In August 2016, in the midst of our Centennial Year goal of eight National Parks, Sean and I unexpectedly visited three National Park Service units that were not National Parks.
After having spent ten days in late May in California, in August Sean and I spent another week in the state. It would ultimately be the second of three trips to California that we would make within nine months. The first trip’s goal was to visit our friend, Patrick, at the Getty and hit two National Parks: Yosemite and Channel Islands. While we were there, Sean mentioned that he’d likely be coming back in a few months as his firm rolled out a new software at its offices across the country. Back in May, I’d dismissed out of hand the idea of returning with him. But as the summer progressed, I found myself persuaded.
Sean would be working four days, two in Los Angeles and two in San Francisco. In addition to the simple fun of joining him, I had a deeper purpose to accompanying him on the trip. I wanted to treat those four days as a sort of professional retreat, taking the time to contemplate and research next steps, choices, and additional pursuits.
We flew out on a Sunday afternoon to Los Angeles and checked into a hotel in Beverly Hills, down the street from Sean’s firm’s LA office. Monday and Tuesday, while Sean was at work, I headed to Venice Beach and Santa Monica, setting up shop in a couple of coffee houses and restaurants each morning and afternoon.
I spent the days in Los Angeles setting up Out In The Parks, my small photography business focused on the National Parks. From a coffee shop in Venice, I registered as a small business in Cook County, Illinois. I built my website and registered my “doing business as” name, successfully claiming “Out In The Parks.” I love the name for its descriptive accuracy and for its double entendre referencing Sean and me as gay men exploring the nation’s Parks.
I laughed at how my days mirrored my days in Chicago. Work in the morning, go for a walk near a huge body of water, work in the afternoon. The Rio Olympics were running at the time. So in addition to our daily duties, Sean and I were keeping an eye on men’s swimming, rugby sevens, men’s gymnastics, etc.
Tuesday evening we flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Although I wasn’t in the window seat, I did manage to snap a photo of Santa Cruz Island, which Sean and Patrick and I had visited in May.
In San Francisco, from the “basecamp” of our hotel in SoMa, the daily rhythm was the same, although what I was working on was different. My days were focused on professional development and assessing the direction and shape of my career in conservation communications.
Thursday evening, now done with his four days of professional responsibilities, Sean met me for a drink after work. Then we walked over to pay a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore. Twenty-year-old Brandon on his only other visit to San Francisco had made the pilgrimage seventeen years earlier in order to honor Kerouac and Ginsburg. Thirty-seven-year-old Brandon was there to to pay tribute to Gary Snyder, the Beat poet of my adulthood, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Turtle Island, and still a powerful voice for nature, the wild, and Americans’ relationship with the continent of North America.
Afterward, we dined in Chinatown before heading to an Air B&B in Hayes Valley where we’d be staying through Sunday.
Our plan was to spend Friday exploring Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore, neither a step toward completing our mission of the fifty-nine National Parks, but each important in our understanding of the Park System and the continent. Then on Saturday and Sunday, we’d explore San Francisco.
Muir Woods National Monument was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect a small grove of Coast Redwoods between Mount Tamalpais and the Pacific Ocean north of San Francisco. The tiny Monument, only 554 acres, protects old growth forest, Redwood Creek, and the adjacent slopes of Redwood Canyon.
By the early twentieth century, most of the Coast Redwoods in the Bay Area had been logged, but because of its inaccessibility, a grove along Redwood Creek had been spared. The grove was part of conversations by a group of San Francisco conservationists who were urging the federal government to establish a National Park on and around Mount Tamalpais. One of the conservationists, a businessman named William Kent, was so enthusiastic that he purchased the land from the Tamalpais Land and Water Company of Sausalito in 1905.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the water company wanted to dam Redwood Creek and flood the canyon to create a reservoir (not unlike, but on a much smaller scale, the scheme that would eventually lead to the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park). They threatened William Kent with eminent domain and took him to court. Kent reached out to an acquaintance, Gifford Pinchot, then head of the U.S. Forest Service under Roosevelt. Pinchot made the president aware of Kent’s efforts to protect the grove of Redwoods. In January 1908, Kent triumphed over the water company by donating much of his land along Redwood Creek to the federal government. Roosevelt promptly declared the gifted land a National Monument, the first ever established on land donated to the federal government for protection.
Today, the tiny Monument is incorporated into the patchwork of lands that comprise Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In 2016, Muir Woods National Monument received over 1.1 million visitors.
We were two of those.
Friday morning, August 12, we rose early and walked over to the Enterprise near where we were staying. We rented a little blue Hyundai just as they opened, stopped back at the apartment briefly, and were soon headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge. We crossed the Golden Gate in heavy fog, and then emerged on the Marin headlands. We’d left early since we knew that Muir Woods National Monument was immensely popular. It was part of the reason we’d decided to go as early as possible and on Friday, not Saturday. Nevertheless, as we approached the exit for the Monument, digital signage informed motorists that the parking lot at Muir Woods was already full.
We’d have been more than happy to take the shuttle buses from Sausalito, but they didn’t run on Friday. So we decided to give it a shot anyway.
We wound through the rolling foothills of Mount Tamalpais, entering, leaving, and reentering Golden Gate National Recreation Area. At the turnoff for Muir Woods, the road descended through ridges covered with chaparral. When we reached Muir Woods, the main parking lot was indeed full, but the gravel-covered spill-over lot, less than a quarter mile down the road, had plenty of room. Happily, we parked, shouldered our day packs, and walked down the connector path to the main entrance.
There were lots of people at Muir Woods National Monument. These people were of an array of ethnicities and ages. It did my heart good to see so many different types of people enjoying the Monument. That said, I had a decision to make: would I approach my photography in the Monument as I traditionally did, often masking the presence of other people, or would I blithely snap away, documenting the throng. Ultimately, I decided to take my usual approach. There is definitely part of me that regrets my decision all these months later. But the introvert in me is unenthused about participating in the tradition of street photography of often unwitting subjects. I’m more comfortable capturing plants, animals, and landscapes. So that is what I did at Muir Woods.
The decision to go to Muir Woods on this trip was an interesting one in the context of our larger odyssey. Once I’d decided to accompany Sean to California, he started advocating for Muir Woods. I briefly flirted with the idea of bolting out to Lassen Volcanic National Park, but that has always been one of the Parks I’m most excited to visit, and finally hitting it as a quick overnight felt deeply wrongheaded.
So instead we decided to take a day and drive up the California coast north of San Francisco and stopping at Muir Woods and Point Reyes.
The vast majority of visitors experience Muir Woods on a series of trails and boardwalks, and so did we.
Along the first half of the route, there were signs introducing the forest ecosystems, the ecology of the Redwoods, and the history of the Monument. There were also signs encouraging visitors to be quiet and respectful of others.
Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet. Giant Sequoias are the largest by mass. And Bristlecone Pines are the oldest. All three are found in California, but they each need very different habitats and support different understories of other plants and animals.
The oldest Redwoods in the fossil record are 144 million years old, dating to the very beginning of the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs reached their maximum biodiversity. They once thrived across the northern hemisphere on the ancient northern supercontinent, Laurasia, but now Redwoods exist only as the Coast Redwood of California and the Dawn Redwood of China.
Coast Redwoods need multiple conditions to survive and thrive. They are averse to heat and cold, so they need the tempering fogs of northern California. Not only does fog from the Pacific provide ground moisture during the summer, but Redwood leaves are able to pull moisture from the fog so the tree doesn’t need to expend extra energy pulling moisture up from its roots.
Redwoods also need flood. In spite of the fog, the trees need a steady source of water that seasonally floods, soaking the roots.
And the trees need fire to clear the understory, allowing their seedlings to grow toward the sunlight streaming from the canopy.
Seeds, however, are not the only, or even the primary, method that the trees use to reproduce. Young trees develop burls, knots of dense, live wood, at their bases. The burls stand at the ready, for centuries, to send up new shoots. Many Redwoods are clustered in families of adjacent trees that all developed from one original burl. These trees are, genetically, the same tree. If the original tree is injured, the burl sets the new sprouts up to take its place.
Redwoods are protected from the fire that their seeds need by thick, fibrous bark full of tannic acid.
Muir Woods is an intact, old growth forest with mature trees up to six-hundred years old, snags (or dead standing trees), and a range of younger trees. Living near the south of the historic range of the Redwood, the trees in Muir Woods are not champions of the species. The tallest here is 250 feet, while the tallest living Redwood known rises 379 feet. But an intact forest ecosystem so close to a major urban area makes it all the more special.
After we reached the end of the paved trail, we turned left onto Hillside Trail, which climbed up above Redwood Creek and then wound along taking us back to the starting point.
As we walked we spotted a Black-Tailed Deer just off the trail. Even with all the people enjoying the Monument, wildlife was right there with us.
Sometimes burls are not low on the trees to provide new sprouts. Sometimes they are high up on mature trees.
Hillside Trail provided us with views into the canopy of the Redwoods.
Soon we had descended and were walking again along Redwood Creek.
We passed through Founders Grove and stopped before the Pinchot Tree, named in honor of first forester Gifford Pinchot. Ironically, just as Pinchot was intervening to save Redwood Creek’s grove, he was advocating to inundate Hetch Hetchy Valley. Sean and I had now witnessed firsthand the drawbacks and inconsistencies of Pinchot’s “wise use” philosophy for the Forest Service. Here in Muir Woods we saw the fruit of his preservationist predilections, just as in Yosemite we had gazed out on the devastation wrought by his shortsightedness.
Although Roosevelt had wanted to name the Monument Kent Woods after William Kent, without whom these trees would never have been saved, Kent insisted that the Monument be dedicated to the prophet publicist of conservation, John Muir. Hence, Muir Woods National Monument honored the legacy of John of the Mountains, a mere six years before the old man’s death in 1914.
Shortly after noon, some three hours after we’d arrived, it was time to say farewell to the tall trees. As we walked back to the overflow parking lot, we passed a long line of cars waiting to get into either parking lot. We were quite wise to have come out first thing.
Our next stop was a place we’d never heard of until we were looking at the 3D map in the Muir Woods Visitor Center, Muir Beach, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Appropriately, it was the spot at which Muir Woods’ Redwood Creek spilled into the Pacific Ocean.
Depending on the arrangement of sand, the flow of the creek, and the raging of the ocean, a wetland existed behind the beach. In August, it was dry. We crossed it via bridge, and then turned right and walked out onto the sand.
The beach was surrounded by the low foothills of Mount Tamalpais as they reached the sea. To the south they were part of the protected federal land. To the north, there was an inholding of private home developments running up the hill.
The beach itself was in a bit of a protected cove. A large group of paddleboarders was strung out across the sand. But almost no one was in the water.
The cause of the human reluctance to enter the surf was an entire pod of Common Dolphins that were feeding quite close to shore.
Everyone was watching the Dolphins, including the seabirds. Two men were standing near us, and one said to his companion, “I’ve been coming to this beach for over twenty years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Video: Brandon Hayes
After barely twenty-five minutes, we said farewell to Muir Beach and drove up to an overlook on the northern bluffs.
A trail led out to a panoramic observation point high above the surf.
The property had been held by the federal government because it housed a series of observation bunkers where the military watched the Pacific Coast during World War Two. Now, like Muir Beach, it was part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which was established in 1972. It protects over 80,ooo acres including the Presidio and Alcatraz Island. In 2016, Golden Gate National Recreation Area was the most visited National Park Service unit in the nation with 15,638,777 visitors…including the two of us.
Fog clung to the horizon and to points up and down the coast, but the promontory we stood on was brilliantly sunny.
In the distance, we could see San Francisco enjoying its Friday lunch hour. We headed back to the car and turned north along the coast to our afternoon goal: Point Reyes National Seashore.