When we talk about ancient things, generally they aren’t living. However, in California you can find trees that have lived longer than the oldest buildings in North America built by the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest. Visiting a grove of these mighty ancients gives perspective and takes you back in time.
Of course you could find your way up to Redwood National Park or down to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park to witness the West Coast’s giants, but the most accessible of these old-growth forests is just north of San Francisco at Muir Woods National Monument.
One of the few remaining collections of coastal redwoods, William Kent purchased and eventually donated the land to the federal government to protect it from eminent domain threatened by a water company looking to flood the valley with a dam. It was made a National Monument in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt and, at Kent’s request, was named after John Muir, perhaps America’s greatest conservationist.
This is the second time I’ve been to Muir Woods and won’t be the last. It is a peaceful escape from the city just 12 miles to the south. Much of the land around it is also protected as state park and preserves, so there are miles of hiking trails in and out of the National Monument.
This visit though was very different from my first six years ago. That day was very foggy and damp, which meant few visitors on the trails. You could still see the trees and their majesty, but it felt primeval with little jewels of water on the ferns and moss, juicy like sponges, dressing the trees in vibrant green raiment. With few visitors, the trails were empty and quiet. We could enjoy the ancient forest in solitude.
This time it was a sunny warm day, which meant lots of people out enjoying the trails. Though it wasn’t as mystical or quiet, it was still awe-inspiring.
Muir Woods has very easy trails; many of them are boardwalks. They mainly stay on the floor of the canyon along the edge of the creek. This is where you walk under the goliaths and can stand right next to them to realize just how big they really are.
If you want a slightly more secluded trail and don’t have time to go off into the surrounding state park lands, then take the hillside trail. It is still fairly easy. This trail wraps along the side of the canyon about halfway up the hill. From this vantage point you’re closer to the canopy, but still pretty far away—after all the tallest trees reach higher than the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
One of the more special parts of the monument is Cathedral Grove. This section of trail isn’t just impressive because of the massive trunks around you, but also for its historical significance. President Franklin Roosevelt sought out to organize an international organization to promote peace and good relations between nations. In April of 1945, he planned to host the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco.
He died of a stroke just twelve days before the planned gathering. President Truman went ahead with the conference. In a change to the planned proceedings, around 500 people, including heads of state and other dignitaries and delegates, met in Muir Woods on May 19 to honor the chief architect of their gathering and cause. At the end of the two month conference the UN charter was signed, and in October of that year it was ratified officially giving birth to the United Nations.
The idea for having a session of the conference in the monument was proposed to President Roosevelt a few months earlier by then Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickles who wrote:
“Not only would this focus attention upon this nation’s interest in preserving these mighty trees for posterity, but here in such a ‘temple of peace’ the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere in America better than in a forest. Muir Woods is a cathedral, the pillars of which have stood through much of recorded human history. Many of these trees were standing when Magna Carta was written. The outermost of their growth rings are contemporary with World War II and the Atlantic Charter.”
If you haven’t had a chance to stand in the midst of these ancient monoliths, you must do it. Someday I hope to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Redwood National park, but I know I will return to this special place again and again.