There are only a few places in California with massively old, massively massive coastal redwood trees. As the paragraph above suggests, Muir Woods and Big Basin are two such locations. Having visited both in mid to late December this year, I’ll go through the pros and cons of each, show you some pictures of giant trees, and let you choose which park will best fit your giant tree viewing needs.
Muir Woods National Monument
I vaguely remember visiting Muir Woods as a ten year old, so I was keen to go back now that David is conveniently located within a day’s drive of the park. Located ~12 miles north of San Francisco, this park is a pain in the @$$ to get to if you’re coming from the south, and is subsequently also VERY BUSY. Visiting in the winter certainly alleviates much of the foot traffic that is swarming the park in the summer… but it was still, like, pretty busy.
We arrived around 9am on a Sunday in mid-December and got a spot in the second parking lot, which is a short walk from the visitor’s center and entrance. Apparently in 2018 you won’t need to worry about arriving early to grab a parking spot because reservations will be required (I probably wouldn’t even attempt to visit this place in the summer…).
The main hiking loop (Redwood Creek trail) was busy but manageable, especially earlier in the morning. Making the assumption that most people are too lazy to get up and get out of the house first thing in the morning almost always pays off 🙂 . People are also too lazy to walk more than a half mile or so, so if you want to get away from the crowds all you need to do is walk slightly off the main path. Like… very slightly.
Of course, the biggest trees are in the main heavily-trafficked loop, so hit the loop early and leave yourself time to explore the other trails later in the day, when all of the lazy plebes start showing up.
There is a fairly extensive trail system around Muir Woods, but most of those trails take you out of the old growth forest and away from the giant redwoods. We did a short-ish loop (~5 miles), taking the Redwood Creek trail to the Ben Johnson trail and back via the Dipsea trail. The Dipsea trail has a dramatically different landscape than the Redwood Creek and Ben Johnson trails, with views of the Pacific ocean and dry, desert-like bushes and small trees. Also some telephone poles… womp womp.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Located 30-ish minutes from Santa Cruz, Big Basin is California’s oldest state park and is the only location with super old growth coastal redwoods south of the Bay Area. Big Basin has a more extensive trail system than Muir Woods and also has the advantage of not being 12 miles from San Francisco. This place is still pretty busy, though (but not Muir Woods busy)!
The main giant redwood loop trail in Big Basin is conveniently and creatively called Redwood Loop trail. We though the redwoods in Big Basin actually looked bigger than the ones in Muir Woods??? There are some impressively giant trees in there, y’all. The most giantest trees have convenient signs providing the circumference and height of the tree, since you can’t even truly see or appreciate just how giant they are.
You can also appreciate their giantness with relatively fewer people than Muir Woods. And again, if you want some more solitude, just hike on literally any other trail in the park…
One of the park employees suggested we hike the Pine Mountain trail to Buzzard’s Roost since it was our first time in the park (see map at bottom of brochure). This trail leads out of the redwood forest onto the highest mountain in the park, with views of the entire park and the Pacific Ocean. We found the views from Buzzard’s Roost more impressive than the views from the Dipsea trail in Muir Woods as well. Big Basin, 2, Muir Woods, 0.
If you read the above blog entry, you already know that we preferred Big Basin over Muir Woods (given our limited exploration of both parks). Muir Woods is a much bigger tourist destination and doesn’t have a very extensive trail system within the bounds of the park (because the park is pretty small, y’all!). Muir Woods is also a national monument, so unless you have an annual parks pass (like me, muahaha!) the entry is $10 per visitor, while Big Basin State Park is $10 per vehicle. Also… Big Basin may have BIGGER TREES???, but this is not a verified statement and requires further study.
On the other hand, if you are planning on staying close to San Francisco, or you want to check out the other parks in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods is popular for a reason and will probably satisfy your giant tree viewing needs… probably.