Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Muir Woods Problem

Leaves in Redwood Creek, November 2013
Last week I read an excellent Bay Nature article describing the changes coming to Muir Woods in 2017. A new reservations system will limit the number of visitors to the main park trailhead -- which effectively means no spur of the moment visits will be allowed.

All week the news swirled around my brain and my feelings about it were about as clouded as a foggy San Francisco summer day. Then over the weekend, I read Summer Brennan's outstanding book The Oyster War. About the Drakes Bay Oyster Company conflict Brennan writes: " was about loss and the seeping panic we feel about that loss." Those words made my confusion drift away and sharpened my thoughts. The Muir Woods Problem is an impossible conundrum and that makes me feel sad.

Muir Woods drew over a million visitors last year, and there is no doubt that redwood lovers from far and wide are a boon to the local economy. But there are just too many people cramming into the park.
How can overcrowding be managed? There is no space for a larger parking lot, and parking along Muir Woods Road increases the possibility of damaging nearby Redwood Creek. Locals turned down proposed satellite parking lots, and I can't say I blame them. Many people already arrive by private bus. The roads into the canyon certainly can not support larger buses. The Muir Woods Shuttle is an option, but there is no true public transportation available into the national monument.

Today most visitors drive to the parking lot, pay their $10, go for a short walk on the paved trail, then leave. Do visits of this nature "count" in the same manner as day-long hikes through Muir Woods (and beyond)? It is not possible to quantify a nature experience (although it is tempting when you rub shoulders with perfumed visitors wielding selfie sticks).

There are other redwood groves in the bay area (some just miles from Muir Woods), and there are ways to circumvent the crowds, fees, and restrictions (for years I have hiked into Muir Woods from Mountain Home). Still, Muir Woods is a special place and should be accessible to locals as well as those traveling from all over the world.

When my son was just over a year old, his adult cousin came into town and wanted to see Muir Woods. After a lovely afternoon, we began to walk back to the car. My son insisted on toddling along the path, where he found a fallen maple leaf. He picked it up and refused to let it go. I know, it's not acceptable to remove anything from Muir Woods. But there was no reasoning with this boy. He clutched that leaf passionately and later fell asleep in the car still holding it tightly. On a subsequent school trip at age 7, when I showed him the famous giant redwood slice, he bent in and kissed it. Maybe these stories could have unfolded in another park with redwoods. But I am so happy remembering his first visits to Muir Woods; we all should have that chance to open ourselves to nature and joy.

I think the park service is right to enact visitation limits to this pristine bubble. The proposed reservation system will likely improve the Muir Woods experience for all visitors. But at what cost?


Ben Peasea said...

Good post. Such a tough problem. It's been out of hand for a number of years. And yet there are times and days and seasons when it's fine. Much like your hike writeups, I've mapped a number of hikes (and rewritten a couple hikes) that start AT Muir Woods; there is no single alternative starting place that solves everything (Mill Valley, Pantoll, Bootjack and Mountain Home are already at capacity). Note the 66 is one of maybe three Marin County bus routes that runs as often as every 10-20 minutes; it does seem to fill a need but should run year-round.

Being an early bird helps a little bit (I once forgot my measuring wheel and passed up a marvelous parking spot 100 feet from the entrance kiosk; of course when I returned I had to park half a mile down the road). The road becomes a fascinating if imperfect pedestrian precinct with entire families strolling, and I like coming into the redwoods from the sunlit, riparian alder forest instead of the convenience of parking in the first lot. But that volume of pedestrians is a tough thing to mix with dozens of drivers looking for parking.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,
Great maps! We bought them ALL a couple of years back and are very happy with the details and everything. Keep up the good work!

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Love Muir Woods. Visited there years ago on my honeymoon.

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