Muir Woods without the crowds

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Muir Woods without the crowds


Most visitors to Muir Woods take the level main trail, following Redwood Creek. For a less crowded hike try a 4.5-mile loop on the Deer Park, Dipsea, Ben Johnson and Hillside trails. Now that we’ve had some rain, winter delights like mushrooms, ferns and salamanders abound, and the moss is so green you could be in Oz’s Emerald City.

If you are doing the hike now, the plank bridge has been removed to facilitate passage of the salmon during their spawning season so you can’t start out on the Dipsea Trail. Walk south on the shoulder of the Muir Woods Road to Deer Park Fire Road. Head uphill until it joins the famed Dipsea Trail. There is no sign, but you will notice a trail joining the fire road and running parallel. Started in 1905, the Dipsea is the oldest trail race in the US. Each year 1,500 runners participate, and more than 200 have now upped the ante and do a quad Dipsea, running the 7.4-mile course four times. I am happy to amble up this trail soaking in ambiance.

Deer Park Fire Road and the Dipsea Trail cross and re-cross each other and in this section so it really doesn’t matter which one you take. I prefer the trail since cyclists use the fire road. To the west, the sun on the ocean made me think of the lyrics “from sea to shining sea” and remember how as a child growing up in Manhattan I longed to see the “purple mountains majesty” and that second shining sea.

There is a sunny stretch with coyote brush and the non-native cotoneaster. When I did this hike, robins were enjoying the red cotoneaster berries. Soon you are in the woods, still going uphill. Now the rains have begun working their magic, the first California polypody ferns have appeared. California slender salamanders, sometimes called worm salamanders because of their tiny legs, have come up from the earthworm burrows where they retreated for the summer. These lungless salamanders breath through their skins, which must be kept moist.

Banana slugs also like the rain though they have slime to help keep them moist. (It’s useful to know that if you touch one, washing your hands makes you slimier as the slime is designed to absorb water. Just rub your fingers as you would if you had white glue on them and the slime rubs right off.) Banana slugs have a single lung, and an opening called a pneumostoma on the right side of the mantle, behind the head. Take a moment to watch until the slug takes a breath and you’ll see the hole open. Banana slugs were nominated as our state mollusk, but sadly the legislature did not see fit to adopt them so they will have to be content with being the mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

At the junction with the Ben Johnson Trail there is a lot of trail work equipment. If it’s near lunch time, I like to make a detour here and head up Deer Park Fire Road to Cardiac Hill. From this sunny vista point you can see the Farallones, part of San Francisco, Tiburon and Belvedere, the Bay Bridge and Mount Diablo. Western bluebirds often like to perch on the utility lines here, the males sporting brilliant blue feathers while the females have more subtle coloring.

Retrace your steps if you took the detour, and take the Ben Johnson Trail. Because of the trail work there are some well-marked but muddy, slippery detours at the start. While I understand the necessity of fences on the main trail, to me the experience of walking through redwoods on an unfenced trail is different. With appreciation for the opportunity to experience the woods this way, I am happy to stay on the trail.

There are several dramatically hollowed out trees in the section. As you cross a plank boardwalk over the area notice three ferns; chain fern, lady fern and the less-common five-fingered fern, all growing in one spot.

Turn right on Hillside Trail for one mile to return to complete the loop. No dogs.

To get to Muir Woods Take the Mill Valley/Highway 1/ Stinson Beach exit.

Follow the signs to Highway 1 (Shoreline Highway), then go north on Panoramic Highway. At Four Corners take Muir Woods Road to Muir Woods. Park in the overflow parking lot. No fee.

Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to