In the land of giants

By Alberto Barrera

Chronicle of a visit to the Muir Woods redwood forest, the history of the park and its racist founder, with references to the recent devastating fires in California and the mistreatment to the near extermination of the native peoples that populated the area.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

One bright Saturday morning we were traveling to San Francisco but niece Lisseth and my daughter Catalina had the idea of ​​visiting Muir Woods National Park, an ancient forest of giant sequoias that is generally shrouded in a layer of sea mist that contributes to a humid environment.

But that day in January 2019 it was bright sun and no clouds. Our family group was traveling from Pittsburg and Walnut Creek, northeast of the Californian bay, and we boarded a bus in Corte Madera city that transported us to Muir Woods. We went up the winding and narrow road to the south side of Mount Tamalpais, whose peak of 784 meters is the highlight in the hills of Marin County, off the Pacific coast of the United States.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

The family group consisted of six adults and four children (grandparents, children and grandchildren) that from the windows we saw the beauty of the place. "The view of the bay is spectacular", my daughter remembered when evoking that trip. An immediate green beauty invaded us, We went up and down the steep terrain to the entrance of the Park where forest guardians explained its value to us.

Muir Woods is part of a huge tree preserve near the Golden Gate Recreation Area, which takes its name from the famous suspension bridge that is 12 miles south and linking the beautiful city of San Francisco, cradle of hippies, love and peace activists in the 60s, with music and marijuana as banners added.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

The beautiful site is owned by the National Park Service and has made headlines in recent weeks for the devastation caused by destructive fires along the California coast., from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the territories of Washington and Oregon states in the far north of the West and that have caused at least 34 dead and hundreds of victims.

More of 20,000 firefighters have fought the accidents aided by trucks and helicopters, but the fires have burned near 2,0 million hectares, devastated some small towns and destroyed some 8,000 households, according to official records.

The proximity of the fires and the intense smoke caused Muir Woods to be closed on 11 September next to the Alcatraz Island and Fort Point tourist sites almost below the Golden Gate land bases, a suspension bridge wonder of 2,7 kilometers long and whose construction of 1933 a 1937 cost 35 million dollars of the time. Smoke filled San Francisco Bay and the entire area was colored a reddish hue.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

"I walked among old coastal redwoods, refreshing their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and raising their tops to reach the sun and mist. Protected as a National Monument since 1908, this primeval forest is a refuge and laboratory, reveal our relationship with the living landscape ", says Muir Woods Park on its website.

So it was. We walked the trails, we breathe fresh and pure air, we admire majestic trees that reach more than 100 meters high, until 7,0 meters in diameter and some are between 800 Y 900 years. A stream of crystalline waters runs through the forest and on the sides the visitor can go up or down the steep terrain or sit and watch.

Little Emma, Nicole and Marcus, encouraged by the forest guardians, searched on maps for what was indicated to them so that in the end they would be given a medal as "friends of the forests".

Photography: Alberto Barrera

We enjoy nature, we learned and admired the giants that makes 150 millions of years ago grew throughout the United States and today they are only found in the cool narrow coastal belt from the Californian county of Monterey, In the south, to Oregon in the north. Before the lumber industry swept them away, it was estimated that the redwood forest was 2,0 million acres (some 8,000 square kilometers).

The original inhabitants of the forest were those of the Miwok tribe, dominated by the Spanish who confined them to the San Rafael mission and many died from living conditions or infected by the diseases brought by the Europeans. The Spanish cut down trees from Muir Woods for the construction of the missions and their houses.

A local history report says indiscriminate logging increased around 1860 with "the gold rush". Sequoia trees were the main source of construction of the massive presence of migrants in search of the precious metal.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

Early 20th century, most of these forests had been cut down. But north of the San Francisco bay, a valley called Redwood Canyon remained uncut, mainly due to its relative inaccessibility and was later rescued and donated as a protected nature reserve.

In the park we feel the pleasant climate and humidity that strengthens the earth in the 295 hectares of redwood park wrapped in a green landscape and that serves as a refuge for 50 bird species such as spotted owls or woodpeckers, 11 bat species, deer, otters, moles and squirrels. Bears once lived, the last of which was seen about 13 years. On our visit we saw birds and some squirrels.

That Saturday we had hundreds of visitors, but according to the records between April and October some 6,000 people every day. At dusk we look for an aperitif and find a place that caters to visitors with coffees, refreshments, bread and other fast food delicacies, as well as memories of the forest and whose funds are for the preservation of the place.

The founder of the national parks near the end of the 19th century was John Muir (1838-1914), a Scottish-born natural history scientist who last July, amid serious racial incidents in America, He was mentioned for his discriminatory comments a century ago against blacks and indigenous peoples.

Source: Alberto Barrera

Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, founded by Muir and dedicated to preserving wilderness lands, He said 23 July that it is "time to tear down some of our own monuments".  Statues of Confederate officers and settlers collapse in a reckoning with racist history after George Floyd's police crime in Minneapolis,  published the NBC television network.

Muir helped spawn the environmental movement and is considered the "father of national parks.", but Brune said on the Sierra Club website: "He made derogatory comments about blacks and indigenous peoples that were based on deeply damaging racist stereotypes".

Photography: Alberto Barrera

The forest is in the mountainous massif of the Monte Tamalpais, a peak in Marin County and home to the local watershed. The name of the Mount was recorded in 1845 and comes from the "Miwok Coast" also known as Mokelumni, Mewuk o Meewok,  small tribes of native peoples.

In the place tribesmen are said to have domesticated dogs, They grew tobacco and were hunters who occupied Northern California, from the plains to the mountains, through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and the Sacramento River Delta, as well as Marin County,  on from Sonoma,  to Contra Costa County.

The Miwoks populated the forest and moved to hunt in Tamalpais, whose name comes from "támal pájiṣ" which literally means “west hill” and there are beliefs that it originates in Spanish “Tamal Country”. Others say Coast Miwok is for “sleeping maiden”,  which is taken from a legend about a virgin girl who inhabited the place.

The place hosted from 1896 a 1930 the "Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods" railway considered “The steepest railway in the world”, it meandered to the top of the hill from the center of Mill Valley until a road was built and cars arrived. The railroad that was standard gauge of 8 miles required geared steam locomotives to climb, they say documents of the history and legends of the place.

The scenic tourist railway covered a distance of 13.18 kilometers on a steep route that climbed picturesque terrain to a tavern at the top that offered tourists accommodation. The train began work in January 1896 and closed in the summer of 1930 after a fire in 1929. Nothing about the fantastic train we saw when we got to the place that made a good impression on us at first glance, but we didn't know his story.

In the middle of the afternoon we decided to leave the beautiful place and continue the tourist trip, eat and have a beer. Soon we left with the pleasant impression and thinking of returning for more details.

Photography: Alberto Barrera

We decided to go to Sausalito, a clean nearby city, of colorful houses built on the hills that surround it. It's modern, cozy and in which the Chilean writer Isabel Allende resided some time ago. Today he lives in San Rafael, a city in the same bay area.

From the seashore we saw in the distance on the other side the beautiful city San Francisco with its tall and modern buildings. Boats, motorboats and modern ferries transport thousands of people who go to their jobs or tourists eager to see the Golden Gate traveling on cold water every day and some stop at Alcatraz Island, old jail and today tourist site.

We went to a deli looking for food and found sandwiches, pasta and salads, of course a fresh beer.

In the pleasant chat in the crowded place Lisseth showed us a tattoo that is stamped on her right arm, down the shoulder, which reflects the family and our old minibus - nicknamed "The Immortal" because it survived bullets, bombs, capsized and was swept away by an angry current of two overflowing rivers in Mejicanos, populous city north of San Salvador- in which we toured the country, Honduras, Guatemala and the trip to Mexico City, when it's almost 30 years she and her two brothers came to California.

That lunch, almost dinner was loaded with emotions, for the pleasant journey in the forest and the history of the tattoo, while through the window we saw from one side the colorful city and the people; from the other the sea with seagulls and pelicans flying over. In the distance the beautiful San Francisco and we talk about the land of the giants, the beautiful and kind redwoods.


In Tamalpais and its surroundings it was born in the decade of 1970 The mountain cycling. The serial murders of several senderistas also occurred between 1979 Y 1980, committed by David Carpenter, known as the “Trailside Killer”, who was sentenced to the gas chamber for five murders and is a prisoner in the San Quintín prison. Although a nice fact is that the forest was the inspiration for the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu who composed in 1995 the three-movement classical guitar piece “In the Woods”.

Also in 1958 the characters played by James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Vertigo" visit the park, but the scene was filmed in Big Basin Redwoods State Park and that same year writer Jack Kerouac talks about hiking through Muir Woods in his novel The Dharma Bums (The Dharma Wanderers).