A very popular day trip from San Francisco for many travelers is an excursion to Muir Woods National Monument. Located in Marin County near the town of Mill Valley, Muir Woods protects a forest filled with old growth coast redwoods. Because of its proximity to San Francisco, it is an extremely popular national park site with over a million visitors a year.
My family lives about a 45 minute drive away from Muir Woods and has visited several times. We recently returned for another visit during our daughter’s 4th grade year thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program. Muir Woods delivered again. The majestic towering redwoods are just awe-inspiring and something everyone ought to see. But planning a visit requires a little bit of knowledge and preparation, including one requirement many non-locals might not be aware of.
Here are my very best tips to help you have a smooth visit to Muir Woods National Monument.
Muir Woods Basics
Muir Woods is a national monument operated by the National Park Service. It is located about 15 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County on Mount Tamalpais. Muir Woods was made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It is currently also a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area which also includes sites in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin Counties such as Alcatraz, the Presidio, Land’s End, and Stinson Beach. (Read more about national park sites in the Bay Area).
About half of Muir Woods’ 554 acres contains old growth coast redwoods. This endangered species was put into peril due to extensive logging on the Northern California coast in the nineteenth century. These trees can live over 2000 years. The oldest tree in Muir Woods is thought to be about 1200 years old, and most are 600-800 years old.
Driving to Muir Woods from San Francisco
Many visitors to Muir Woods arrive by car, as my family always does. I rarely recommend that travelers staying in San Francisco rent a car due to how expensive parking is in the city. It often makes sense to rent a car for a single day, however, to take the trip to Muir Woods. There are car rental agencies located in and around a lot of the major hotel centers like Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.
So how far is Muir Woods from San Francisco? In terms of mileage, it’s about 15 miles from Fisherman’s Wharf. The drive takes between 30-45 minutes in low traffic conditions. But traffic is a regular occurrence in several places along on the route. The Golden Gate Bridge leaving the city can get quite backed up. Once you exit Highway 101 onto California State Route 1, traffic can back up yet again on the busy city streets there. There are a lot of tourist attractions on Route 1, including Mount Tam and Stinson Beach. On summer weekends especially, it may seem like all of San Francisco is taking that same road! Monitor the traffic with smartphone apps and plan for plenty of extra time during peak travel periods.
So how is the drive itself to Muir Woods? If you have anyone in the family who is prone to car sickness, you need to be prepared when driving Route 1. Once you exit Highway 101, the road becomes quite curvy and winding – enough definitely to bother some passengers. Luckily, you aren’t on this road for that long of a time. The curvy part is only about 5 miles which takes 15 minutes in regular traffic conditions.
Parking at Muir Woods with a Reservation
If you are planning to drive to Muir Woods, there is one essential thing you must do before you plan a trip – book a parking reservation! Starting in 2018, the National Park Service implemented a parking reservation system to cope with the crushing crowds that were overwhelming the capacity of this national monument. I remember all too well circling for parking for half an hour, so this new reservation system is a welcome development.
But it does mean you need to plan your Muir Woods excursions in advance. To make a parking reservation, visit gomuirwoods.com. The cost for a single car is $8 per reservation (increasing to $8.50 on November 15, 2019). This fee is refundable if cancelled at least 72 hours in advance. Parking for peak holiday weekends can sell out a month or more in advance, so definitely book early. You can book as early as 90 days advance on the site. The parking vendor holds a small number of additional reservations that are released 5 days in advance as well. Check at this time if your travel dates are sold out the first time you look.
Parking reservations are made for 30 minute windows. While you have a parking entry time, there is no limit on how long you can stay in Muir Woods once you enter. Be aware that even with a reservation, you may have to park in a remote lot that is about a quarter of a mile down the road. If it looks like you are going to be directed farther down to this lot, you can ask the parking attendants to drop members of your party off closer to the front entrance if you’d prefer.
Alternatives to Driving and Parking: Shuttles & Tours
If you aren’t interested in doing the driving to Muir Woods (or missed the chance to book a parking reservation), there are other ways to get there. There are three locations in Marin County where a shuttle will pick you up and drop you at Muir Woods. Those include:
- Pohono Park & Ride (100 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, CA 94941): Weekends only, free parking available.
- Sausalito (corner of Bay & Bridgeway, near the Sausalito Ferry Terminal): No parking available, but a good option for anyone taking the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito.
- Marin City Hub (corner of Donahue & Terners in Marin City): No parking available.
Be aware that advance reservations for these shuttles – just like with parking spaces – are required. Book online at gomuirwoods.com. The shuttle runs on weekends from all three locations and daily in the summer from the Sausalito and Marin City Hub locations. The cost is $3 for adults 16+ to ride (increasing to $3.25 on November 15, 2019) and children are free. Be sure to arrive early so you have time to deal with traffic, parking, or transit delays.
There are also a number of tour companies that will take you on a trip to Muir Woods from San Francisco, offering everything from private tours to big bus options. (Check out one private Muir Woods tour option that my friend and fellow travel blogger Karen took.)
Entering Muir Woods
Entrance into Muir Woods costs $15 per person for all adults ages 16 and over. Children under 16 are free. This cost is in addition to the parking or shuttle fees. You’ll pay the entrance fee at the Visitor Center which is right where the sign and pathway leading into the woods starts.
Because it is a national monument, entrance to Muir Woods is included for anyone who holds an America the Beautiful annal parks pass. Our family has had one for the past several years. At just $80, it’s one of the best deals in travel. Two adult names can be added to the pass so spouses can share it, even when not traveling together. And if you have one, you can skip the long line at the Visitors Center by flashing it and heading straight into the trees!
Touring & Hiking Muir Woods
So now that we’ve gotten through all of the logistics, you can finally enter and enjoy the majesty of the redwoods.
One thing I love about Muir Woods as a family travel destination is just how accessible it is. There are a number of paths that are paved and flat. This makes them perfect even for strollers or wheelchairs. While my kids are finally big enough to walk, we visited with my parents (both of whom have knee troubles), and it was quite walkable for them both.
Muir Woods has a lower set of walking paths paralleling Redwood Creek that form a loop. Be sure to pick up a guide and map when you enter that will show you how the trails work. You can choose to turn back at one of several points along this loop, creating a hike that works for the endurance of your traveling party. The shortest loop is .5 miles and the middle length loop is 1 mile. Both of these loops are entirely stroller and wheelchair accessible.
The longest loop is 2 miles and involves some dirt paths and climbing up to a hillside trail. My kids (ages 10 and 5 during our last visit) were able to complete this loop without any difficulties. We spent about 2 hours in total on our last trip at Muir Woods, spending only about half that time actively hiking.
If you are more adventurous and have more time, hike up the Canopy View trail or consider one of the longer hikes that even offers coastal views.
More Muir Woods Travel Tips
Here are a few other essential tips to help plan a successful outing to Muir Woods.
1. Prepare for ZERO cell service.
There is absolutely no cell or data service in the area where Muir Woods is located. Download any maps you might need in advance and screenshot your parking reservation information before you leave. Have a plan for meeting up in case you are separated from your party.
2. Pick up a Junior Ranger book for kids.
Like many national park sites, Muir Woods offers a junior ranger program for kids. Pick up a booklet at the Visitor Center and complete it at strategic points along your hike. There are lots of other learning opportunities within the park as you tour.
3. Expect long food lines.
There is a small counter service restaurant just inside the park (not far from the visitor center and next to the bathrooms), but it can get very busy peak lunch times on weekends. Since most family travelers only spend a few hours at Muir Woods, I’d recommend not planning on a meal there. Bring a few snacks if you think your kids will be hungry (but remember to leave no trace if you do!)
4. Look out for free ranger-led talks.
Muir Woods has quite a few “tree talks” of varying lengths where you can learn about the redwoods. Check the program board when you arrive for times, as those are not published online in advance.
5. Bring coats, layers & probably even rain gear.
The reasons the redwoods thrive in this region is the moist coastal fog. So that means Muir Woods is often really chilly and damp for visitors! Bring plenty of layers, and I’d also recommend a poncho or other rain gear, especially during winter months.
Where Else Should You Visit Near Muir Woods?
If you only plan to spend a couple of hours at Muir Woods, you may want to do another excursion that same day in the area. Luckily, there are a number of family-friendly attractions nearby.
The closest of these is Mount Tamalpais State Park, where there are other hiking opportunities.
Not far from Muir Woods is the quant seaside town of Sausalito, a popular waterfront stop for tourists across the bay from San Francisco. My family had a late lunch here after our last Muir Woods trip. Visitors taking the ferry from San Francisco and then the shuttle to Muir Woods can easily make this a stop.
Alternatively, you can also head farther up Route 1 after visiting Muir Woods to Stinson Beach.
Hotels near Muir Woods
As a local, I never need lodging in the area, but I realize a lot of travelers might, especially if making this a stop on a longer California road trip. If you aren’t staying in San Francisco or simply want a closer hotel choice, here are a few options that are nearby:
- Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley: A well-located moderate hotel right at the Route 1 exit off of Highway 101 (book this property on IHG.com)
- Acqua Hotel Mill Valley: A modern hotel on the water near Highway 101.
- Mill Valley Inn: A boutique hotel in Mill Valley proper (farther from the highway) set among a few redwoods itself!
- Cavallo Point Lodge: A luxury property within Fort Baker at Cavallo Point with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is undoubtedly the most unique hotel offering near Muir Woods.
Where Else to See Redwoods in California?
While Muir Woods might be the most well-known redwoods in the state because it is so close to San Francisco, there are quite a few other redwood destinations in the state – some with even larger trees! Here are a few worth visiting on a longer California road trip:
- Chandelier Drive-Through Tree in Mendocino County
- Avenue of the Giants
- Redwood National & State Parks
- Around Santa Cruz (Roaring Camp Railroads operates a train that goes into the redwoods)