The primal redwood forest that is Muir Woods is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Bay Area. Generally mobbed with visitors, the park instated a reservation system a few years back to decrease crowds and better preserve the land.
But don't worry, if you're looking for a spur-of-the-moment bit of grounding in the woods, no reservation required, there is another Marin gem that offers up similar serenity.
The hike up to Dawn Falls from the trailhead is only 1.1 miles; however, you may not find parking (there are only six spaces). An attractive alternative for those who have the time is to park in downtown Larkspur. You'll double your distance (about 4.5 miles roundtrip) and enjoy ambling through the historic town, passing by former vacation cottages that are now million-dollar homes.
Begin at Magnolia Avenue in downtown Larkspur where you'll find some interesting shops and restaurants including the locally famous Silver Peso bar (as of July 6, 2020, Silver Peso remains closed due to Covid-19). Turn right onto Madrone Avenue, the main access road for Baltimore Canyon, and continue up Madrone as it meanders westward until you reach the trailhead.
The Dawn Falls Trail (see the red lines on the map below) begins after crossing the bridge to the opposite side of the creek and climbing the steps. On the left is the Piedmont Trail, your route back (the orange line on the map).
From here, it's just over a mile to the falls, although the Ladybug Trail to King Mountain Loop Trail is a tempting detour. You'll pass by the remains of a dam where a sawmill operated more than 100 years ago. You'll find lichen-covered redwoods, dense and tangled bay laurels, and miniature meadows, making for a great interplay of light and shade.
The switchbacks up to the falls can be a bit dicey when it's very wet or very dry, so hiking poles are not a bad idea. The falls themselves are just a trickle in the summer, but come December they are bombing. Further exploration above the falls is easy, as the flat Southern Marin Line Fire Road runs for three miles above the canyon between Kentfield and Corte Madera.
The return is just as delightful, and continues if you opt for the Piedmont Trail to return downtown. Just after the trail joins Piedmont Road, there's a shortcut over to Shady Lane that then opens onto West Baltimore Avenue, where you'll proceed right, soon ending up back on Magnolia Avenue.
Turn left to return downtown or cross and go another two blocks down beautiful Baltimore Avenue. At the foot, there was once a railroad station where tourists coming from the Sausalito ferry would embark to stay in the old summer cottages. From here, take the bike path (the former railroad route) back into downtown.
Before or after your hike, fuel up with a great meal at Marin favorite Left Bank Brasserie, a French-style restaurant by chef Roland Passot located in the Blue Rock Inn.
Pastries, desserts, espresso, and other delights can be found for takeout at Emporio Rulli.
This article has been updated to include temporary restaurant closures due to Covid-19. Please check restaurant websites to confirm details before visiting.