Muir Woods: Best place in the Bay Area for a beginner's hike

Redwood groves are all around Northern California, and they're great places to take family and friends. One of the easiest to get to, is Muir Woods. It's just 12 miles north of San Francisco, but when you get there, it's like entering another world. We spent a couple of hours at Muir Woods over spring break, and it reminded me of how lucky I am to live in this area. The redwoods are truly majestic, amazing, awesome, and every other superlative adjective you can think of.

Not only is Muir Woods easy to get to, it's easy to get around once you get there. The trails are asphalted, and the main loop is nicely paved, so strollers and wheelchairs are no problem at all.

A stream runs through the center of the main loop, and bridges connect opposite sides of the loop in 2 places, so visitors have 3 choices: they can do the full loop (which the park service says takes 1.5 hrs), or turn around at the second bridge (which makes a smaller loop that takes 1 hr), or turn around at the first bridge (which makes an even smaller loop that takes 30 minutes).

Honestly, you could walk the entire loop in just 30 minutes, but I think they inflate the estimates because they assume visitors will stop, look around, marvel at the trees, take photos, and take in the beautiful scenery. It's a nature hike, after all, not a running track!

There are longer, harder trails that branch out from the main loop.  Trail maps and signs give visitors a good idea of the trail distance, approximate hike time, and difficulty level. We stuck to the main loop because we didn't have time for more than a short visit, but we'll definitely be back.

Know Before You Go

* Muir Woods is open 365 days a year, and reservations are not required.

* Get There Early. The closest parking lot has about 5 parking spots. The next two parking spots, a bit further down the road, have limited spots -- I'd estimate less than 100 spots combined. Your only other option is to parallel park along the road. You may have to park miles away! Some people park in precarious portions and end up being unable to pull out of their spots and calling rangers to tow them out.  If you're not there by 9AM on weekends or 10:30AM on weekdays, you can forget about finding an open spot. We arrived at 11AM and spent 30 minutes stalking cars in the parking lot (just like all the other 100 cars who arrived with us), before giving up and deciding (in great frustration) to abandon our plans. On our way out, we got lucky and a roadside spot opened up.

* There is no cellphone service in Muir Woods.

* With all the trash cans and souvenir shops and guardrails and people posing for photos, it can be easy to forget that you're in the middle of nature, not a beautifully laid out theme park. Wildlife is all around, and this is their home. Visitors need to be respectful of that -- in other words, keep the noise level down, don't feed the wildlife, don't carve your initials into tree trunks, and pick up your trash!

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