The mind boggles when you think about how old the California redwoods are.  When some of these trees in Muir Woods were saplings 900 years ago, the world would have been a vastly unrecognisable place.  To put things in perspective, in 1144 AD, the French and Germans were off on a doomed Second Crusade.  In 1150 AD Angkor Wat in Cambodia was completed as the Khmer empire reached its height.  Nearly a millennium later, the Middle East is still a mess (albeit a different kind) and Angkor Wat is a well-trod tourist attraction.

We visited the California redwoods at Muir Woods with kids in tow because it was easily accessible to San Francisco.  Even though we did not have time to visit Yosemite or the UNESCO world-heritage listed Redwood National Park, we still wanted our children to see a primeval forest.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Easy trails and its proximity to San Francisco make Muir Woods perfect for a family visit.

A Quick Intro to California Redwoods

Folk hero, Woodie Guthrie, wove the California redwoods into the American popular consciousness with his catchy song, This Land is Your Land. Luckily, the redwoods are mentioned in the first verse because, let’s face it, most people only know the first verse of a lot of songs.

This land is your land, this land is my land.

From California to the New York Island.

From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,

This land was made for you and me.

Woodie Guthrie from  This Land is Your Land

So, I grew up hearing about redwood forests without actually knowing what they were. It took a trip to Muir Woods to clear up what exactly redwoods are and how they are different from sequoia trees.

Why are California Redwoods special?

Trees similar to redwoods grew along the Western US coast hundreds of millions of years ago.  Nowadays, there are two types of redwood.  The coastal redwood which grows along the coast and its near relative the giant sequoia which you find in Yosemite National Park.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Redwoods get their name from the tannic acid in their bark which protects them from fire and fungal attacks.

The difference between sequoias and coastal redwoods

The coastal redwoods are taller reaching a height of up to 380 feet compared to the 300 feet of the sequoias.  Redwoods are younger (up to 2000 years old) while sequoias can be up to 3200 years old.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

This tree trunk that was felled in the early 20th century has the passage of time marked on its rings.

Redwoods are about half the diameter in width.  The bark of redwoods are also about a 1/3 less thick than that of the giant sequoias.  So we are talking tall and thin versus shorter and wider.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

My kids could easily fit into one of the splits in a tree trunk.

The feed and care of redwoods

Coastal redwoods drink approximately 500 gallons of water per tree!  In the winter, the area gets about 40 inches of rainfall per year. In the summer, the redwoods get most of the water from the fog and then when the water hits the soil, more water gets taken up by the shallow root system.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

In winter Redwood creek swells with torrential rainstorms.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Burls at the bottom of a tree are dormant buds that can sprout a new tree.

The trees roots go down only about 10 feet deep but spread out nearly 100 feet.  You would think such a tall tree would just be top heavy and topple over!

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

So much ground cover in the forest.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

We spent considerable time looking for a four leaf clover only to discover it was California sorrel, a different plant.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

The undergrowth is so dense and you can hear the rustling of leaves and animals around you.

Why visit the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids?

We saw a family in front of us arguing with their stroppy teenage daughter who clearly did not want to spend the day with her family.  So why should you visit Muir Woods if you are in the area?

  • It’s a short hop, skip and a ride away from San Francisco.
  • California redwoods are the tallest living things in the world (cool fact for little kids)
  • The hikes can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as hours depending on your abilities/interest.
  • The boardwalk paths make using strollers easy if you have toddlers with you.
  • You’d have to be a really stroppy teen to not appreciate the quiet and peace.  Or, give them something really depressing to think about by telling them that their problems are a speck of dust in the vastness that is time as evidenced by the redwoods.

People have said that Muir Woods is a crowded tourist trap.  I didn’t think it was but, even if it were, so?  The redwoods are still amazing to see in real life.  Neither did we feel it was particularly crowded.  Sure, you don’t have the forest to yourself but we didn’t expect that level of seclusion either.  I may have lived in Europe too long – for crowded you need to be in the tiny towns of Italy during holiday season.

History of Muir Woods

Redwood Canyon, the area that covers Muir Woods was a part of the many redwood forests that covered Northern California. In the early days, the trees in Redwood Canyon were saved from being cut down because it was a particularly remote area.  Afterwards, it belonged to the landholdings of a private owner, Rancho Sausalito.  The ranch got sold in the 1890’s and attention finally turned to the area.  A local businessman and his wife, William and Elizabeth Kent, bought the land in 1907 to save it from developers and donated it to the federal government.  The same president that created the first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, designated the valley the United States’ 10th national monument in 1908.

As a member of Congress, in 1916 Kent also introduced legislation that created the National Park Service.  The NPS is celebrating its centenary this year.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Muir Woods is administered by the National Park Service.

The national monument was named after the early conservationist, John Muir, who felt it was a great honour.

This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all of the forests of the world.

John Muir

The redwoods in Muir Woods are not the oldest of the redwoods.  They are ‘merely’ on average 600-800 years old.  The oldest redwood in Muir Woods is about 1200 years old.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

The aptly-named Cathedral Grove trees soar into the sky like church spires.

Visiting Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument is a 560 acre park with 6 miles of trails. The main canyon trails are paved and an easy walk.  The park office has maps with marked trails for you to buy onsite.  Check out this website for some easy 2-5 mile hikes in Muir Woods.  My 10-year olds had no problem with the easy 1/2 day hike we did in Muir Woods.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Paved trails make it easy for children, including younger children in strollers.

If that is not exciting enough for you, unpaved trails out of the canyon connect with the trails at Mt. Tamalpais State Park nearby.  William Kent and others wanted to extend Muir Woods beyond its original area but they couldn’t because of the National Monument designation.  Instead, there is a fairly seamless connection with Mt. Tamalpais State Park which was established in 1928 and de facto extended Muir Woods.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

This path leads to the Canopy Trail from which you can access the state park or return to Muir Woods.

In the early days, visitors were allowed to climb on and around the trees! Needless to say, such activity wasn’t so good for the trees.  There are signs everywhere to stay on the paved trails.

Visiting the California Redwoods at Muir Woods with kids

Although everyone says Muir Woods is busy, we found plenty of opportunity to strike out on our own.

Muir Woods National Monument is 12 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and about a 1/2 hour drive. There is parking available but it does get busy!

If you are like us and do not have time to visit Yosemite National Park, I would strongly urge you to visit the California redwoods at Muir Woods with kids.  The California redwoods are magnificent and encourage you to think about what a small place you occupy in the world.  A little retrospection and humility is good for everyone, including children!