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5 essential differences between Muir Woods and the old growth Redwood forests of Mendocino County

a street sign in front of a tree

In all my years as a tour guide, I’ve had the pleasure of showing guests so many of the wonders that make Northern California such an amazing place, from the sights of the city of San Francisco to the vineyards of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, to the cannabis farms of The Emerald Triangle, but as wonderful as it’s been to be a guide for San Francisco tourism, wine tourism, and now cannabis tourism, there’s nothing quite as life changing for our guests as visiting California’s ancient redwood forests.

 

Visiting a giant redwood forest is one of the things everyone should have on their bucket list.  Walking among these enormous trees that have been growing here for thousands of years, and looking up in awe at these amazing living breathing things that stretch hundreds of feet into the sky has a profound effect on everyone who spends time among them.  The Japanese have a term – shinrin-yoku, which means forest bathing, a practice of walking in nature among the trees to heal the spirit, and cleanse the soul.  If that sounds strange to you, I guarantee you’ll grok forest bathing after spending time among these ancient giants.

At one time these spectacular forests covered about 2 million acres all along the Northern California coast.  Now they’re all but gone.  Fortunately, there are some places left where these majestic ancient giants have been preserved.

 

In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt declared 295 acres of old growth redwood forest just north of San Francisco in Marin County a national monument.  He named it Muir Woods after naturalist John Muir, whose environmental campaigns helped to establish the National Park system.

 

Up in Mendocino County there are still old growth redwood forests preserved as state parks by the state of California.

 

If you’re visiting Northern California, don’t miss these natural wonders!  But which should you choose?  You really can’t go wrong either way, but here are 5 points of comparison to help you make your choice.

 

  1. Accessibility and access:

 

You can’t beat Muir Woods for accessibility.  Several San Francisco tour companies offer Muir Woods tours.  You can even take a city bus there.  It’s also easy to get to Muir Woods by car, but you’ll need to reserve a parking space if you want to drive there.

 

To get to the wild giant redwoods you have to drive a long way on very curvy, often treacherous roads.  It’s more than worth the journey, but make no mistake, it is a journey.

 

Not to be confused with Accessibility, access is a major concern for tourists who are disabled or have issues getting around.  As much as I love being able to get out to the wild redwood forests of Mendocino county, there’s no way I could do it if I were wheelchair bound.   This is one place Muir Woods wins hands down.  To protect the shallow roots of the precious giant redwoods, Muir Woods does not allow tourists to walk on the ground.  The entire space is covered by elevated walkways that allow everyone to enjoy the primordial woods even if they have trouble getting around.

a tree in a wooded area

 

  1. Crowds:

 

The downside to being so easily accessible is the crowds Muir Woods draws.  An estimated 1.2 million people visit Muir Woods every year.  No matter what time of year you visit Muir Woods, the parking lot is always full, and there are throngs of tourists everywhere.

a group of people in a park

By contrast, you run into relatively few people when you venture out to the old growth redwood forests along the Mendocino coast.  Even if you go on a busy holiday weekend, you will run into a handful of people at most.  When you venture beyond the beaten path, you have the woods nearly to yourself.

 

  1. Amenities:

 

The trade off for getting deep into the wild is the lack of amenities.  The extent of the amenities out in Mendo are a couple of picnic tables, and a couple of outhouses.

 

Contrast that with Muir Woods, which has places to sit everywhere, bathrooms with real plumbing, water fountains, a cafe with wonderful food, and a gift shop, as well as a permanent staff of park rangers to answer your questions, and who give lectures and presentations on many days.

 

  1. National monument vs. State Park:

 

Another stark contrast between Muir Woods and the redwood groves of Mendocino County are who runs them, and what laws govern those that visit.

 

Muir Woods is a National monument.  What that means is that it is governed by federal law.  Don’t even think about smoking weed there.  Under Federal law marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug.  Possession of any amount of weed is a Federal misdemeanor. On your very first offense you can be fined up to $1,000.00 and imprisoned for up to a year.  Don’t bring weed to Muir Woods.

It’s a completely different story in the coastal redwood groves of Mendocino County.  Those woods are California State Parks, and under the jurisdiction of California law.  In case you didn’t know, under California law, weed is 100% legal for all adults over 21 years of age.  Yes, you can visit the giant redwoods in Mendo elevated!  It is 100% legal to be high in these redwood forests.  That being said, you don’t want to be burning anything in the wilds of the tinderbox dry California wilderness.  You can enjoy a toke at the picnic tables before you hike up to commune with the trees, or you can safely vape in the woods, or enjoy edibles with no fear of arrest or prosecution, and there is really no better way to experience these mind blowing spaces.

 

This brings us to our 5th and last point of comparison.

 

  1. The Visceral Experience:

 

There is no wrong way to visit California’s giant redwoods.  Whichever way you choose, experiencing these amazing ancient trees can be a life changing experience.

 

That being said, being able to actually touch the trees I find to be a much more rewarding experience.  I liken Muir Woods with its pristine walkways and fencing to a tree zoo.  You get to see these majestic trees in their natural habitat, but there is a degree of separation.  If you want to actually hug a 2,000 year old tree while high on NorCal’s finest bud, head on up to the Mendocino coast!

Whichever way you choose to do it, don’t leave California without seeing these natural wonders.  The feeling is indescribable, and you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life.