.

Or you can turn right to follow the Redwood Creek Trail through the heart of Muir Woods. The wide walking path is lined with sword ferns and primitive horsetail, fairy bells and redwood sorrel – the prolific cloverleaf ground cover of the redwood forest understory. Coho salmon and rainbow trout are seen seasonally, as they hatch and spawn in this serene, shaded creek.

Redwood Creek winds its way through the redwoods of Muir Woods.  (Ben Davidson Photography)
Redwood Creek winds its way through the redwoods of Muir Woods. (Ben Davidson Photography)

Redwoods are fascinating survivors of an ancient era. They evolved from the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) nearly 240 million years ago, overlapping the age of the dinosaurs. They are the tallest trees on the planet (the tallest is 379 feet) and can be very old (the oldest redwoods in Muir Woods are between 800 and 1,000 years old and can live up to 2,000 years).

When they first appeared, it was a very humid tropical forest environment, and redwood forests were much more common and widespread on several continents, including Europe and Asia. Today, coast redwoods are found only on the rain-swept, fog-swept Coast Mountain Range of northern California and extreme southern Oregon.

Because they’ve been around for so long and through so many environmental changes, redwoods have evolved a host of adaptations – a nifty bag of tricks – that have allowed them to survive challenges ranging from atmospheric change to drifting continents, prolonged periods of glaciation and drought. .

Their fibrous bark is 2 to 12 inches thick and soaked in tannin, a natural fire retardant and insect and fungus repellent. Trees have three modes of reproduction: seeds, shoots from their basic root system, and gene-rich burls. And they’ve mastered the art of controlling their environment, feeding other trees with a symbiotic underground fungus, and suppressing the growth of competing plants. The signage on the main trail illustrates much of the redwood forest ecology.

The Redwood Creek Trail continues through Cathedral Grove and passes the Kent Memorial, a tribute to landowner William Kent who donated this patch of unlogged old growth forest to the government in 1908. A little-used secondary path, the Fern Creek Trail , takes you back on a single track for a gradual ascent through a serene side canyon.

At the signed junction with Lost Trail, turn right (uphill) to head back up Canopy View Trail. Turn left at the Canopy View Trail junction to return to where your walk began, out of the fairytale setting of Muir Woods and, alas, back to civilization.

If you are going to

Muir Woods is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at 1 Muir Woods Road in Mill Valley. Admission to the park is $15 per person for ages 16 and up. Unless you’re arriving on foot or by bike, you’ll need parking ($9) or shuttle ($3.50) reservations, which require planning well in advance. Space is limited and reservations are required year-round. Half of the available reservations are available at 9:90 a.m. days before a given date at or by calling 1-800-410-2419. The remaining reservations are released three days in advance.

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