MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. -- It takes a moment for the realization to sink in: We are 12 miles from San Francisco -- one of the busiest, most bustling, loudest cities -- yet I can't hear a sound.
It's a warm, sunny weekday afternoon, but here beneath Muir Woods' majestic canopy of redwood trees, just a traffic jam north of San Francisco; it's shady, cool and mind-alteringly relaxing.
It has been 100 years since President Theodore Roosevelt declared Muir Woods a national monument, ensuring its preservation as an oasis of natural beauty amid urban chaos.
As we catch our breath on the Oceanview Trail, slightly winded from the gradual, rocky climb, I stare down at the forest floor below, grateful for Roosevelt's foresight.
We're about 600 feet above sea level. From here I can see, but not hear, the creek. We haven't passed any other people in 15 minutes, and the only noise comes from a few birds twittering above and the sound of branches and leaves crackling beneath our feet.
Best of all? We're out of cell-phone range up here. Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- can interrupt this calm.
Muir Woods National Monument's old-growth coastal redwoods, rambling creek and looping trails sit on several hundred acres nestled on the southern side of Mount Tamalpais.
Bathed in the fog that rolls in off the nearby Pacific Ocean, its towering, ancient trees -- the world's tallest living things -- create an alternative universe of cool, misty air; bright sunlight slivers that stream through branches; and soft, rich soil carpeted with twigs, mossy rocks and young seedlings that hint at the forest's future.
Layers of wonder
As we wind our way across the trail, it's impossible not to feel humbled by the park's understated beauty.
At first glance, everything seems to exist in simple earth tones: reddish bark, slick patches of moss and fragrant, muddy soil. But stop and look -- really take it all in -- and the woods come into sharp, full-color focus. It's almost spring, and here are the budding hints of purple and yellow flowers to prove it. The creek runs in marvelous, marbled shades of emerald, aqua and ice as the sun sparks brilliant yellow diamonds across its surface.
The wonders of Muir Woods exist in intricate layers. You could walk through it for years and never uncover every inch of its beauty.
It's easy at Muir Woods to literally not see the forest for the trees. But take a look around -- there's so much more life than just those towering redwoods. Entire ecosystems thrive on giant felled logs. Visit sometime between June and October and look up to see the thousands of ladybugs blanketing the air between the branches. In the fall, ethereal monarch butterflies flutter through the air.
The park is home to a select, small animal kingdom, says park ranger Timothy Jordan. "It's a very shady environment. There's not as much wildlife as people may think they're going to find," he says.
What you will find: chipmunks, squirrels and maybe a black-tailed deer.
Look in the branches and you might see a spotted or barred owl, among other birds. And check out the creek, which is home to river otters, steelhead trout and coho salmon.
On the forest floor, Ann Smulland, visiting with friends, stops to take in the tranquillity.
"I live in the middle of a city," says the 40-something Jacksonville resident. "It's so wonderful to come here and enjoy God's creation, the nature and the quiet."
As Muir Woods kicks off its next 100 years, park officials are challenged to preserve its beauty and its accessibility.
"We're anticipating more and more visitors every year," Jordan says. "We want to stress the importance of protecting its natural beauty and heritage -- of protecting the trees."
Among the solutions: introducing controlled fires to remove dead wood and encourage new growth, and adding more park shuttle services to reduce traffic.
Ultimately, Jordan says, we each hold the power to cultivate and conserve Muir Woods through carpooling, recycling, knowledge and some good old-fashioned respect.
"I encourage people to stop and take in the calm -- breathe in the fresh air and the good smells and the quiet," Jordan says. "While you're here, allow the awe and wonder to enter you.