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Land of the Giants

  • MARY POOLE-BURLINGAME / MPOOLE@STARADVERTISER.COM
    A walk in Muir Woods is spent looking up at the majestic redwoods.
  • MARY POOLE-BURLINGAME / MPOOLE@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Mossy logs bridge a stream.
  • MARY POOLE-BURLINGAME / MPOOLE@STARADVERTISER.COM
    A deer seems to pose on cue for the camera.
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Like entering a church, visitors’ voices drop to a respectful whisper when visiting Muir Woods, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Maybe it’s something about the stately, gigantic trees reaching toward heaven. No wonder the first United Nations conference was held here on May 19, 1945, in the aptly named Cathedral Grove. Representatives from 48 countries were there to hammer out a lasting peace after the horrors of World War II.

Muir Woods is named for famed naturalist John Muir. An emigre from Scotland, Muir left the University of Wisconsin to instead immerse himself in what he called the "University of the Wilderness." Applying scientific methods to conservation and a philosopher’s approach to man’s role in nature, Muir’s articles and books helped create the preservation movement in America.

MUIR WOODS

» Hours: Open every day from 8 a.m. to sunset

» Admission: $3, good for the day

» Don’ts: The park doesn’t allow pets, bicycles, smoking, horseback riding or camping, and food is permitted only at the visitor center.

» Information: www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm

 

The park was named for Muir at the request of benefactor William Kent, a congressman who took out a bank loan to preserve the last stand of virgin redwoods in the area. All other old-growth redwoods in the area had been logged, but the Redwood Creek region, on the steeply plunging western slopes of Mount Tamalpais, was difficult to access. At the turn of the 20th century, new roads on the mountainside made the isolated redwoods vulnerable to loggers, and in 1905, Kent bought 611 acres for $45,000. When Kent’s appalled wife, Elizabeth, questioned the amount, Kent responded, "If we lost all the money we have and saved these trees, it would be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?"

In order to scuttle a Sausalito municipal scheme to dam up what was known then as Sequoia Canyon, the Kents gave roughly half of their land acquisition to the federal government to be preserved. On Jan. 9, 1908, using the recently enacted Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Kent’s donation a national monument, only the seventh such landmark declared in the United States.

In 1916, Congressman Kent introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that created the National Park Service. A decade later a modern road to the park was built following the steep switchbacks of a disused mule track, and during the 1930s most of the trails, bridges and amenities were created by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1937, after the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, visitation tripled.

Today, Muir Woods remains one of the most popular natural visitor destinations in the Marin Headlands. The coast redwoods — the tallest living things on Earth, and hundreds of years old — create a sense of quiet awe as they provide an enormous, shady cover for the dense woodlands. Many of the trees bear scars of forest fires that occurred centuries ago. Some have historic plaques and markers.

Although Muir Woods contains some six miles of looping trails, enough for a rambling afternoon hike, the portion that runs along both sides of Redwood Creek to Cathedral Grove and then back to the gate and visitor center is easily walked in an hour. But take your time. Visitors tend to move slowly, as they’re gaping at the trees overhead.

The shade ensures the woods are cool and damp, and you might get chilly. When Robert Frost noted that "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," he might have been talking about this park.

The paths are well maintained, and the park would really rather you stick to the trails, as they’re trying to preserve the natural ambience of the old forest. This even applies to fallen trees, which are left to decay; the only parts cut away are branches over the trails.

Another reason to stick to the trail: Poison oak and stinging nettles grow in profusion. Wild animals such as deer are people-friendly, but don’t feed them.

 

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