Old Growth: Hiking into the Heart of Muir Woods
Three weeks ago, I decided that since circumstances beyond my control were obliging me to shelter in place in the Bay Area, I should take advantage of this opportunity to explore the iconic local attractions that are usually overwhelmed by visitors from around the planet. Why not use this global Pause to press Play on the Bay Area’s world-class wonders?
I started by walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, an odyssey that I had been meaning to make for decades–and that, when I finally did make it, bestowed transformative, multi-layered lessons in time and place.
Inspired by that pilgrimage, I was exhilarated to discover that Muir Woods National Monument, another world-class wonder that I had been meaning to visit for decades, had just re-opened. In recent years, the monument had become so popular that park authorities had initiated a shuttle service, but with almost no tourists coming now, visitors are able to drive to the parking lots near the park’s entrance, just as in the old days. Online parking reservations are required, but with the number of visitors dramatically decreased, I was able to reserve a parking space for four days later with no problem.
I reserved the first time slot, 9:00-9:30 am, and paid my park entrance fee at the same time as my parking reservation. Since Muir Woods is about an hour’s drive from my house, my plan was to set off at 7:45 am and arrive before the parking lot opened. This would allow me to park before anyone else, hop out of my car, race to the entrance—and for a few glorious minutes, have the majestic monument all to myself.
The night before my journey, I researched hiking trails, printed out maps and explanatory materials, and packed my provisions: In addition to the usual granola bars, carrot sticks, and Frappucinos, I prepared two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a Clif bar, two bottles of water, and two bottles of Gatorade. This was a serious expedition.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans? As it turned out, I didn’t leave the house until 8:00 am, and it was 9:05 when I arrived at the parking lot–and somehow there were already a dozen cars parked there, and excited families and couples were already making their way to the entrance. So much for having the monument to myself.
I parked, put on my bandana face mask and hiking hat, grabbed my backpack, and trotted to the entrance. There a smiling ranger scanned my admission barcode, handed me a pamphlet, and waved me into the woods.
I snapped a quick photo of the wooden gates and Muir Woods National Monument sign that frame the entrance to the park, then strode onto the broad, wooden board-paved trail that runs for about a mile past some of the park’s most celebrated and spectacular sites, including Founders Grove, Bohemian Grove, and Cathedral Grove.
After just a few minutes on the trail, I could already see in the distance a trio of redwoods: staggeringly tall, wide, and straight super-trees, haloed with sunlight filtering through their branches. Immediately I felt touched by a first faint sense of sanctity, serenity, and eternity.
This feeling intensified as I walked among the stands of redwoods into Cathedral Grove. The trees were the most impressive inhabitants, but the whole world of the woods seemed enchanted. There were layers upon layers, the carpet of pine needles, earth, pebbles, and rotting tree trunks, then the understory of giant ferns and other lush green plants, and overhead the sun-caught canopy, the roof of this natural cathedral.
The main trail was already spectacular, but I was eager to get away from the two dozen other visitors scattered along the paved path. After walking for about 45 minutes, I saw a sign that read Fern Creek Trail and featured a map highlighting a 3-mile hiking route. The sign said this hike would take about two hours. A few paces beyond the sign, a narrow earthen path that wound into deep trees beckoned.
So I set off onto Fern Creek Trail. After five minutes on this rock-and-dirt path, I was in a world of my own. Walking along the trail was like hiking in Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. There were towering redwoods on each side of the trail, and huge ferns, California bay laurel, redwood sorrel, and dozens of other primordial-looking plants, their glistening green leaves bigger than my hands.
The sun slanted through the high branches, where birds trilled and chirped and tra-la-loo’d. The creek burbled in the background. I stopped and inhaled the air as deeply as I could. It felt fresh and pure and lung-cleansing, and penetrated to my soul. All around me was the scent of pine needles, sun-warmed earth, lush, dewy foliage, and creek-moistened soil. I was in hiker’s heaven.
I walked for an hour on the trail, over a mixture of hard-packed dirt, rocks, and gnarled roots, with wooden steps built into especially steep sections. Most of this time I was gloriously alone, and in total I saw a dozen fellow hikers.
At one point in my walk, I reached a particularly thick tree, and something emanating from it just stopped me. Mystical as it may sound, I felt that this tree had been waiting for me. I measured its girth, walking around it with my arms outstretched, and determined that it would take five adults to encircle its massive bole. I felt the ragged texture of its bark, traced the ridges and fissures in its trunk, examined a charred section that was black as a wound. I inhaled its sylvan scent, pressed my ear to hear its woody music. When I held my palm on the trunk, I could feel a tree pulse—perhaps it was just the echo of my own pulse, but I felt some kind of energy surging deep under my hand.
I had read that the average age of the trees here is 600-800 years, and I tried to imagine what this redwood had lived through—lightning and fires, rain and floods, torrential winds, droughts, the ravages of nature and more recently, the ravages of humankind.
Then I thought of the events that had transpired in its lifetime. What was happening six centuries ago? In this area, members of the Coast Miwok tribe were fishing, hunting, and gathering food as they had for thousands of years. Far to the south, the Inca and Aztec empires were developing. In China, the Ming Dynasty was thriving, and the Forbidden City was being built. In Europe, mariners were just starting to sail across the ocean, Michelangelo and Leonardo were apprentices, and Gutenberg was inventing the printing press. This tree, that I’m touching right now, was alive at that time, I thought, and my mind whirled. I stayed with that tree a long time, my hand on its trunk, then gave it a big embrace—my first outside-the-home hug in three months.
I continued hiking up to Lost Trail and then along Canopy View Trail. Around noon I serendipitously came upon a bench by the side of the trail, parked my backpack, and unpacked my lunch. Along with my sandwiches and carrot sticks, I feasted on the tranquility and serenity, the sequoia-swabbed purity of the air, the bird and brook sounds and sun-baked earth and pine needle smells, the sunlight slanting through the branches, the bright patch of blue sky beyond.
At one point I thought of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, the Japanese practice that has become widely popular in the U.S. This was a perfect example of shinrin-yoku, I thought: Here I am, alone in this forest, immersed in the sense and spirit of these old growth redwoods, taking in their tranquility and timelessness, losing myself to their sheer size and age and their wild wisdom that fills the air.
I sat there for an hour, and let all the trials, tremors, and tribulations of the world I had left in the parking lot drift away. I felt grounded, calm, quiet—earth-bound, forest-embraced.
In another hour, or two, I would walk back to the main paved trail, where other pilgrims would be exclaiming in awe at the sacred sequoias, just as I had earlier that day.
But for now, I was content to root right here, on this blessed bench in the middle of nowhere, or rather, in the middle of everywhere, the wind whooshing through me, bird-chirps strung from my boughs, toes spreading under scratchy pine needles into hard-packed earth, sun-warmed canopy reaching for the sky, aging trunk textured by time, deep-pulsing, in the heart of Muir Woods.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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Thank you for all your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue. These are greatly gratifying and inspiring to read. Please continue to share your reflections below; I truly appreciate all of them!