Visiting Muir Woods National Monument was one of the most magical and powerful experiences we had in California. This post recounts the emotions evoked by this meaningful place and practical considerations about visiting Muir Woods with kids
We first heard about Muir Woods from friends. They had visited the area before us and had put forward a pretty compelling case for a visit: they defined Muir Woods as a place we ‘had to see’ and considering they have visited pretty fabulous places (you can read about them here), I added the Woods to my must-see list straight away.
We were not disappointed.
Home of the tallest living things on the planet, Muir Woods is a wondrous place. A remnant of the blanket of coastal redwoods that once covered California, it is now a National Monument preserving one of the richest yet threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life in the US.
The woods’ most impressive inhabitants are the Sequoia Semper Virens. This type of tree is known for being the tallest living thing and they are a remarkable sight. Looking up, they seem to go on forever: their trunks look like wooden highways, their leaves tickling the sky.
As if their height wasn’t enough to make them special, these redwoods are also exceptionally old. Some of these majestic trees have stood for over a millennium, the rings reaching back to the dark ages in Europe, before the Normans conquered England and centuries before Europeans settled in America!
With these characteristics, we knew Muir Woods was a place we could not miss and on a beautiful Northern California morning, we made our way to their magical site.
Visiting Muir Woods with kids
Here are some information about how to get to Muir Woods with kids, what to expect and how to enjoy it with little legs in tow.
Where is Muir Woods: how to get there + Muir Woods parking
Muir woods National Monument is an area of outstanding natural beauty to the North of San Francisco, less than one hour from the city.
You can drive there or you can use the shuttle serving the woods. Depending on where your accommodation is located, the shuttle can be very handy: parking can be difficult to find in Muir Woods, especially in high season, and the road gets busy so avoiding private transport is recommended. You can find information, schedule and departure points for the Muir Woods Shuttle here
If the idea of getting the shuttle with little ones worries you, don’t stress too much about it
For our visit, we didn’t avail of it (we visited the woods while on the way to Monterey and needed our own car) and while it did take some waiting around, my worries about self-driving proved to be excessive.
The parking situation wasn’t as bad as though it would be. The main carpark was indeed full and so was the overflow one, but a bit of persistence and a bit of luck meant that we eventually found a space on the main street, a few hundred meters form the main entrance.
If you are worried about the walk and don’t want to take chances, remember that the best time of day for visiting Muir Woods is early in the morning or late in the afternoon and the best (less busy) seasons are fall, winter and early spring.
Muir Woods visitor center and ticket office
Access to Muir Woods is ticketed and at the time of writing the admission price is $10.00 per Adult (16 years of age and older); children under 15 go free.
We got to Muir Woods in the late morning in the middle of July and it was not the best idea. We were at the very end of a seemingly endless queue for the ticket office and spent the following hour contemplating the sea of baseball caps and shorts in front of us.
It was a hot and dusty affair and the sight of my kids running wild around a car park with reversing cars and buses was not a reassuring one but we made it!
We had with us water and some snacks and those helped: closer to the ticket office the presence of a park ranger also helped keep the kids entertained and meant we got some good info on what to expect one inside.
One we got to the ticket office, we learned even more. Here you have not just the ticket counter but a small shop with books and learning materials. One that caught our attention was Redwood Discovery: A Quest at Muir Woods: this book is suitable for kids aged 6 to 12 and is full of tasks to complete during the visit and teaches them (and us) a lot abut the flora and fauna of this unique woods
Entering Muir Woods National Monument
Finally equipped with tickets and maps, we saw the first trees were in front of us, a green vision of quiet yet unmistakable power.
The trees had a strange effect on the previously noisy crowd. As if on cue, on entering the woods voices lowered and crisps wrappers disappeared in rucksacks and pockets. It was as if anything mundane suddenly seemed vulgar in a place of such natural beauty.
Indeed, entering Muir woods felt like stepping into the central nave of a Gothic church, a sacred space of earthly tones reaching for the heights of the heavens above. The rugged trunks of the giant redwood shoot up like living pillars, the green leaves of the tallest branches so high to give the illusion of a pitched roof enclosing the space around us.
The woods seemed to invite contemplation but our two kids had different ideas. Untouched by the emotions that seems to overwhelm their parents, they quickly started asking for lunch, complain about having to walk and demanding a snack. Our captured mindset quickly had to switch to practical things and rumbling tummies: after all, family travel is a mix of sublime and mundane, right?
Thankfully, the woods came to the rescue with an interesting thing: a huge panel with a section of a tree trunk. This is located at the entrance of the woods and it is an incredible sight. The section shows the numerous tree rings, each for one year of life of the tree, and a mark for each turning point of human history.
The trees of Muir Woods have been standing for so long they predate the time of William the conqueror!
I was humbling, to be in front of woods so ancient and it was a great opportunity to teach the kids about the tree rings and history: it was just the first of the many educational opportunities Muir Woods offered to us for the day and turned their thoughts away from food for a long while!
Muir Woods cafe and shop
After the tree section we knew we couldn’t push our luck anymore so we stopped at the Muir Woods cafe and restaurant to refuel.
The restaurant has a nice selection of foods and pays attention to the quality of their ingredient, flaunting their organic origin. They offer a selection of sandwiches, toasts made with local cheese and we had some tasty and filling organic sausages. The cafe is adjacent to a souvenir shop and this is where you also find bathroom and facilities.
Muir Woods hiking trails
Finally ready to explore the woods, we ventured along the main path.
Muir woods is criss-crossed by several paths and families with young kids tend to stay on the flat one, departing from the entrance. This is an easy path, large and well kept: it is easily accessible to buggies and strollers but it still allows you to enjoy some of the most impressive corners of Muir Woods such as cathedral grove and the riverside walk.
The site has 6 miles of trails and most of them are paved and level. Muir Woods National Monument trails follow the path of the creeks but have bridge that make loop walks possible and doable also for families with young children: the visitors center offers good, detailed trail maps.
Family travel tip: The Muir Woods hiking trails are all in the shade of the tree canopy so a walk even in the middle of the day in July proved pleasant and not unbearably hot. However, if you are visiting Muir Woods do make sure you bring some layers: morning and evening do get chilly and, often, foggy.
The historical significance of Muir Woods
Muir Woods can and should be visited because of its natural beauty but the site is more than just a beautiful backdrop to a family walk.
In 1945, San Francisco hosted the conference that laid the structure of the now United Nations. The conference had been championed and organised by president Roosevelt who wanted the United Nations to be a force for peace in a world that had just come out of the Second World War.
President Roosevelt died few days before the conference but the delegates wanted to acknowledge its contribution: on May 19, 1945 hundreds of delegates came to Muir Woods to commemorate him and the plaque still stands to honor the memory of ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-first President of the United States, chief architect of the United Nations, and apostle of lasting peace for all mankind’ (Memorial plaque in Cathedral Grove Muir Woods, 1945) You can learn more about this event here
Interesting facts about Muir Woods for kids
- Muir Woods is the home of the tallest living thing on the planet, the Sequoia Semper Virens. Bohemian and cathedral grove have the tallest tree in the park, reaching over 250 feet!
- As well as tall, Muir Woods trees are exceptionally wide, reaching over 14 feet (you cannot hug one, they are too big!)
- Most trees in Muir Woods are between 600 to 800 years old. The oldest tree is thought to be 1,200 years young which is middle-age for redwoods.
- The redwoods don’t mind the foggy weather of this area but thrive on it as they are able to absorb water directly from the fog
- You can tell a lot about a tree from its rings: the age of the three (light and dark rings together represent one year’s growth) but also the climate of the past (larger rings are sign of a rainy year, thin ones of a dryer one)
- These woods were originally owned by the Kent family. William Kent noted how special these trees were when he and his wife purchased the land and donated it to the federal government. In 1908 it was proclaimed a National Monument
- The woods owe their name to John Muir,famous American naturalist and conservationist. He is one of California’s most famous historical figures and his work inspired meaningful projects such as the creation of the first national monument and of Yosemite National Park