Muir Woods, about 560 acres of old-growth redwoods and six miles of walking/hiking trails nestled within Mount Tamalpais State Park, was declared a National Monument in 1908 and was named after the naturalist and preservationist John Muir (although he only visited the park once). There are four bridges that cross Redwood Creek along the Redwood Creek Trail (the easiest trail and fully paved or boarded). Many of the trails cross into Mount Tamalpais State Park, and the Dipsea Trail provides views of the ocean. There is a visitor's center, gift shop, and café on site, and the park is open 8 a.m. to sunset all year long. Tickets are $10, and yearly passes are available, but there are also many opportunities to enjoy the park free of charge (National Park Week, for example, which runs until April 24th this year).
The proper planning can make Muir Woods a pleasure, but poor planning can make it feel like a tourist trap. There are signs all over the park to please keep as quiet as possible to not disturb the natural environment and its inhabitants, but crowds of people inevitably mean noise (not only talking but the sound of feet on the boarded sections of the path), and that noise can drown out the beautiful birdsong and gurgling of Redwood Creek. I've found the best time to go is right when the park opens (8 a.m.). For the first two hours, the paths remain relatively empty and quiet. By 11 a.m., the park starts to fill, the cars line up on the road into the parking lots, and the people form lines in the gift shop, café, and restroom. Quiet, unhindered photo ops turn into patient waiting for a chance at those same photo ops.
To get to the park this early, driving is really the only option, and there is free parking. However, parking is limited, and later starters will want to opt for the Muir Woods Shuttle (which is $5 round trip) to avoid waiting for parking: http://marintransit.org/routes/66.html. But be warned that the drive in can be hair-raising. The road is full of sharp turns, high drops (but gorgeous views!), and has no shoulder in most places. Plus, the road is very popular for bikers, who must ride in the lane due to a lack of shoulder. The nervous driver might describe the drive as treacherous.
Hiking in the early morning means only the occasional passerby, but hiking from about 11 a.m. on can mean waits for access, passing, and photos. However, the variety of trails cater to many stamina levels and preferences. Redwood Creek Trail is perfect for a leisurely walk. The Hillside Trail is my favorite. It provides great views of the Redwood Creek trail, the creek itself, and the park, and it's challenging without being exhausting. At the point where the Ben Johnson Trail splits off, there is a small tree bridge you can cross and climb higher for a better view. For the adventurous, the Dipsea and Canopy View Trail are ideal with steep grades and longer distances.
After a couple hours of hiking, you can stop by the café for a sandwich, soup, or pastry. The honey-glazed cornbread is popular, and coffee and hot chocolate are also available. People rave about the cafe's Marin Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich made with Cowgirl Creamery cheese. My sister and I enjoyed the sandwich, but we both agree the sandwich doesn't live up to the hype, and the tomato soup that's a recommended companion is a little bland. I also have to warn that the café is a little chaotic. A person is supposed to take your order at one end of the counter, and then you pay at the other, but a person is not always there taking orders, and you might face a lecture at the cash register for trying to place your order there. After a strenuous hike, however, the café is a welcome sight.
The gift shop has a good selection of redwood souvenirs. There's even a chocolate banana slug you can frighten friends with. The visitor's center has a selection of books and maps about the park, California, and John Muir.
If you want to learn more about the park and its giants, you can take a self-guided or guided tour, and there are tree talks that occur throughout the day where you can learn such trivia like the clover-looking plant throughout the park is actually redwood sorrel. There is also an excellent history of the park you can download from the website: https://www.nps.gov/muwo/learn/historyculture/index.htm.
After Muir Woods, you can take a short drive to Muir Beach and Sausalito. Or you can take a little longer drive and visit Stinson Beach, all Bay Area miss-me-nots.
Whoa, a payphone! Warning: poor cell reception in Muir Woods.
My sister identifying our location.
Gift Shop Views
The Famous Marin Melt
This tree's life span: 909 A.D.-1930.