John Muir was awestruck by the redwood canyon that now bears his name. “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world,” gushed the seasoned explorer in a letter to William Kent, the Western philanthropist who in 1908 secured 295 acres for a national preserve a dozen miles north of San Francisco.
That’s quite an endorsement from the man who had climbed North America’s most remote peaks and had already lent his name to a vast Alaskan glacier. But Muir worried that the United States was quickly despoiling its wild places. He and Kent believed preserving a pocket of old-growth forest near the Golden Gate would create a conservation touchstone for generations of travelers.
Their hunch proved right. The coast redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, which now embraces 559 acres, aren’t the oldest or the tallest, but they are hugely popular. Over 1 million people a year make the pilgrimage to gaze on the giants—250 feet tall and up to 1,200 years old—amid their rare fog-kissed ecosystem. Virgin redwoods once covered 2 million acres, from southernmost coastal Oregon to the heart of Big Sur; this grove is part of the 4 percent of old-growth forest that remains, largely in Northern California state and national parks.