On a chilly mid-October morning, we ventured out to check off one more item from our San Francisco bucket list: the Muir Woods!
I’d always wanted to visit (heck, we even did an impromptu drive-by on our kid-less Sausalito trip a few years back), but we learned even then that getting to the Muir Woods was not the simplest. Two years later I finally did my research, and we came better prepared to explore this wonderful gem just across the bay from San Francisco.
For anyone making a visit to northern California who can’t squeeze in a trip to Yosemite or the Redwood Forest, the Muir Woods makes for an excellent alternative much closer to the Bay Area!
Read on for our best tips for getting the most out of your Muir Woods day trip!
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About the Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument, located about 15 miles north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, spans over 500 acres. With 6 miles of trails within the park, it’s towering redwood and sequioa groves attract tens of thousands of visitors each year.
While the Muir Woods itself is relatively small in scale, its trails are connected with the adjacent Mt. Tamalpais State Park, which makes hiking options endless for active families. But, if you’re like us and not looking for anything overly ambitious, you’ll find the Muir Woods flat and boardwalked trails just perfect for a family-friendly day trip from San Francisco.
Getting to the Muir Woods
The hardest part about planning a visit to the Muir Woods is deciding how to get there! You definitely need to plan ahead, especially with reservations soon to be required for all visitors arriving by car or shuttle:
By Car | Beginning January 16, 2018, anyone arriving to the Muir Woods by car will be required to reserve parking in advance. While this eliminates any chance for spontaneity, it really has become a necessity. As it stands now, all available parking spots are usually filled by 8:30 am (just 30 minutes after the park opens), so a reservation system will allow families to better plan their visit, instead of arriving frustrated and disappointed by the lack of parking. One downside, while parking is currently free, it will set you back $8 come January. On the upside, that parking reservation will last you the entire day.
By Shuttle | If you aren’t able to snag a parking reservation, your next best bet will be to use the shuttle service from Mill Valley or Sausalito. Reservations will be required for shuttles starting January 16 as well, and will cost $3 per adult (children 16 and under are free, but will still require a reservation). The shuttle runs every weekend year-round, as well as weekdays during peak summer months. You can find more info on the shuttle locations and schedules here.
By Private Tour | If you’ll be staying in San Francisco without a car, a private tour like this one from Viator may be a better option for you. It includes your transportation across the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as a guide to take your through the woods. Private tours are pricier, but you won’t have to worry about getting to and from the Muir Woods (and traversing those winding roads) on your own.
Another Note: While you won’t have a problem taking a rideshare service to the Muir Woods, getting out could give you trouble. Cell reception is pretty much non-existent once you’re in the woods, so I would not rely on Uber or Lyft – you might find yourself stuck there!
Exploring the Trails at the Muir Woods
For most visitors, the Redwood Creek Trail is the simplest and most-traveled route. The trail is flat and boardwalked, with 4 bridges connecting each side of the loop. The bridges allow you to make your hike as long (1.5 hours) or short (30 minutes) as you’d like. It’s also totally stroller-friendly.
Along the Redwood Creek Trail, there are a few must-stops. Near the entrance of the park you’ll first find Founders Grove and the Pinchot Tree. One of the largest in the grove, this tree was dedicated to Gifford Pinchot, who along with William Kent and John Muir, was instrumental in gaining protective status for the Muir Woods as a national monument.
Cross Bridge 1 to the western loop of Redwood Creek Trail and pass through the massive trees of Bohemian Grove. Don’t forget to take your picture inside a redwood. 😉
Cross back over Bridge 2 or 3 and walk through Cathedral Grove, a place perfect for quiet reflection (or in our case, the perfect place for a toddler to have a meltdown…).
Once you reach Bridge 4 (the furthest end of the Redwood Creek Trail loop), you can either turn back and head for the Visitor Center the same way you came, or, if you decide you’re up for a little more adventure, you’ll have a couple additional options.
For option 1, head up along Hillside Trail, which runs parallel to the Redwood Creek Trail, but (as the name suggests) runs along the hillside. Along this trail you’ll get a birds eye view of the creek below. Unlike the Redwood Creek Trail, the Hillside Trail is not stroller friendly. There also aren’t any barriers along the hillside and you will run into the occasional tree root, so you’ll want to keep the little ones close if you go this route. We kept Evelyn in a carrier while we hiked this trail.
A second, longer option would be to follow the Fern Creek Trail to Lost Trail and then down Canopy View Trail. This route is definitely more off-the-beaten-path, and takes about 2 hours to trek back down to Founders Grove. It’s a great way to avoid the crowds though (just be sure to check that all 3 trails are open…during our visit, Canopy View Trail was closed for maintenance!)
A Few Last Tips
Download and print a Junior Ranger Booklet before your visit! This will give kids a chance to learn about the woods and their environment beforehand. You can also pick up a booklet at the Visitors Center if you forget to print one in advance.
Wear layers! Even on a warm October day, inside the woods was deceptively chilly. You’ll want extra layers, especially if you plan to arrive in the early morning. A light jacket, long pants, and good walking shoes will make your visit much more comfortable, even in the summertime.
Arrive early…or late. The park gets pretty full with visitors during the day from all the shuttles and tour buses, so if you have the choice to drive yourself, arriving first thing in the morning or in the last 2 hours before the park closes will give you the best chance to explore the woods in a more peacful setting.
Visit the gift shop first (or last) thing. We arrived when the park opened at 8, and by the time we left the woods around 10 am, the gift shop was totally swamped! You can buy all kinds of woodcarved souvenirs, or even better, your own baby redwood or sequoia tree – how cute! And though we opted to bring our own snacks, there is a small cafe on-site too.
Have you been to the Muir Woods? Did you think it was worth the trip??
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