“Let’s go to Muir Woods!” we said. “That’ll be a fun and straightforward day out!” Fun, it was. Straightforward? Not so much…
Don’t get me wrong – there are excellent reasons to take a trip to Muir Woods. It’s the nearest spot to San Francisco to see redwood trees, which I was desperate to do while I was in Caifornia, and as a National State Monument it’s well protected and has a number of paths and trails through the area. It’s also astonishingly beautiful, situated near Mill Valley in Marin County. Though parking is very limited, the park offers a free shuttle bus from various areas in Marin, so we figured that getting there would be surprisingly easy by public transport.
If we’d had a car, we could have been there in under an hour. But the journey is all part of the adventure, right?
We headed to the BART station and took the subway into San Francisco, where we navigated our way to the correct bus stop with the help of Google Maps. The ticket system was a bit confusing, so we may have overpaid, and the only change the driver could give us was through a card providing credit for the bus – so my $20 bill went right down the drain. All the same, we found some seats and started heading through the city.
The journey took maybe forty minutes or so, largely due to the traffic. Most of the websites we checked recommended we take the ferry across to Sausalito, but it had only been the previous day that we’d taken our trip across to Marin and we were both pretty resolute that we didn’t fancy another ferry journey. Most importantly, taking the bus meant that we would be able to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge – something I was really keen to do, and given we didn’t have a car this was our only opportunity. We crawled across the Bridge in the heaviest traffic Rosa had ever seen, watching as the SF fog (known locally as “Karl” – he has a fantastic social media presence) creep in, and spotting the police officer on patrol cycle up and down. (The Golden Gate is apparently the most popular suicide spot in the world, so a number of initiatives such as regular police patrol have been put in place to help prevent and support victims of suicide attempts.)
Once we were over the Bridge the bus sped through the tunnel and down the hills, dropping us off at a parking lot near a shopping centre. The Muir Woods shuttle bus allegedly picked up here, but after waiting for around twenty-five minutes with no luck we started to wonder if we really were in the right place. We resolved to ask the next bus driver who stopped there, and luckily a passenger on that bus told us that if we took it to Sausalito – her hometown – we could definitely pick up the shuttle from there. It seemed like the surest option, so we hopped on and chatted to the woman about our next destination. She gave us a list of things to see and do in Sausalito, and let us know exactly where the shuttle was. (Neither of us mentioned the fact that we should probably have just got the ferry.)
Sausalito is a beautiful city; it feels like a Mediterranean seaside town – but we weren’t going to stay long. After about fifteen minutes, and three hours since we’d left the house, the shuttle pulled up. Its driver got out, and announced, “I’m just taking a ten minute break.”
Once we got going, the shuttle ride was amazing. It took us up Mount Tamalpais, our driver winding skillfully around the tiny roads and the brave cyclists which occupied them, until the landscape opened out, gifting us with astonishing views right towards the Pacific. As we neared the park our driver tested us with a hilarious pop quiz: “When is the last shuttle? Where do you pick it up? How much is entry to the park?” He wasn’t taking any chances, and, knowing just how long the journey was, neither were we…
We paid our entry fee to the park and followed the boardwalk, pointing out the warning signs for “dangerous plants”, which included stinging nettles; though we spent our childhoods rubbing dock leaves on our stings from the garden, nettles are rare in the US, and Rosa had to warn a little girl playing nearby some that they might hurt.
The park itself was absolutely stunning. The trees had an extraordinary presence, and seemed to hold so many stories. I was amazed by how even though there were so many visitors, many of whom were young children running about and calling out to one another, it was still such a calm and tranquil place to be.
It’s also remarkably accessible, with a neat and well-kept boardwalk path leading you through the central trail of the forest following the path of the stream, as well as more traditional hiking trails. We decided to head up to a hillside walk, which actually allows you to better understand the scale of these extraordinary trees; even though you’re higher up, the redwoods still tower impossibly above you.
Muir Woods is a State Monument, which I think allows it a higher level of protection than being a State Park; as a result there are strict rules forbidding visitors to leave the assigned paths. However, if you fancy a more strenuous trail it also backs directly on to Mount Tamalpais State Park, which is much larger and allows for much more off-road exploration. We made sure to briefly cross the border into the State Park, if only for the photograph…
One of my favourite moments was learning about the so-called “family trees”. These occur when a tree dies, perhaps by being struck by lightening, but its roots continue to sprout new trees. What results is a group of huge redwoods protectively clustered around the blackened skeleton of the original, dead tree. Something about it was beautifully intimate and moving, and no picture I took was really able to do it justice.
We wound our way around the path, which eventually looped back round to join the main boardwalk and lead us back to the gift shop and car park. Before long it was time to begin our journey back home, so we headed to the bus stop and joined the line, chatting to the friendly family in front of us while we waited. We couldn’t quite fit on the first shuttle that pulled up, the driver of the second one made up for it, telling us: “There are two things you need to get on this shuttle… Your ticket, and a smile!” Then, as we boarded, “Come on in… with a grin!” And finally, “If you’re ready, say safety first!” It was oh-so-California.
So, we found ourselves back in Sausalito. We considered trying to find the bus back to our previous stop, but eventually reasoned that it might just be better to take the direct route: the ferry. After a quick wander to check out the fire station and its attached cafe, we headed back up to get burgers and then join the line for the ferry. Only the queue seemed unnecessarily long, and full of people with bikes…
We were pretty confused, but given that the line seemed to curve its way half the way through the town we thought we’d better join it as soon as possible. It turned out that all of the cyclists had taken a popular tourist trail from the city and across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, the idea being that they’d get the ferry back to return the bikes at the end of the day. I started to get quite anxious that we weren’t going to make it, even though Rosa was confident we’d be able to make our way back somehow. Then I heard a voice calling down from somewhere above us; a man loading yet more bikes onto a trailer. “Are you getting the ferry? You know there’s a pedestrian line?”
Yes, it was a bit of a journey to say the least; and once we’d got back to San Francisco we still had to get the subway back to Berkeley. But I’m so glad that we chose to go. It’s hard to say what made Muir Woods quite so special. In part it was simply being out in the open air, with nature towering above us rather than skyscrapers. Perhaps it was the way it was so impossible to capture, in words or photographs, with its dappled light and shadows playing tricks on our eyes and cameras. Even though the paths were so well-trodden, it felt a bit like discovering some unheard secret for the first time.