Our first weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area was overwhelming, to say the least. We had received so many recommendations for things to do, places to eat, and sights to see that we weren’t sure where to start. A tough problem to have, I know. It was also the fourth of July weekend. The Bay Area is known for being crowded, but on a holiday weekend, you can forget about getting anywhere fast. Of course, that didn’t stop us from choosing a very touristy destination on a very touristy weekend.
We’d been recommended the Muir Woods National Monument by almost every local to whom we talked. Most of them knew of our shared interest in the outdoors (plus our shared aversion to cities) so Muir Woods was on the top of our list. We’d read suggestions online about avoiding busy hours/days, so naturally, we chose a summer Saturday during a holiday weekend around 2:00 PM. Even with the seemingly unending crowds, we still had a great time. However, throughout the day we found ourselves wishing we’d made some different decisions.
if you’re visiting the Bay Area we would absolutely recommend a trip to Muir Woods. You can fill your entire day by exploring their extensive, multi-level trail network and still leave parts untouched. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the solitude you’d expect among the redwoods if you hit the trail on certain days and times. If you want to enjoy the redwoods without the crowds, we recommend incorporating the following tips into your plans.
Avoid Weekends and Holidays
As with any tourist destination, avoiding weekends and holidays is really is the best decision you can make. If you’re on vacation or have flexibility in your timeline, save Muir Woods for a mid-week visit. The parking at the actual monument (we’re still not sure why it's called a monument) is scarce and the traffic build-up just to get into the lots can add an hour or more to your trip. If you do happen to find a parking spot or wait long enough for one to open, you’ll then be battling the crowds in the park too.
On the way to Muir Woods, Derrick and I hit a 45+ minute delay trying to cross the Richmond Bridge to get into the city. We found out this was due to the toll (bring cash!), but that should’ve been our warning signal to turn around and save Muir Woods for a weekday. Nevertheless, we proceeded. As a sliver-ish lining, the traffic delay caused us to arrive much later than we planned and we were able to get a parking spot after about 5-10 minutes of circling the various lots. We may or may not have "stolen" one from the van in front of us. Just call us the cutthroat Kotli.
If you’d prefer to avoid the parking lots all together, the park does offer a convenient shuttle service to the woods from a park-n-ride in Marin County. We almost opted for this as we got closer to the monument, but decided to push our luck since we’d driven so far already. As convenient as a shuttle sounds, we’re glad we didn’t take it. Another downside to a Saturday visit was the number of people using the shuttle service. When we arrived at the park around 3:30 PM, the line to get on the departing shuttles was over 50 people long. When we finished hiking over two hours later, the line had gotten worse.
I don’t say this to discourage anyone from taking the shuttle because it does help with traffic flow. If you do opt for the shuttle, just add an extra 15-20 minutes to your timeline. There are also signs off the highway exit ramps that tell you if the lots at Muir Woods are full, so the shuttle is often unavoidable on the weekend.
Arrive Outside of Peak Hours
This may seem obvious, but simply changing your arrival time can make a world of difference, especially if you do plan to visit on a weekend. If you can tackle Muir Woods in the early morning – do it! The lots fill up quickly so the earlier you can get there, the better. Plus, this morning is a great time to explore the stunning woods because you'll have them all to yourself without the mid-day summer heat.
If you end up missing the early morning window, then it’s best to wait until after 4:00 PM to arrive. The monument closes at 8:00 PM so by this time in the afternoon the tour buses have stopped, the parking lots are emptying, and the crowds on the trails begin to thin. After arriving, Derrick and I discovered that the main parking spaces reserved strictly for tour buses switch to general parking after 4:00 PM. If you arrive right around this time, you may get to park in these spots which are right next to the visitors center. Arriving late in the afternoon also means there will be far fewer crowds than during mid-day. Even if you arrive early enough in the morning to park, the crowds fill up by noon (according to the Muir Woods website), so if you’re not done hiking by then, you’ll be fighting the crowds on the return to your car.
Take the Trails Less Traveled
The Muir Woods are great because there is a trail or route for every level of fitness. To accommodate everyone, the main trail spans the length of the redwood valley and is an easy boardwalk for a more leisurely pace. The boardwalk is great for strollers, young kids, elderly and anyone that wants to see the redwoods without working up a sweat. The biggest benefit of sticking to the main boardwalk is that most of the “old growth” forest (the tallest redwoods) are along the main trail.
The downside of the main trail, of course, is the crowds. Between the moderate effort, the stunning redwoods, and the shorter distance, most people opt for this easy stroll. Luckily, Derrick and I splurged on the $1 trail map and found plenty of alternative routes to avoid the crowds but still enjoy the landscape.
We decided to give the “Canopy Trail” a try as we wanted to gain some elevation and see what the redwoods looked like from above. Since it was Saturday, we still ran into a handful of people on the trail, but we’d highly recommend taking this route. The elevation gain is enough to get your heart rate up and increases at a gradual pace which keeps things easy. The view from above is still impressive but you get much more sunlight than the tall redwoods allow for at the bottom of the valley.
The Canopy Trail eventually merged into the “Lost Trail” which was our favorite part of the entire hike. The Lost Trail had hundreds of gnarled trees and branches lining the path which made it feel more like a trek through the jungle. We were also some of the only people on that part of the trail, so we had the woods to ourselves. However, we did run into one friendly hiker that warned us of some poison oak and took a picture of us which ended up being one of my favorites from the day! Another silver lining ;).
The last part of the trail (“Fern Creek Trail”) basically winds you through hundreds of giant redwoods and back to the main boardwalk. We walked on the main trail for all of two minutes before opting for another side trail that would take us back to the visitor center. This side route, called "Hillside Trail," was set a little above the main trail so the views were still great with far fewer people enjoying them!
Overall, the Muir Woods is a great excursion no matter when you go. However, as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Marin Country, it can fill up fast. We hope these tips help you make the most out of your visit so you can enjoy the woods exactly as John Muir intended - peacefully. If not, at least you’ll have plenty of people around to take your picture!