San Francisco and Redwood Trip with Kids
March 13, 2015 3:48 PM   Subscribe

My family is flying in to San Francisco at the end of June. We have 7 days in the area. None of us have ever been to San Francisco before. We also have a strong desire to see the Redwoods, but we are confused when we look up information on them because there seem to be so many different parks that all claim they have Redwoods. So we are looking for advice on what to see and do, and the best way to see the Redwoods from the San Francisco area.

We are a family of 6, with kids from 12-2. We do not want to camp or do any major hiking because of the young kids. We plan on renting a car in San Francisco, but if we could get around using public transit that would be great. We want to see the major sights in San Francisco and also see Redwoods. Any other recommendations such as best places to eat or stay would also be appreciated.

The confusing part to me is that I can't tell if we need to drive up north to Redwood National Forest, or if we would be better served either going to somewhere like Muir Woods or even Sequoia National Forest.
posted by bove to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of the forests here do indeed have redwood trees, but I assume that you want to see old-growth redwoods. For that the best resource is
posted by thewumpusisdead at 3:55 PM on March 13, 2015

Muir Woods is the closest place to SF to really walk in a redwood forest. That is why it is a very busy place to visit, especially on the weekend. I'd suggest visiting there on a weekday.

There are good public transit option to the parking lot- on the weekends you'd be foolish not use them, as the parking fills up very early in the morning, and the traffic can be quite bad if the weather is nice, since the road is shared with the beach-going traffic.

Plan for 10-15 degree colder weather on the trip, as there's little sunshine down in the forest canyon.

Afterward, when you're ready to warm up, take your car out to Stinson or Muir beach for some sun (if there's no fog that day). Or drive up Mt. Tamalpais so you can really see the bay- you can drive to within a half mile of the summit. The view from the top can be amazing even if the fog is in, as long as you are above it.
posted by Four Flavors at 4:12 PM on March 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Muir Woods is going to be your best bet -- it's only about 45 minutes from downtown SF. There is a paved, flat trail around some of the most picturesque Redwoods with plenty of benches and stopping places. (There are also harder, uphill hiking trails that leave from the main Muir Woods area which are neat because you can see the levels of the forest.)

Public transit exists to Muir Woods but it's tricky and has multiple segments. Even the NPS calls taking public transit there "challenging." (But if you're up for an adventure, here's the NPS brochure on Carless Ways to Muir Woods.) There are plenty of bus tours that go to the woods and could pick you up in downtown SF, but with six people that could get pricy.

My recommendation would be to rent a car for at least that day, choose a weekday, and drive out early (and return early) so that you avoid traffic on the GG Bridge. It is a pretty curvy drive but on a weekday morning it shouldn't be too bad. Agree with Four Flavors above that a side trip to Stinson or Muir beach would be fun to do.

Bring sweaters -- it gets chilly and the temperature changes drastically depending on altitude and surroundings!
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 4:27 PM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yup, Muir Woods! Rent a car that day and try to get there early. During the week is best if you can choose that rather than a weekend. You can make it a day trip and stay at your SF home base instead of having to re-pack and haul the family to stay overnight somewhere further away.
posted by quince at 4:30 PM on March 13, 2015

Yes, Muir Woods. You will be going against commute traffic, so don't worry too much about that. I agree a weekday is best. On your way out of the city, there is a rest stop right at the end of the Golden Gate Bridge -- it can make a quick stop for pictures of the bridge and city.

In addition to Muir Woods, Stinson Beach and (possibly) Point Reyes, you may want to check out the Bay Area Discovery Museum (best for kids up to 8, so your 12 y/o may be bored..)

Have a great trip! I grew up in the SF Bay Area and I love Muir Woods.
posted by elmay at 4:40 PM on March 13, 2015

You can also try Big Basin. It can be a little bit quieter and has an impressive set of newer and some old growth redwoods. They have very simple (one mile-ish) hikes that would be easy for kids.

Another idea would be to start in Santa Cruz at the boardwalk and take the Big Trees steam train through the redwoods to Felton and back. The ride passes through old and new growth forests in the Henry Cowell State Park, and is quite pretty. And when you get back to your car at the boardwalk, games and a wooden rollercoaster await. Santa Cruz is about 1.5 hours south of SF on scenic Highway 1, so if you time it correctly, you may get to see a nice beach sunset, too!
posted by stillmoving at 4:43 PM on March 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're renting a car anyway, you may consider Armstrong Redwoods State Park. You can get there using public transit (I've taken the the bus all the way to Point Reyes Station and the Bear Valley Visitor Center) but it's a long slog, even without little ones.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 4:43 PM on March 13, 2015

I was in San Jose for business a few weeks ago & took advantage of the weekend to drive up to Muir Woods. What others are saying about parking & crowds on weekends is absolutely true, plus the road to the forest itself is full of switchbacks & other difficult driving; it took me forever both ways. If you plan on going to Muir Beach be sure to leave the woods early enough to spend some time there before they close the gate, which was shortly after sunset.

The trees are spectacular & well worth the hassle though.
posted by scalefree at 5:29 PM on March 13, 2015

Another vote for Muir Woods. Bring your own car & go super early for a few reasons: 1) redwoods are at their best in the cool (bonus if there's fog).

2) It will take you longer than you think to get there (I can't tell you how many tourists I've had to break the news to that that town they're going to visit that's only 50 miles up the road is actually close to two hours away)

3) parking nightmare later in the day (plus, it's nice when it's not full of school buses full of tourists)

4) Go to Mt Tam or someplace afterwards, when the tourists start arriving in droves (heck, maybe you can sell your parking spot for some quick cash. /joke) I haven't been there in about 2 weeks but last time I was there, the road from Muir Woods to Stinson had slid in. If that's still the case, it'll be pretty long trek to get to the beach. I don't personally think it's a better tourist beach than, say Ft. Cronkite's near Sausalito. I'd probably head back and visit Ft. Cronkite on your way home. It has a pretty beach and a (steep) hike up to the old WWII batteries that give a great view of the ocean and SF. Plus, the second entrance to the Townsend Batteries has a "pond" chock full of newts, or it used to. I love newts.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:45 PM on March 13, 2015

Guerneville is a bit of a drive, but I agree about Armstrong Redwoods. It's very accessible for kids and stuff, there are a bunch of basic trails that are all paved and even wheelchair-friendly. Alternatively you can drive to Big Basin in the Santa Cruz mountains, which is a bit closer than Guerneville and Armstrong. Basically seconding stillmoving and potsmokinghippieoverlord.

I like the idea of doing the Felton train, and you can combine it with visiting the Boardwalk, and frankly I would treat it as a trip to the redwoods, then surprise your kids with the Boardwalk. There's lots of dinner options in SC, too, then drive 17 back to the city and your kids will probably sleep the whole way. So yeah, take one day to see the redwoods and also the Boardwalk.
posted by rhizome at 6:06 PM on March 13, 2015

Muir Woods would be a great choice; it's the closest to SF.

Those trees are *so big*. There's nothing else like them.
posted by Mjolnir at 6:20 PM on March 13, 2015

Sequoia National Park has the biggest tree but it doesn't fit in easily with San Francisco.
posted by notned at 6:20 PM on March 13, 2015

Best answer: My SO and I went to SF about a year ago. The very first thing you should do after you check into your hotel and drop off your bags is march down to Market Street and this little box office (it was hard for us to find) and buy everyone a Citypass. It's $100 and it lets you use just about every mode of public transportation (buses, the street cars along the piers, the cable cars, etc.) in the city as much as you want for 7-days. It's the best $100 you will spend. It's worth it just to be able to hop on a cable car instead of walking a block uphill because the hills are seriously steep. With that you can do without a rental car for anything inside the city. There are a couple of rental car places near Bush St. and Powell St. so you have someplace local where you can rent a car if you're not going to rent one for the whole week. We took a cab from the airport but took the train back (the BART I think) and I wish we would have taken the train out instead of the cab.

We stayed at the Grant Hotel across the street which was cheap and kind of old but clean and pretty quiet. I would absolutely stay there again. I'm not sure that going there with kids would change my mind.

I also wouldn't miss the Exploratorium. It's SF's science museum and appears to have no problem getting funding when Apple and Google are such huge employers in the area. We don't have any kids and we had a blast there. Especially the giant parabolic mirror. There should be a couple for discounted admission in the Citypass booklet (among a ton of others).

The California Academy of Sciences does this "after dark" thing that was a pretty cool way to see it if you're able to ditch the kids one night but they would enjoy it during the day too.

If you haven't booked your Alcatraz tour, book it now. If you try to wait until you get there, it will be too late.

I'll limit myself to one restaurant recommendation because it's a kind of personal for me. The La Trappe cafe has the closest thing you can get to authentic Belgian French fries (where they were invented and the way they are meant to be) without going there yourself. The rest of their food is great too but the fries really did it for me. My mom is from Belgium and I've been there and had the real deal and what they serve is the real deal.

Now, onto your actual question. I really wanted to see some giant redwoods and tromp around in those woods. Muir woods were great. The trees are really huge and pretty cool. It was good enough but, as I understand it, there are places that make the trees in Muir woods look like saplings. The problem is that it's hours worth of driving to get there. We thought about maybe driving out to Sequoia national park, spending the day hiking around, spend the night at a nearby hotel and then driving back to SF the next day but the really big trees were just too far away for us to make it work so we decided that Muir woods would have to do. If you really want to see some truly enormous trees, I would plan on making that a separate vacation and do it right.

It worked out pretty well to rent a car, drive up to Muir woods (and over the Golden Gate bridge on the way out), hike around a bunch, then drive to Sausalito and walk around there a bit on the way back. You rental car company should have a way for you to automatically pay the toll on the Golden Gate bridge but it's worth asking about instead of worrying that you're going to get a ticket from the SFPD for not paying the toll until you look into it since you didn't realize that it's a toll bridge until you were already driving over it. Not that I would know anything about that.

I probably have a bunch more of advice I can give you if you have any follow-up questions.
posted by VTX at 6:30 PM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Muir Woods - I was there on a perfect sunny, just-warm-enough day in January, and it made me fall so in love with the west coast that I eventually moved here.

It didn't hurt that, just as I approached the Golden Gate Bridge, the car radio started blasting out the opening chords to Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild"! Just a magical day all around.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:15 PM on March 13, 2015

nthing Muir Woods, but if you are looking for something closer there is always Redwoods Regional Park. You could go there and then head over to Chabot space Center or Lawrence Hall of Science, for a complete day trip.
posted by Toddles at 8:14 PM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that the coastal redwoods near San Francisco (like in Big Basin park/Muir Woods) are VERY tall and while large in diameter are not generally SUPER GIANT in diameter. If you are looking for the trees that are also giant in diameter, those are giant sequoias and they are found more inland -- like Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Sequoia National Park (each a several-hour drive from SF). I just remember being confused in the coastal redwood forests when I first saw them as to why there weren't any of those trees so big you could put in a tunnel to drive through them.
posted by Mallenroh at 11:00 PM on March 13, 2015

I like the Santa Cruz trip, but you can just go to Roaring Camp and take the little steam train that does a climb up into the redwoods, and then walk about 100 yards afterwards and visit Henry Cowell Redwood park. Traffic in Santa Cruz in June on weekends is a special sort of hell (I am from there take it as gospel)
posted by boilermonster at 10:37 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you go to Sequoia National Forest, you'll be seeing sequoias. If you want to see redwoods it's not the place. They are not the same, and you might want to talk with your family and figure out which trees are the ones they are dreaming of seeing on this trip. Maybe it will turn out you don't want to see the redwoods so much after all.
posted by yohko at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a former tour guide, I'd suggest you just go to Muir Woods. There's plenty of trees there to make your visit worthwhile. And there are THREE trails: a short, medium, and long. In fact, it's possible to hike all the way to Stinson Beach if you need an extra long hike, but not recommended with kids.

However, take one of the tour buses in. Driving down those pretty steep and narrow and winding roads can be a wee bit of a challenge, and parking is very limited.

I personally prefer Super Sightseeing as I've dealt with them for many years. But any operator on the list should be fine.
posted by kschang at 12:38 AM on March 16, 2015

Response by poster: Just thought I would post a final update. We rented a car to go to Muir Woods and we went up on Monday morning. It was absolutely beautiful and was the highlight of our entire trip.

We appreciate all the advice about booking the Alcatraz tour in advance. It was sold out for months when we got there, so we were glad we had booked ahead. Thanks everyone.
posted by bove at 12:14 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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