Saturday, October 22, 2016

Alligators and Air Boats: Touring Florida's Everglades

Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting in a fuzzy white hotel robe, snuggled into a queen-sized bed of my very own, sipping wine from a water glass and very much enjoying my life. My husband's company is holding their annual AGM in Miami, Florida this year, and I got to tag along. We arrived a couple of days before the AGM began so that we could do a little exploring of this vibrant city and its surrounding areas, and explore we did! Today we spent the morning touring the Florida Everglades, which is an excursion you cannot skip if you find yourself in Miami.

Getting ready for our first ever air boat ride!

I had originally pre-booked a tour with a different company, but a few weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew swept through the state and wreaked a little havoc on the local landscape. My original tour company cancelled with us, because their area of the Everglades had high waters and the Florida State Parks department temporarily suspended their tours until the waters were at a safe level again. I didn't panic because I knew there were tons of tour companies that patrol the Everglades, and many of them operate from different locations, so someone was bound to be open.

And luckily, someone was. We booked a tour through our hotel concierge at the Fontainebleau (more on the hotel to come), and Guillermo sure knew what he was talking about! The Miccosukee tribe offers a package deal that includes a tour of their Indian Village, an alligator show, and an air boat ride. (Yes, they label it "Indian Village" so don't give me any flack over the terminology in the comments please - I didn't name the village!) The entire package was $60 per adult for a five hour adventure, including travel time to and from the village.

Our trusty yellow air boat.

We met our tour leader, Jimmy, at 8:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby. He ushered us onto a nicely air-conditioned coach bus, and then whipped us around Miami Beach to various other hotels where he picked up all of the other tour guests. After a few jokes about feeding tourists to the alligators, we were off - out of Miami and into the Everglades.

This is one sign I will most certainly obey!

It was about an hour drive, but the time passed quickly as we enjoyed the scenery. I even saw two alligators just in the watery ditches as we made our way! (I might have seen three, but one of those alligators may have just been a clump of dirt.) People were out fishing in little boats in those very same ditches, with an alligator just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I wasn't sure what to think!

We arrived at the Miccosukee (pronounced Me-co-sue-kay) Indian Village around 10:00 a.m. There we had a little free time before the events were scheduled to begin, so we shopped in the gift shop and checked out some of the kitschy statues out front.

Enjoying the tacky but fun sculptures outside the Miccosukee Indian Village.

Our first event turned out to be my absolute favourite thing of the day: alligator wrestling. Our demonstrator's name was Pharrell. (I think - if anyone from the Miccosukee organization reads this and I am wrong, please correct me in the comments below!) He was such a pro! He had zero fear of the alligators, he was super gentle and loving to them, he knew so much about their anatomy and behaviour, and he was an engaging entertainer. Top props to him and his fantastic show.

Pharrell explained to us that alligators are not inherently man-eaters - in fact, they aren't really that violent unless they are in the act of grabbing food. And they only really like to feed on smaller creatures that can actually fit in their mouth. What they DO like to do is to conserve energy. They can hold their breath for five to eight hours, and go for a year without eating. They also prefer to be submerged underwater, where they think no one can see them or bother them. Then they don't have to move and can conserve their energy even further!

An alligator, patiently preserving its energy.

Once Pharrell assured us that alligators can be quite passive and even timid, he then showed us some techniques on how to capture an alligator with your bare hands. These methods, he explained, come from early indigenous peoples who used to capture alligators without tools or weapons in order to bring them back to the tribe to use as food and more.

There are two things I want to be made clear. One: just because I am explaining these methods and sharing a video of Pharrell working with the gators does NOT mean any readers should go and try it themselves. Pharrell told me that he has been capturing alligators since he was ten, and is extremely experienced. So there's my disclaimer. You are not Pharrell. Don't capture gators. Two: Pharrell was always extremely gentle and kind to the alligators during his show. He showed great respect for the animals, and they never appeared to be terrified or pain. (One got a little hissy, but that was about it.) I was impressed by Pharrell's knowledge and appreciated his care towards towards the alligators. So don't watch the video and get upset thinking he was hurting them, because I assure you, he was not.

Our alligator wrestler teaching us about alligator anatomy.

First, our alligator wrestler literally drug one of the passive alligators front and centre for the show. He then taught us about some basic alligator anatomy. Alligator skulls are hard as rocks and hollow, the strong bones designed for crushing and clutching prey. They have very strong jaw muscles for biting; in fact, the strongest in the world. But they have weak jaw muscles for opening their jaws. This is why once a gator has its jaws tied together, it can't really snap its mouth back open and break its bonds. Alligators have large ears behind their eyes, and can hear just as well as humans. Their eyes can sink about an inch into their skull when they close them, which is why IF you are ever in the clutches of an alligator, poking it in the eye will not help you. There was so much more information, but you really should attend the show if you want to learn it all.

Pharrell then performed a couple of tricks for us. He showed us how to calm an alligator by applying gentle pressure to its back and covering its eyes. He was able to demonstrate how to tie an alligator's mouth shut, unaided, all the while keeping his alligator calm and relaxed. He even stuck his chin into the alligator's mouth. It was all quite impressive. I won't go on anymore about it - watch the video, and then go to the actual show to see it all in its amazing glory!

His chin is INSIDE the alligator's mouth.

After Pharrell's performance with the adult alligators, we each got to cuddle a little 4-year-old baby gator. It was so soft!

Marti... the next alligator wrestler? He WAS pretty cute!

We then toured the Miccosukee Indian Village, learning about patchwork, beadwork, silver smithing, wood carving, and much more. Our guide Cherice taught us about the original settlement of the Everglades and how the Miccosukee tribe was able to build a civilization in the middle of a swamp land. It was very interesting, and I loved the hut designs (the huts were called chiquis, pronounced chickies).

Some beautiful tortoise shells at the Miccosukee Indian Village

Cherice's favourite thing about her part of the tour was introducing us to "Tiny", the stuffed alligator in the Miccosukee Museum. Tiny had been gifted to the tribe after a short stint in the movie industry. He had been 'fired' for trying to bite people. And to paint a picture for you, "Tiny" was a 16-foot-long behemoth of an alligator. When he died, the tribe had him taxidermied (is that the term?) and preserved forevermore.

Tiny is not so tiny...

Finally, after the village tour wrapped up, we hopped across the highway to the air boats. Jimmy handed us off to Umberto, who loaded us onto a bright yellow air boat and handed us some squishy orange ear buds. Once everyone was ready, we launched away from the dock and the air boat fan revved up. Off we flew into the grassy swamps of the Everglades, lily pads and muhly grasses whizzing past us.

I LOVED the air boat ride. The boat was amazingly smooth - even when we bounded over thick patches of grass or lumpy outcrops of mud, you couldn't feel a single bump. The wind whipped around us, cooling us off from the hot Florida sun. We didn't see any alligators during that portion of the tour, but the ride was so exhilarating I didn't care. We got to sit in the front row on the first leg of our journey, so we had a fantastic view of the "River of Grass".

The Florida Everglades in all their glory.

My favourite part was when Umberto decided to give us a thrill and cut a corner a little too sharply, where we'd swish across the water sideways. I called it the 'side slide' and would throw my hands in the air whenever he'd do it. So he did it a lot. If I lived in the Everglades, I would own an air boat, and I would side slide all over the swamp with it. It is that fun.

Umberto let me sit in his seat!

Umberto took us to an 'island' created by a clan of the Miccosukee, right in the middle of the Everglades. Over years and years and years, this clan has built a series of wooden chiquis, platforms, and boardwalks over the swamp, using a remote patch of somewhat solid ground as a foundation. This is where the clan and its growing family would live (although now it is part of the Miccosukee tour package).

The man-made floating island in the Miccosukee-owned part of the Everglades

It was very peaceful and quiet, this little 'island' in the swamp. Copper-winged dragonflies buzzed in the air, purple flowers dotted the marshy ground, and that cool breeze warded off any mosquitoes or flies that might have wanted to bother us. Some funny signs captured my attention, and I enjoyed wandering around to find them all.

The gorgeous purple flowers in the Everglades - can you spot the dragonfly?
I don't care where the spider is from... squish it.

We only spent about 15 minutes exploring the island, and then it was back on the air boat and back to the tour bus. I sat next to Umberto on the way back and had a great view of the boat fan and the bubbling wake it left behind.

Bye bye, Everglades! I hope to see you again!

All too soon, we were back on the bus and headed home. I had such a fun morning today, and I completely encourage anyone who is in within driving distance of the Everglades to go out and really explore them and what they have to offer.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Aquarium of the Bay: San Francisco's Underwater Adventure

When I traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2011, I declined a visit to the city's aquarium. Looking back on that decision, I regret it, because the aquarium looks very pretty when I see photos of it online. I vowed not to make the same mistake again when I took a holiday to San Francisco last month. The "Aquarium of the Bay" is a small aquarium compared to most, but it promised a lot from what I saw on good ol' Pinterest, and I am happy to report that it did NOT fail to deliver!

The Aquarium of the Bay is extremely easy to access, as its entrance is located right at the mouth of Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf. You can buy tickets from a kiosk at the base of the escalator that leads up to the aquarium's elevated entrance, or you can buy tickets directly inside the aquarium before going on a self-guided tour through the building. Tickets cost $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors and children aged 4-12, and families of four can get a deal at $68.00. I'm sure there are plenty of other deals, such as special rates for locals and tour packages, but it is pretty easy to navigate their website so I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

A vibrant starfish greets you in the first room of the Aquarium of the Bay

Some quick facts about the aquarium before I take you on my virtual tour: the aquarium boasts over 20,000 sea creatures, of which their most popular assortment of animals includes sharks and mantra rays. As you stroll through the aquarium, you will walk through two glass tunnels that cut through 700,000 gallons of salt water used to house an amazing variety of swimmers. The aquarium has built several nursery and animal husbandry programs since it opened back in 1996, so a lot of the species living in the tanks have been successfully bred in captivity and were never taken from the wild. (I know a lot of people are against aquariums due to the animals being caged. I don't know if it makes you feel better to know that they aren't missing the wide open ocean because they don't know any better? They also aren't being caught in nets and fried up, so that is a plus too, I suppose.)

I see you, little guy!

When you first walk into the aquarium's main building, you enter a series of showrooms that prepare you for what is to come later on in your aquarium tour. Glass floor to ceiling tanks showcase various exotic fish, like 'Nemo' and 'Dory' (clownfish and blue tang respectively). Sunfish, starfish, urchins, and other creatures adorn these tanks, giving visitors an up-close view of reef life. A tall, circular tank in the centre of one of the rooms features a glittering mass of sardines gliding together in the water.

One of the more brilliant fish tanks at the Aquarium of the Bay

One tank was a reality check for me, displaying what the ocean floor predominately looks like today. Sunken bottles, old tires, and other garbage had been integrated into this remake of the sea floor, with coral decorating the litter like rock candy, and fish flitting in and out of the debris. It was very sad, but also strangely pretty.

The garbage display tank - sad but still kind of pretty...

Past these two showrooms, you are greeted by an aquarium employee who offers to take your photo. You are set against a green screen wall, and the aquarium staff will later superimpose you in front of an image of either the Golden Gate Bridge or a scene from the aquarium. We decided to do a silly one, and the aquarium employee was extremely patient and accommodating for us. We couldn't wait to see the results!

Just beyond the photo booth, visitors will encounter an elevator that leads down into the heart of the aquarium. Our elevator operator was a twenty-something So-Cal surfer dude who recited his spiel on the way down both with boredom AND a sense of humour, something that was oddly impressive.

When the elevator doors parted, I was instantly in awe. The first room past the lift was dark, with tanks along the walls and one large ceiling to floor tank directly in the middle of the circular space. Each tank was softly lit, and inside them luminescent jellyfish floated dreamily through the waters. It was beautiful and mesmerizing: I could have stayed in that room all day.

Beautiful and mesmerizing jellyfish at the Aquarium of the Bay

And then, past this beautifully haunting room, was the first of the two underwater tunnels that I had been so excited to see. Standing inside the tunnel, you had an amazing view of sharks, mantra rays, sturgeon, and other large and small fish. Not only did you see them swimming alongside the tunnel, but quite often you got a really neat view of them as they swam right over top your head towards the opposite side.

A shark swimming right over our heads in the aquarium's tunnel

Very strategic lighting made the tunnels dark enough to see everything in the water beyond the glass, but also offered eerie effects, with green and purple lights highlighting certain areas. The only negative thing about the tunnel areas was that they got quite crowded and a little loud - no one wanted to move on and people tended to congest the area.

The tunnels could get crowded and loud at times.

However, I LOVED walking through the tunnels. As I said before, this aquarium is a small one in the grand scheme of things, so there wasn't a TON to see and do there. But the tunnels made it all worth while. We lingered a lot longer in the second tunnel, because we noticed a really fat manta ray just lounging on the bottom of the 'sea floor', and it seemed to be panting. The other manta rays around it were much flatter and much more active. An aquarium employee stopped by to see what we were all pointing at, and explained to us that this particular manta ray was pregnant and had been for a long time. (Manta rays gestate for about one year.) Her panting was hopefully a sign that she might be ready to go into labour, but the employee also noted that it could be a very long process.

My lovely friend Jennis surrounded by floating manta rays

The aquarium employee also said that they had been watching this particular ray in the hopes they would catch her during or shortly after her delivery, because she was in a tank with sharks. As the aquarium tries to replicate real ocean life as much as possible, she told us that newly born offspring can sometimes be eaten by other animals before the aquarium has a chance to send in a diver and remove the babies. Indeed, smaller sharks seemed to be congregating in the area near this poor pregnant manta ray. We were quite sad by this and stood there for about ten minutes, watching this fish puffing in and out, willing her to pop out her little mantra ray baby. It didn't happen and we had to move on.

Manta rays relaxing on the 'sea floor' of the tunnel aquarium

The tunnels and connecting rooms take you on a loop of the aquarium's lower level. Suddenly, you find yourself back at the elevator and zooming back up to the main floor. There you get to have a bit more of a hands-on experience with the aquarium's touch pools. A guide informs you of the proper manner in which to touch the young manta ray that is zooming through the shallow pool (one finger only, and only on the very tip of the ray's wing). Supposedly you can touch a shark too, but I didn't see one in the pool that day.

There is also a tide pool where you can one-finger touch starfish, urchins, and other tide pooly creatures.

I am a marine explorer and excited about it!

Not only are sea creatures featured in this part of the aquarium, but other reptiles and wildlife can be viewed. Frogs, snakes, and lizards creep around in their glass houses, peering out at you.

One part I didn't enjoy about the touch pool room was the dissection booth, where a young man was cutting open a squid to an audience of rapt children. Yes, it was educational, and yes it was interesting, and yes I caught myself listening to him explain how they created their ink, but I was sad to see that little guy getting all sliced up on a table. I hoped he had died from natural causes first.

The squid dissection in all its inky glory

Finally, we turned a corner and entered a room reserved solely for the river otters. This room made me sad. The male otter was just swimming in endless loops in a little pool, back and forth, back and forth. Then he'd stop, leap out, run to check on his mate, who was sleeping all curled up in her den, and then run back to the pool and just loop and loop and loop. I am no expert on river otters, but to me it seemed like a depressing thing and I felt quite sorry for him. If anyone knows more about the topic, please inform me if this is normal behaviour or not for an otter. I didn't stay long in that room.

After the river otters, the path leads you straight to the gift shop. We weren't in the market for aquarium souvenirs, but we did check out our photo booth results. It was hilarious, and even though we looked like total tourists, we bought it. I think it sums up our entire aquarium experience, don't you?

It is so fun to look ridiculous...

If you do find yourself hanging out on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I suggest you take a break from the hot sun and pedestrian chaos to explore the Aquarium of the Bay. It isn't too expensive, it is air conditioned, and it has some really beautiful features. Just go with the flow!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Baker Beach: The Perfect San Francisco View

When I visited San Francisco in late September, I arrived in town with a giant list of things I wanted to see and do. Some items on that list were of your typical tourist fare, such as crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, but some were a little less glamorous. Dipping my feet in the Pacific Ocean from the sandy shores of Baker Beach was one of those items. And even though poking my toes into cold sand on a windy beach might not sound that fantastic, it was worth it completely!

The amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Baker Beach

Why Baker Beach in particular? There are several beaches in the bay area, so you may be wondering why I had Baker Beach in mind. 

As I had been researching San Francisco before my trip, because I obsess over travel like that, I had repeatedly seen photographs of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge as seen from a distance, all with a fantastic view and perspective. And each of those photos had been taken from Baker Beach. 

 Me, very excited to be at Baker Beach

Not only did the beach have an amazing panorama of the bridge, Marin Headlands on the southern edge of the bay, and the cliffs at the northern mouth of the bay, but it revealed a picturesque snapshot of the ocean. The wide waters were clear until a couple of miles out, where they then disappeared into a bank of fog. 

My ladies and I put our best foot forward at the beach

The beach was nearly deserted when we arrived around 10:30 in the morning, with only a couple of people out walking their dogs and a lone runner dashing through the wet sand. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves. We popped off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs, and made our way to the shoreline. I made life difficult for myself by not-so-gracefully dashing down a steep sand dune, nearly face-planting, while my friends wisely and calmly walked down a staircase leading to the beach. Typical me.

One of my besties, Jennis, and I with the Golden Gate Bridge behind us

We spent about half an hour at Baker Beach, writing in the sand, playing in the waves, taking photos of the bridge and each other, and generally enjoying the relaxing atmosphere. One of the dogs that was out for a walk took a moment to come see us and get some pets and attention.

Jumping for joy at Baker Beach

I wanted to steal away from the beach for a little while to explore the unique-looking treed area near us, where picnic tables and fire pits could be seen peering through scruffy shrubs. The trees were very interesting, and I was curious to see them up close, but the beach and the refreshing waves were too much fun. However, if I were to go back, I might have to pack a lunch and stay for a little longer. For us at the time, half an hour was great and we were ready to head down to explore the wharf.

Dipping my feet in the Pacific Ocean

If you DO happen to attend Baker Beach with your family in the hopes of having a picnic and a splash in the waves, please be aware that Baker Beach is a nudist beach, in a way. (It used be legal to sunbathe nude there, but was made illegal in 2012, although rumour has it people still choose to exercise the right to ‘go nekkid' there.) While we didn't see anyone baring it all on that day, there is a possibility that you might see someone sunbathing ‘au natural’. It was a chilly, windy day when we visited, so that’s probably why we weren’t the odd men out while wearing clothes! 

Baker Beach is completely worth the side trip

So if the thought of visiting a nudist beach for a morning or afternoon of sightseeing doesn’t bother you, then finding your way to Baker Beach is pretty easy. It is a 7 minute drive from the Golden Gate Bridge southern parking lot. I could give you exact directions here, but it is probably easier for you to just Google Maps “Baker Beach” from your location and find a quick route. The best method to travel there is by car, and Baker Beach has a large parking lot that is meter-free, which is nice. You could also take the bus, or bike, or walk - walking there takes about half an hour from the Golden Gate Bridge Information Centre. 

Our San Francisco trip was one memorable adventure

However you arrive, you won’t be disappointed your final destination. For me, the best part of Baker Beach was the incredible sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, with the waves crashing and the cliffs looming. I left feeling refreshed and relaxed, ready to tackle the rest of San Francisco with gusto. Enjoy your time at the beach!

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Beauty of California's Muir Woods

One of the places I was most excited to visit during my trip to San Francisco was Muir Woods. Technically titled Muir Woods National Monument, this majestic forest is part of the U.S. National Park Service for a good reason: it contains amazing, gigantic, and OLD redwood trees. I couldn't wait to wrap my arms around one.

To save money, I and my fellow travellers had decided to stay in a hotel in Corte Madera rather than in San Francisco itself. It made for a bit of a trek when we wanted to explore the city of San Fran, but it also meant we were pretty close to the Muir Woods access road, which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Muir Woods is an amazing place to visit in California

One of the friends that I was traveling with had unfortunately developed a really nasty migraine and was forced to miss this adventure. This post is as much for her as it is for my faithful blog readers. I want her to get to see some of what she missed, poor thing.

Muir Woods National Monument is located about 42 minutes north of the heart of downtown San Francisco. The access ramp is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but there is a bit of a drive involved. A very twisty, very turn-y drive on a narrow road full of hairpin curves and sharp drops just off the side. Please drive with patience and caution, and if you get carsick at all, take your anti-nausea medication! I don't even get carsick and I was feeling a little pukey but the time we arrived at our destination. Just a word of warning to you all.

Five ladies fitting inside a Coastal Redwood tree

I had read and read to come early to Muir Woods, mainly because of the parking. There are only three parking lots - a tiny one right by the main ticket windows, a larger one just down the road from that, and a third one a little further along. By the time we arrived, on a Monday in late September (so, off-season) at 10:00 a.m., all three parking lots were full and we just found a spot on the side of the road. If you plan on going to Muir Woods any later than mid-morning, I highly recommend taking a tour bus, or catching the shuttle, because you probably won't find parking if you drive yourself, and that's a long trek down a twisty road just to find out you have nowhere to park.

We got lucky, however, and happily made our way to the main ticket windows and the entrance to the Muir Woods trails.

Here at last! We made it to Muir Woods!

It is $10 for adults 16 and older to enter the park. Under 16 and your admission is free, so this is a great family activity. There are select free days, such as Veterans Day, but I suspect those days are also crazy busy. (Another argument for arriving early, I read, was that before 8 a.m. the ticket windows are closed but you can still hike the trails, so early birds get free admission. I am not sure if that is true, or if you will get charged for trespassing or whatnot, but that is something I did read. Don't blame me if you get arrested!)

I have always wanted to hug a giant tree

Once inside the 'park', I was instantly impressed. First, the park is extremely well-maintained and designed. The main path is really a wooden boardwalk, wide and smooth and in excellent condition. It is very wheelchair and stroller friendly, so once again, a great activity for families with any type of dynamic. Information boards dotted the sides of the boardwalk, giving facts about the flora, fauna, and history of the area.

The well-maintained boardwalk that creates Muir Wood's main path

Right away, you can begin to see the giant redwood trees standing proudly. I instantly started filling up my camera's memory.

Some facts I gleaned from the information boards in the park:

1. The trees in this forest are called Coastal Redwoods, not to be confused with the Giant Sequoias that are more common south of San Francisco. I had been flipping between those two terms, thinking they were the same type of tree, until I learned that. The Coastal Redwoods enjoy the cooler, wetter climate north of San Francisco, particularly the famous wet fog that rolls into the bay area from the ocean.

A Coastal Redwood from top to bottom

2. There aren't many Coastal Redwoods left. It makes sense, because the rest of the region has been cleared for towns, cities, and fields. (Think the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, which we also visited. There wasn't a redwood in sight during our Sonoma adventure, I can tell you that!) That's why Muir Woods is so important - it is one of the few remaining areas that harbours these majestic and giant trees.

3. Muir Woods is a relatively young forest. Coastal Redwoods can live to 2,200 years old, but the trees in Muir Woods average about 700 years old. Would that be a teenager in tree years? There are a few oldies that have been dated at 1,200 years, but that's about Muir Wood's oldest crowd. Pretty crazy to think of what the world was like when those trees were just seedlings!

A slice of a tree that was 'born' in 909 AD

Other notable vegetation in the area were the big, lush ferns that carpeted the forest floor beneath the redwoods. I also was very intrigued by a plant that looked a lot like horsetail (also called puzzlegrass or equisetum). Upon closer inspection, this 'plant' was actually off-shoots of the redwoods themselves, called basal sprouts. Apparently, coastal redwoods have a handy ability to set off sprouts from basically anywhere on their trunk. This helps them to quickly recover after damage from fire or insects.

The basal shoots of a Coastal Redwood

My group of ladies and I were originally only going to walk about half of the main trail to Bridge 3, just so we could take a peek at the notable Cathedral Grove, and then head back. We had a big to-do list that day, and didn't want to spend all day hiking the forest. However, it was so peaceful and beautiful there, once we hit Bridge 3 all of us unanimously decided to keep going. We walked all the way to the end of the boardwalk, crossed Bridge 4, and hiked back to the Information Centre on the elevated dirt path, Hillside Trail, that overlooked the main trail.

The trail was by no means strenuous. As I said earlier, the main boardwalk is flat and smooth, easily accessible to all. When we crossed Bridge 4 and made our way to the dirt path, we had to exert a little more energy, as the trail sloped upwards and at one point we had to climb a couple of flights of stairs. But that was the hardest we had to work. Otherwise, the trail is leisurely and easy for people of all ages to complete.

A map of Muir Wood's main trail

To complete the big loop, all the way to Bridge 4 and back, took us about two hours. We stopped for a ton of photos and I made some video clips for the blog, which leads me to believe if one was to just hike the trail, you could be done in an hour or an hour and a half easily. We enjoyed ourselves and took our time, and two hours was the perfect amount for us.

While you hike, remember to be as quiet as possible - there are about 500 signs encouraging visitors to be silent and respectful. Apparently many animals use the area for mating and raising families, and naturally millions of loud visitors would interrupt those processes. We barely saw any wildlife. As my friend Jennis pointed out, it was almost unnaturally quiet - the visitors were quiet, but even stranger, so was the wildlife. We didn't hear a single bird call until Bridge 3. (On a side note, Jennis is the friend who organized this girls' trip and brought all of us down with her to San Francisco. I've thanked her a billion times in person, but I'm thanking her on a global platform now. THANK YOU, JENNIS!)

The spider-isn canopy of the Muir Wood's redwood forest

We completed our hike around lunch time. We popped into the gift shop but it was busy and crowded (there were several tour buses parked in the lot by the time we finished our visit), and the lunch line at the little cafeteria was insane. Good thing we had thought to bring muffins in the car! I highly recommend you bring a lunch or a snack with you, because you might find yourself in that cafeteria line-up forever.

Muir Woods National Monument is something I would definitely like to see again; maybe next time I will attend with my family in tow. I would also make a whole day of it, because there are several more natural trails that branch off the main boardwalk that I would like to explore. Those trails lead you into the heart of the forest, and give you a less 'touristy' interaction with the redwoods.

Look up, wayyyyyy up!

Even so, seeing the Coastal Redwoods in all their glory was completely worth the trip. Muir Woods gets five stars from this girl - I highly recommend you visit!