Turning onto highway one from the 101 we left the shore-side communities behind and began the climb above the bay into the surrounding mountains of Marin County. As the road swept through the trees, taking turns among scattered driveways and sheltered homes, gradually we gained altitude and the sense of being in an urban space gave way to nature. Fields, scrubby bushes, spring flowers and tall trees dominated the rolling green / gold landscape where scatted glimpses of San Francisco Bay far below flashed past.
Again we turned, this time onto the Panoramic Highway and, eventually, to the Muir Woods Road, turning left and beginning our snaking decent. Carefully we switch-backed right and left, left and right, careful of oncoming cars on the narrow twisting road, while encountering the occasional cyclist braving the steep ascent.
These types of roads aren’t really of any surprise to people used to west coast back county roads but they can be a bit unnerving to anyone more familiar to flatter terrain. Finally we hit bottom and noticed a sign indicating our destination, Muir Woods National Monument, home of the Giant Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens.)
It was evident from the start the reality of Muir Woods reputation as one of the bay areas most popular destinations. The official parking area was already full, with cars spilling out onto overflow areas, and parked bumper to bumper along the roadside. This is where we found an opening and slipped into a space about a five minute walk from the main parking area. Here the paradox of having a nature preserve butting up against urban density became apparent. Muir Woods attraction to people is its accessibility, the rare opportunity to view some of the world’s tallest trees in a setting just minutes from urban density and sprawl. The very urbanization that destroyed so much of the regions original redwood forests makes the rarity of a place like Muir Woods so appealing also puts pressure on the last, protected, forests in the region. The National Parks Service struggles to minimize these pressures in varied ways including the now required reserved parking systems.
Making our way in the hot spring sunshine past the lines of parked car by the roadside, the small groups of people coming and going and through the ‘normal’ trees that line the road nothing seems remarkable until we turned the corner into the parking lot.
There in the distance and dwarfing everything surrounding it was our first view of a Giant Redwood. Towering hundreds of feet above the car park and making the people below appear as ants. It’s long striated reddish-brown trunk rising to a modest tuft of green at the extreme top. A tree so tall that even when I got down low on the pavement and aimed my camera in its direction i struggled to frame its entire length even with a wide angle lens. I had to take a moment to look it over from a distance to try to take it all in. The mind boggles at the sudden re-calibration of scale needed to comprehend such a large tree.
After taking a moment to read the posted information we passed under the wooden sign welcoming us to Muir Woods National Monument. With each step along the foot path the intense heat and light of the parking lot faded gradually into cool deep shadow dominated by red-tinged brown and green. Water tumbling through the adjacent brook reflected points of dancing sunlight into the trees until even that light was quenched in shadow. Here we found ourselves winding our way slowly through clusters of immense tree trunks. Craning our necks towards the sky revealed bright green clouds of the tree tops glowing in the sunshine as they simultaneously cast the forest floor in relative darkness.
Everywhere along the gently winding path people would inevitably seek to compare themselves in stature to the immense pillars of fibrous wood shooting far beyond their own heights. Countless photos were taken beside tree trunks or slipping into hollowed out caves at the base of some trees, the blackened and charred remains of a forest fire in the distant past.
As the path unfolded before us we found ourselves in a cluster of giant redwoods reaching to the sky, one after another after another. Looking up sometimes revealed precariously hanging branches that tumbled from on high.
Gradually we made our way to the elevated portion of the path network, allowing us to climb upwards into the trunks of these giants though never close to their tops. From above we could look down on the lower paths putting the people down there in perspective relative to this forest of giants. Some fallen trees also lay across the forest floor leaving giant stumps to mark their original position. Even on the elevated trail, while brighter than down below, full sunlight struggled to pass through.
Among the rusty tree trunks I noted not only the coolness of the shade, even on a warm spring day, but also the relative lack of insects. The acidic tannins in the bark of these trees being relatively inhospitable to many insects and the shade limits the growth of many following plants on the forest floor. The base of the trees being dominated by fallen debris or batches of ferns.
We then decided to take a path out of the narrow valley and up the hillside, following a route that rose quickly. Here it was remarkable how fast we left the limited territory that supports the giant trees, down in the valley near the water from the creek. Up here only the scattered similar tree can be seen. This shows just how limited and special this remarkable ecosystem is and how just a little over a century ago people thought nothing of clear cutting these places out of existence. If not for a few determined voices like John Muir and William Kent places like Muir Woods would just be a memory, existing only is grainy black and white artifacts from the early days of photography.
Richard Preston, Author, Andrew Joslin, Illustrator , Random $25.95 (294p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6489-2
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