The Clearest Way Into the Universe
Northern California’s colossal coast redwoods aren’t the only giant trees in the state. To give others their due, we asked San Francisco-area resident Peter Arcuni to give us a tour of Muir Woods National Monument and Sequoia National Park.
Along with many others, these parks are tied together by the legendary environmentalist John Muir.
MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Muir Woods has its own California coast redwoods and has been a go-to sanctuary for me through the years. It’s just 10 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The sheer stature of these arboreal juggernauts has a way of putting things into perspective like nothing else, and each visit offers the chance to catch the forest in a unique moment of its ever-blossoming life cycle.
Just a few feet down the boardwalk trail from the visitor center, the foot traffic thins out and you’re enveloped by one of the oldest living forests on the planet. City life becomes a distant memory.
Through a Forest Wilderness
Conservationist John Muir, for whom the park is named, once said, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” Muir Woods makes it easy to see why. Trees stretch endlessly toward the sky, shading the forest with an evergreen canopy while beams of sunlight poke through to illuminate the unmistakable red trunks. Dried needles cover the forest floor in a golden carpet. It takes some time to absorb it all.
Spanning roughly 550 acres, with trees up to 250 feet tall and dating back 800 years, Muir Woods boasts the largest old-growth redwood forest in the San Francisco Bay area. The main trail follows a 2-mile loop around Redwood Creek.
Entering the aptly named Cathedral Grove, you’ll be struck by how quiet it is. The only sounds are those of birdcalls, the rolling creek, and the occasional sway of branches in the breeze.
Miles of Trails
Muir Woods is connected to the nearby Mount Tamalpais trail system and offers an array of routes for hikers of every ability – from light to ambitious. Trail maps are available at the Muir Woods Visitor Center.
One of my favorite trails follows Fern Creek up to the Panoramic Trail. Climbing from the forest, you encounter California poppy, sky lupine, and bowl-tubed iris at nearly every turn, especially in the spring.
A view from the trail’s ridge takes in Mount Tamalpais’ three peaks, Muir Woods, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Southwest of Muir Woods and just off California Highway 1, you’ll find Muir Beach, a quiet cove and wildlife sanctuary where Redwood Creek meets the Pacific.
The Park Service recently completed a full restoration of the surrounding wetlands, and the lagoon is home to shorebirds, river otters, and the protected California red-legged frog. The 1,000-foot stretch of sandy beach is the perfect spot to watch the sun go down after a long day of exploring.
Find more on Muir Woods National Monument, including directions from San Francisco and the East Bay.
A 2-mile hike from Muir Woods takes you to one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets: Nature Friends Tourist Club. This hike-in-only retreat offers ocean views and cold pitchers of Belgian beer to members year-round and to the public on specified days of the year. Visit the club’s website for more information.
Lodging and Dining
There is no camping or lodging available in Muir Woods. You can, however, camp year-round in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The historic Pelican Inn adjacent to Muir Beach has seven rooms for reservation, plus a restaurant bar specializing in English country fare.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Three-hundred miles southeast of San Francisco and the coast redwoods of Muir Woods, the foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada ascend toward another of nature’s grandest treasures. As you wind along the 5,000 vertical feet up Generals Highway, rain can give way to snow, and the ponderosa pines are overtaken by the Earth’s largest species of tree: Sequoiadendron giganteum – the giant sequoia.
Though not as tall as its cousin, the coast redwood, the sequoia’s massive trunk and gnarled limbs are an imposing sight. California has its fair share of big trees, but none on this scale, which makes Sequoia National Park the destination for huge-tree lovers.
World’s Largest Tree
Less than a quarter mile from Generals Highway in the park’s Giant Forest sits the world’s largest tree by volume. The General Sherman Tree occupies an unrivaled 1,487 cubic meters of space, is approximately 2,500 years old, weighs 1,910 tons, and has a circumference of 103 feet.
To put this in perspective, it would take approximately 17 people with an average arm span of 6 feet to wrap themselves around the trunk while holding hands. Look up from its colossal base and you’ll see Sherman’s upper extremities reaching to the firmament in a twisted maze, nearly blotting out the sun altogether.
To get farther off the beaten path, take the 5-mile loop on
the Trail of Sequoias through Crescent Meadow and back. You’ll hike through grove after grove of giant trees, many adorned with grandiose names, such as Pillars of Hercules and Chief Sequoyah, and find respite where the forest clears to high meadow.
A Forest of Giants
University of the Pacific Library. © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust
The park’s Giant Forest is peppered with more than 8,000 old-growth sequoias and hosts five of the world’s 10 largest trees. (See the accompanying coast redwoods article for the world's tallest trees.) Learn more about the ecology and history of the most massive trees on earth at the Giant Forest Museum, located just down the road from the General Sherman Tree.
From the museum, follow Generals Highway 30 miles north to Grant Grove in bordering Kings Canyon National Park for a 0.8-mile paved loop boasting the General Grant Tree, the park’s second-largest tree, and the Fallen Monarch, a hollowed-out sequoia trunk through which you can walk.
Another way to enjoy the park’s ancient forests and granite cliffs is from a higher elevation. Starting at the Wolverton parking area, ascend 2,200 feet for a little less than 4 miles to a mountaintop clearing known as the Hump. Trekking toward the timberline gives you fresh views of the giants. From the Hump, follow the trail down to picturesque Heather Lake.
The Hump’s panoramic vistas also reveal the true scope of this high country – its vastness and power. Experiences such as this were envisioned by John Muir and the reason he fought to preserve our country’s natural treasures.
Find more on Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon, including reservation information and directions from Fresno and Three Rivers.
Lodging and Dining
We spent our nights at Sequoia’s Wuksachi Lodge, nestled off Generals Highway at an elevation of 7,200 feet. This cozy, welcoming park lodge has a full-service restaurant, general store, and wood-burning stove to read or play board games by on cold nights.
From December through April, you can make reservations at the Pear Lake Ski Hut, a rustic cabin for backcountry skiers and snowshoers. The 6-mile trek out takes you over the Hump and past Heather, Aster, and Emerald Lakes, with Pear Lake just a bit farther down the trail.
Camping sites are also readily available throughout the park at both high and low elevations.
The quaint town of Three Rivers on Highway 198 adjacent to Sequoia’s southern entrance is home to several smaller inns and family-owned restaurants. Sierra Subs offers fresh sandwiches and salads, plus homemade soups and riverside seating. Reimer’s Candies & Gifts is a quirky ice cream and knickknack shop where it looks and feels like the holidays all year long.
If you’re traveling to Sequoia anytime between November and April, be prepared for winter weather conditions. Snow enables you to take advantage of Sequoia’s roughly 800 miles of cross-country ski trails and Wolverton’s family-friendly snow play area.
Snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented daily from the Wuksachi Lodge’s Ski Shop. For lighter dustings, good boots and crampons will keep you from slipping.
Tire chains also may be required on Generals Highway during adverse weather conditions. These can be rented or purchased in nearby Three Rivers.
Look up weather advisories and road closures or call 1-559-565-3341.