One of the last remaining stands of original red-wood forest easily accessible to the visitor is the Muir Woods in California. It occupies a picturesque canyon on the slope of Mount Tamalpais, north of the Golden Gate and opposite San Francisco, from which it is comfortably reached by ferry and railroad. It was rescued from the axe by William Kent of California, who, jointly with Mrs. Kent, gave it to the nation as an exhibit of the splendid forest which once crowded the shores of San Francisco Bay. It is named after John Muir, to whom this grove was a favorite retreat for many years.
It exhibits many noble specimens of the California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, cousin of the giant sequoia. Some of them attain a height of three hundred feet, with a diameter exceeding eighteen feet. They stand usually in clusters, or family groups, their stems erect as pillars, their crowns joined in a lofty roof, rustling in the Pacific winds, musical with the songs of birds. Not even in the giant sequoia groves of the Sierra have I found any spot more cathedral-like than this. Its floor is brown and sweet-smelling, its aisles outlined by the tread of generations of worshippers. Its naves, transepts, alcoves, and sanctuaries are still and dim, yet filled mysteriously with light.
The Muir Woods is a grove of noble redwoods, but it is much more. Apart from its main passages, in alcove, gateway, and outlying precinct it is an exhibit of the rich Californian coast forest. The Douglas fir here reaches stately proportions. Many of the western oaks display their manifold picturesqueness. A hundred lesser trees and shrubs add their grace and variety. The forest is typical and complete. Though small in scope it is not a remnant but naturally blends into its surroundings. The shaded north hill slopes carry the great trees to the ridge line; the southern slope exhibits the struggle for precedence with the Mountain shrubs. At the lower end one bursts out into the grass country and the open hills. Every feature of the loveliest of all forests is at hand: the valley floor with its miniature trout-stream overhung with fragrant azaleas; the brown carpet interwoven with azaleas and violets. There is the cool decoration of many ferns.
The straight-growing redwoods compel a change of habit in the trees that would struggle toward a view of the sky. Mountain-oaks and madrona are straighttrunked and clear of lower branches. There is rivalry of the strong and protection for the weak.
The grove is, in truth, a complete expression in little of Nature’s forest plan. The characteristics of the greater redwood forests which require weeks or months to compass and careful correlation to bring into perspective, here are exhibited within the rambling of a day. The Muir Woods is an entity. Its meadow borders, its dark ravines, its valley floor, its slopes and hilltops, all show fullest luxuriance and perfect pro-portion. The struggle of the greater trees to climb the hills is exemplified as fully as in the great exhibits of the north, which spread over many miles of hill slope; here one may see its range in half an hour.
The coloring, too, is rich. The rusty foliage and bark, the brighter green of the shrubs, the brown carpet, the opal light, stirs the spirit. The powerful individuality of many of its trees is the source of never-ending pleasure. There is a redwood upon the West Fork which has no living base, but feeds, vampire-like, through anther’s veins; or, if you prefer the figure of family dependence so strikingly exemplified in these woods, has been rescued from destruction by a brother. The base of this tree has been completely girdled by fire. Impossible to draw subsistence from below, it stands up from a burned, naked, slender foundation. But another tree fell against it twenty-five or thirty feet above the ground, in some far past storm, and lost its top; this tree pours its sap into the veins of the other to support its noble top. The twin cripples have become a single healthy tree.
One of the most striking exhibits of the Muir Woods is its tangle of California laurel. Even in its deepest recesses, the bays, as they are commonly called, reach great size. They sprawl in all directions, bend at sharp angles, make great loops to enter the soil and root again; sometimes they cross each other and join their trunks; in one instance, at least, a large crownless trunk has bent and entered head first the stem of still a larger tree.
There are greater stands of virgin redwoods in the northern wilderness of California which the ruthless lumberman has not yet reached but is approaching fast; these are inland stands of giants, crowded like battalions. But there is no other Muir Woods, with its miniature perfection.