2012-01-28 "Muir Woods National Monument upgrades" by Carl Nolte from "San Francisco Chronicle"
Winter has returned to Muir Woods, a famous redwood forest only 11 miles from the Golden Gate. The first rains of the new year produced new life in Redwood Creek, which flows through the woods. Even a handful of steelhead and coho salmon have returned from the Pacific Ocean to spawn at the base of trees more than a thousand years old.
But Muir Woods National Monument is an ancient forest with modern problems. The park had 834,356 visitors in 2010, more people than the population of San Francisco.
They all came to see a stand of big trees in a park that is less than 1 square mile. And a vast majority of them - more than 70 percent - came by private car, producing epic traffic jams and a hunt for the elusive parking space that made the approach to this tranquil forest look like a shopping mall parking lot at Christmas time.
Most summer days, and even on warm winter days, cars have to park far down the road in Frank Valley, and visitors face a long hike up a public road before they even get to the woods.
This year, the National Park Service is taking steps to increase public transportation to Muir Woods and has embarked on a program to improve what it likes to call the visitor experience. It is a new day at Muir Woods, which became a national monument in 1908, "preserved forever for public use and enjoyment."
Old parking lots have been moved, trails paved with asphalt have been replaced by wooden walkways and benches, the visitor center has a new look, there are new signs to explain the ecology of the woods. Even the food service has been upgraded, emphasizing healthy food, much of it locally produced.
"We have decided to unpave paradise," said Mia Monroe, the supervisor of Muir Woods National Monument.
A forest canopy -
One of the first steps was to move a parking lot away from the main entrance to the woods. It seemed odd at first to try to improve parking by eliminating a parking lot, but the old lot was turned into a sort of meadow - "a break in the forest canopy," said Brian Aviles, a senior National Park Service planner. Now, groups have a place to gather, to wait for friends, to watch the wildlife "or to take a deep breath," Monroe said.
Muir Woods is off the beaten path, several miles from Highway 101. About 20 percent of visitors come in tour buses, and, until 2005, when the Park Service contracted for shuttle buses from Marin City and the nearby Manzanita parking lot, there was no public transportation.
Shuttle buses run every 20 minutes from May to about September. Last year, that was not nearly enough to handle the crowds.
Aviles said the Park Service hopes to increase the service so that a bus leaves every 15 minutes in summer, or maybe every 10 minutes on peak days. Starting in May, the Park Service also will run buses that will connect with ferryboats in Sausalito.
Because the roads leading to Muir Woods are narrow and curvy, only small buses can be used. There are not many signs telling where to catch the buses, so visitors, many of them foreign tourists, don't even know the bus service exists.
Last year was the best yet for the shuttle buses, but only 47,000 people rode them. The price was right: $3 for adults, $1 for seniors and kids.
New boardwalks -
Once inside the woods, the boardwalks lead deep into a gentle valley ringed with old-growth trees. Muir Woods was never been logged, though some of the trees bear the scars of fires that raged centuries ago.
The woods endured pretty much untouched until the turn of the 20th century, when Rep. William Kent bought the forest to prevent it from being cut down to make way for a reservoir. He gave it to the United States. It was accepted as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt and named in honor of John Muir.
"This is not just an old-growth forest, but a conservationist story," Monroe said.
1,021 years old -
One of the most popular displays is a cut slice of a redwood that fell in 1930. Scientists marked important dates in human history on the tree rings: 1492, 1776, the California Gold Rush of 1849. When the tree fell, it was 1,021 years old.
"You always get a feeling of scale here," said Monroe. "It comes from being near very tall trees and very old trees. There is a feeling of tranquillity, as well."
There is also new life among the old trees. On a walk in the woods last week, visitors came upon a group of six men and women, all wearing hip waders and carrying long wooden staffs. The group, led by fishery biologist Michael Reichmuth, had been checking Redwood Creek for signs of spawning fish.
Evidence of fish -
There was a lot of concern about the dry winter. The fish usually turn up in Muir Woods about Thanksgiving, but this fall, the creek was too low. The fish - steelhead and coho salmon - come from the North Pacific, through the surf at Muir Beach, into a small lagoon there and then swim 3 miles or so up Frank Valley to Muir Woods where they spawn.
Reichmuth said they didn't see many fish - four steelhead, two coho "and two others we just got a glimpse of." But it was encouraging, he said, to see that the fish had returned again to where they first spawned.
Today, a group of volunteers will be weeding, planting native plants, and tending to trails and the forest floor during the annual Muir Woods Earth Day.
Visitors walked quietly through the woods, posing for pictures next to the big trees, asking the rangers questions, sitting on benches and just looking. Liz Pritchard was there with her family, all passengers on the British cruise ship Aurora, bound from England around the world. They were only in California for a day.
They couldn't pass up Muir Woods, they said. The biggest trees in all England are only half the size of these. "It's mystical here," Pitchard said. "I think these woods are fantastic."
Winter is the time for Bay Area people to visit Muir Woods, Monroe said. "Come in midweek, if you can, come on our full moon walks, when the woods are open at night.
"You will hear the owls hoot, watch the moonlight in the woods. You will have the woods to yourself."