Muir Woods shares history with parks
SAN FRANCISCO – The roots of Muir Woods National Monument are tied to National Park Service history.
William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thatcher Kent, purchased the land in 1905 in order to protect the redwood trees in the area. Kent would eventually serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in 1916, would introduce legislation creating the National Park Service.
In order to ensure the lives of the trees, they donated the land to the federal government.
The purchase, however, was almost accidental.
Kent was reluctant to purchase the land, but according to John Hart’s book “Muir Woods: A National Monument,” Kent “found himself unable to walk away.”
“The beauty of the place attracted me, and got on my mind,” Kent said. “I could not forget the situation.”
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt used the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim the area a national monument. Kent requested the park be named in honor of conservationist John Muir – and the area became known as Muir Woods National Monument.
Muir, a naturalist who dedicated his life to preserve America’s wilderness, wrote a book in 1901 titled “Our National Parks.” He was also the founder of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s most influential grassroots environmental organizations, and most notably helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park.
“The park itself is a monument to Muir Woods,” said Nathan Campbell, a national parks enthusiast who has visited Muir Woods about seven times in the past two years.
Tim Jordan, a park ranger for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, considers the woods an “inspiring” area.
Jordan’s work with the National Park Service was almost accidental. Nearly six years ago, he visited Muir Woods National Monument to work on a video documentary project.
“This was my first national park experience,” he said. “I had never been out here before and I was doing a video documentary about the restoration of the [Redwood Creek] Watershed here and they said ‘you have to get to Muir Woods.’ So I came, and I was just floored with the trees.”
The trees and the atmosphere of the Muir Woods fascinated Jordan, so much that he joined Muir Woods as a park ranger.
“I was just floored with the trees,” he said. “So I just started getting involved with the park service and that eventually led to a job, or at least part of it, and now I get to see nature every day and talk to all sorts of wonderful people from all over the world and they’re just all excited to be here.”
Jordan explained why he loved the park when he first joined and why he loves his job.
“I love it here,” he said. “You have all these fabulous trees. So I mean it’s an inspiring environment.”
Among other activities he participates in at the park, Muir enjoys learning about the park’s history and explaining it to others.
The Monuments at Muir Woods
At Muir Woods, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, there are four monuments or memorials – each depicting or commemorating different people or significant events.
All of the monuments have a plaque depicting the surrounding areas or designated tree’s importance.
For Jordan, the plaques symbolize the beginning of the conservationist movement in America and the different schools of thought that became popular at the time.
“If you think about the time that this happened, there was no conservation movement in America, and there were a lot of different ideas about what the conservation movement in America should be and so there were these different schools of thought,” Jordan said.
Gifford Pinchot was a great founding figure of American forestry.
At a 1903 meeting in nearby Mill Valley, Kent called a Mount Tamalpais National Park Association into order. Pinchot was present at that meeting.
Pinchot was an influential figure to help get Muir Woods to where it is today.
“There is at Muir Woods a great tree dedicated to Gifford Pinchot, without whose help, indeed, it might no longer stand,” wrote John Hart in his book, “Muir Woods: A National Monument.”
In 1910, the Sierra Club placed a plaque at the tree’s base commemorating Pinchot for his work.
According to Jordan, the Pinchot plaque is perhaps the most important in the area.
“It’s probably the most significant in our park – the Pinchot tree,” Jordan said. “That area is under construction because they’re building more decking up there, so you can’t really get up to see the memorial itself. The monument itself was dedicated to Pinchot, who was the first director of the Forest Service.”
The exact date the memorial plaque will reopen is unknown.
United Nations Monument
In 1945 – following the delegation that came out to pay respects to Franklin D. Roosevelt to during the United Nations (UN) charter signing – a plaque was installed at Muir Woods.
President Roosevelt died on April 15, 1945, before he was to open the United Nations Conference. In turn, on May 19, delegates held a commemorative ceremony in tribute to his memory at Muir Woods’ Cathedral Grove.
On May 19, 1995, the United Nations and the National Park Service held a commemorative ceremony to honor FDR’s life and the founding of the United Nations, as well as celebrate its achievements in the 50 years since it was established.
Later, on July 8, 1996, an 800-year-old redwood tree fell in the Cathedral Grove of the Muir Woods. Visitors at Muir Woods’ Cathedral Grove, where the plaque commemorating FDR and the UN was placed, witnessed the 200-foot tree topple to the ground.
According to Jordan, redwood trees fall rather regularly.
“Generally, a tree falls once every year and a half or so…” Jordan said. “The tree [near Cathedral Grove] had started crackling, and they closed off the area. And, when they realized it was going to fall going uphill, they opened it up and [visitors] watched the tree fall gently to its rest.”
According to the National Park Service’s website, “The tree will remain where it fell, providing nutrients to the soil, nesting for birds, bedding for plants and water for everything. It can be viewed today in its final resting place just to the left of the United Nations plaque honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Cathedral Grove of Muir Woods.”
The Bicentennial Tree had a plaque placed in front of it in 1976 – because experts at the time were searching for a tree that had been alive for 200 years.
The Bicentennial Tree was found and a plaque was placed in front of it, because the tree happened to share the same age as the United States at the time the plaque was designated.
“The tree was declared the Bicentennial Tree in 1976, when [experts] were looking for a tree that had been alive 200 years,” Jordan said.
For Norma Smith, a Muir Park visitor, the Bicentennial Tree is an impressive landmark. She appreciates that the park experts marked that tree to honor the United States’ birthday.
“It’s really cool that there’s a tree in this park as old as our country,” she said.
Kent, the advocate of the 1916 law that created the National Park Service and one of the fathers of Muir Woods, was rumored to have a favorite tree in the area.
“The Kent Tree is rumored to be William Kent [the park benefactor’s] favorite tree,” Jordan said. “In 1928, they named the tree after him following his death.”
According to “Muir Woods: National Monument,” “William Kent is memorialized at only one spot in Muir Woods: up the canyon of Fern Creek, on a plaque on a rock beside the log of an enormous Douglas-fir.”
In addition, volunteers from the Tamalpais Conservation Club placed the monument in 1929.
“This tree, Kent’s favorite, was once taller than any of the monument’s redwoods,” Hart says in his book. “In the winter of 1981-82, a storm tore off the top of the fir. In 2003, the giant fell. A redwood, you can’t help thinking, would be flourishing yet.”
Though the tree in his honor fell, Kent is still remembered for his numerous contributions to the park and to the National Park Service.
For UM student and national park aficionado Erika Glass, Kent symbolizes the start of the National Park Service and the importance of the federal establishments.
“Kent is a classic American hero,” Glass said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have so much natural beauty in our country. One day, I hope to visit Muir Woods and see the same trees that Kent fell in love with.”
If You Go:
Muir Woods National Monument
- Directions: Muir Woods National Monument is 12 miles north of Golden Gate Bridge via U.S 101 and California Highway 1.
- Hours of operation: Muir Woods is open from 8 a.m. to sunset, year-round.
- For more information: Golden Gate National Recreation Area manages the park. For more information, visit http://nps.gov/muwo/ or call 415-388-2595.
- Parking: Parking is limited. Rangers advise visiting on weekdays during the morning or late afternoon. Approach roads are steep and winding; vehicles over 35 feet long are prohibited.
- Public transportation: Public transportation (national park buses) runs from May through October, on weekends only. Jackets are advised because daytime temperatures range, on average, from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pinchot Tree Plaque
- Date: 1910
- Purpose: In 1910, the Sierra Club placed a plaque at the tree’s base commemorating Pinchot for his work as the first director of the Forest Service.
- Directions: The Pinchot Tree Plaque is located within Muir Woods. It is under construction at the moment (the park service is adding additional decking) and the reopen date is not known.
United Nations Plaque
- Date: May 19, 1945; May 19, 1995; July 8, 1996
- Purpose: A fallen tree and a plaque near Cathedral Grove commemorate Franklin D. Roosevelt and the founding of the United Nations.
- Directions: The United Nations plaque is located about a half-mile away from the parking lot of the entrance of Muir Woods.
- Date: 1976
- Purpose: This tree commemorates the 200-year anniversary of the United States of America. The tree is the same age as the country.
- Directions: The plaque and the tree are located within Muir Woods.
- Date: The plaque and the tree were designated in 1928, following the death of William Kent (the park’s benefactor). The tree fell in 2003, but the plaque remains.
- Purpose: The tree is said to have been Kent’s favorite at Muir Woods.
- Directions: The plaque and the site of the fallen tree is located up the canyon of Fern Creek, and the plaque is on a rock beside the log of an enormous Douglas-fir.