Early Season Wildflowers in Muir Woods

We were on a mission to find one flower that we’ve never seen before, the Fetid Adder’s Tongue. It’s one of the earlier flowers of the season, and it doesn’t last long. We hit the jackpot this time on a fun hike in Muir Woods.

If you can get a dry weekday in January (easier to do in this drought year) Muir Woods is a great place for a hike. Lots of trails, and those wonderful coastal redwoods! Our loop trail took us through a wide variety of bioclimes, from exposed ridges to dark redwood forest, and even in January we found a variety of wildflowers.

The Hike in Muir Woods

We were looking for a hike of about five miles, and the park ranger at visitor center recommended going up the Dipsea trail and back down through the Ben Johnson trail to the Main trail. I highly recommend purchasing a trail map at the visitor center, as there are many branching trails. Unfortunately, the footbridge at the start of the Dipsea trail was washed out, so we had to walk down the road a ways to a fire road that headed up the hill, meeting the Dipsea trail. This is an energetic start to a hike, as it goes straight up the mountain with no switchbacks.

Iris, probably Douglas's Iris (Iris douglasiana)
Iris, probably Douglas’s Iris (Iris douglasiana)

Near the top of the ridge you may have a view of the ocean in the distance. Along the way keep your eyes open for Iris at trailside in the exposed areas. The trial meets the fire road and crosses it several times. Stick to the trail when you can.

After gaining about 900 feet in elevation we found a sign pointing north to the Stapelveldt trail, which crosses to the more forested side of the ridge. Very shortly there is another junction, and we took the route down onto the Ben Johnson trail. Lots of switchbacks as you go down fast.

Shortly after starting down we found our first Fetid Adder’s Tongue, on the uphill side of the trail. The flowers themselves are very small, just a quarter-inch or so across, but the leaves are very noticeable and unusual. This was our third hike over a couple of days trying to find this, and it was the first one. I spent quite a bit of time photographing this – and I’m such a flower nerd that I couldn’t help but stop everyone who passed by so they would be sure to see it. Success!

Then, heading further down into the dark redwood canyon, we found more and more all along the trail. Lots of photo opportunities.

The Ben Johnson trail meets up with the Main trail along Redwood Creek, and you have an easy walk along the wide path amongst the redwoods. More crowded here, of course, but it is always wonderful to be close to these amazing trees. There are wildflowers visible along this part of the trail, but you are usually a bit separated, as many parts are on a raised boardwalk.

On the map below our starting point is the overflow parking lot just below the visitor center. If you hold your mouse cursor over the elevation profile a pointer will show the location on the trail map.

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Timing is Everything

Muir Woods is worth visiting any time of the year, but if you want to see the Fetid Adder’s Tongue you want to go in January, if you can find a day with reasonable weather. It can be rainy, and you will be in the deep forest sometimes, so you will get dripped on. We hit a wonderful day with no fog, no clouds, and temperatures in the upper 60’s on the hike (even getting into the low 70’s by the time we finished). Weekdays are great in the “off season” because you have a chance to actually find a parking spot.


Muir Woods is 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Take US Hwy 101 to the CA Hwy 1/ Stinson Beach exit. From there you can follow the signs to the park. Note that the roads can be steep and winding, and parking is very limited. On weekends and holidays from April through September you’ll want to catch the Muir Woods Shuttle from Mill Valley.

The Flowers

In January there aren’t a lot of flowers out, but if the weather is warm and you keep your eyes open you’ll find a few. Most of these were found on the warmer exposed hillside going up the Dipsea trail. The Fetid Adder’s Tongue were found in the darker understory on the trail down to the creek. I’ll start with a few favorites, and then the “gallery”. All pictures were taken with a Nikon D7000  with either a Nikkor 18-135mm zoom lens, or a Nikkor 60mm closeup lens.

I didn’t realize how small the flower was on the Fetid Adder’s Tongue until we found them. About a quarter inch across. The leaves are what you see first, green with purple spots, very distinctive.

Fetid Adder's Tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii )
Fetid Adder’s Tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii )

Fremont’s Star Lily was popping up all along the ridge, there should be quite a few out a bit later in the spring. It also is called Fremont’s Death Camas, because all parts of the plant contain zygacine, a neurotoxic steroidal alkaloid that can be very harmful.

Fremont's Star Lily (Toxicoscordion fremontii)
Fremont’s Star Lily (Toxicoscordion fremontii)

Redwood Sorrel is very common down in the shaded part of the trail, but we found only a few early examples.

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)
Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

To see more pictures click on the large picture below, and then each time you click you will see the next picture.

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One Response

  1. Hello Charlie,

    I know the frustration that is trying to find this flower. Missed it every time until last year! Now it is easy to spot… Something about trained eyes…

    Good luck on future hunts!

    Spencer Dykstra

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