Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Cowell Redwoods State Park has more than just big trees

Alexandrea Bennett and her dog Triue of Scott’s Valley walk through a grove of trees on the Eagle Creek Trail not far from the observation deck at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton.
Alexandrea Bennett and her dog Triue of Scott’s Valley walk through a grove of trees on the Eagle Creek Trail not far from the observation deck at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton.

In this, the final installment of Fresh Tracks’ three-month exploration of the mighty redwoods of Northern California – a troika of trees, if you will – I’m asking that you do something both counter-intuitive and, perhaps, impossible.

I want you to avert your gaze from the large and imposing arboristic specimens at the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz. Don’t worry; the trees will still be there when you get back from the trek we’re recommending, which runs along the San Lorenzo River and then up into verdant foothills where pines and oaks and other species dominate, and the unexpected terrain and mighty gorges might surprise you.

And here’s a bonus: You’ll escape the crowds, which flock to the paved 0.8-mile Redwood Grove Loop Trail and the neighboring Roaring Camp Railroads.

Why expressly eschew the stately sentinels for which our state is famous?

Because it’s not always about height, people. Maybe it’s because I am vertically challenged, but perhaps we should judge the beauty by factors other than sheer size. This notion first took root when I visited Muir Woods on Mount Tamalpais for September’s Fresh Tracks and sprouted into a full-blown belief when I ventured to Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold for October’s trek.

So why not branch out, as it were, and go where the locals tread when they aren’t taking out-of-town guests to Grove Loop for gawking?

This will take some will power, because the trailhead at Cowell Park is situated near the parking lot where Grove Loop-seeking tourists begin their stroll through the towering lumber. You will literally turn away from that sight and head right of the gift shop and follow a sign for the River Trail. That’s the start of a 5.5-mile lollipop-style loop that rambles through the riparian lushness surrounding the San Lorenzo waters, climbs to the highest point in the park (an 800-foot ascent) and plunges you down into a lovely gorge with footbridges over gurgling Eagle Creek before leading you back to the riverside.

And it’s not as if you’re going to be completely deprived of redwood watching on the trek that includes the River, Eagle Creek, Pine, Powder Mill and Rincon trails. There are select specimens you’ll encounter along the way, including some felled redwoods. But it’s time to give some other flora its star turn.

Trees you’ll see, with varying degrees of regularity: maple, tanoak, live oak, bay, hazelnut, madrone, ponderosa pine, knobcone pine, sycamore and even a Douglas fir or two.

Foliage, depending on the season, includes: manzanita, chaparral, redwood sorrel, yerba buena, yerba santa, monkeyflower, lupine, huckleberry, chinquapin …

Need I go on?

It’s a lot to ogle and enjoy, even if you couldn’t tell poppy from chamise, as you walk along on trails that are just as diverse in terms of topography.

Your mood will be lifted as you start the trip. Any fear that the drought might have drained the San Lorenzo River and rendered moot the several swimming holes along the route proved unfounded. The river still flows. Not a mighty torrent, mind you, and the sand bars and beaches are more pronounced than in previous years. But there’s enough water to wade and frolic if the day is warm enough. The periodic footbridges have not been rendered superfluous.

The River Trail, which encompasses the first mile of the route, is a single-track path that runs parallel to the paved Pipeline Road (heading to the observation deck at the peak). But it’s far enough away from the asphalt that you don’t feel encumbered. No cars travel on Pipeline; it’s mostly taken up by mountain bikers and hikers who perhaps want surer footing than the duff and dirt.

As you amble down the river, redwoods give way to shaggy tanoaks and maple trees with leaves the size of hubcaps. You’ll pass underneath a train trestle where, depending on schedules, you’re liable to see – and hear – the tourist trains from Roaring Camp clattered by. A few hundred yards beyond the trestle, with the sands of Cable Car Beach on your right, comes the first junction.

Veer left, uphill, on the Eagle Creek Trail. Almost immediately, it’s as if you’ve been transported to another ecosystem entirely. Gone is the cool shadiness of the redwood forest and the lushness of riparian area. Now, as you climb, the woods will gradually thin, the trees spaced apart replaced by chaparral and other scrub brush. This is a heavily traveled equestrian route. How can you tell? The horses like to leave gifts for those on foot to dodge; plus, their hoof prints dig deep into the loose, powdery loam. Trail builders perhaps thought they were doing users a favor by inserting some wooden steps on the uphill, but, actually, it throws off the rhythm of your steps.

In any event, the footing gets more challenging once you make the right turn onto the Pine Trail where, as its name implies, ponderosa and knobcone pines greet you. You’ll also be greeted by the beach. Yes, the beach. Well, sand, anyway. It’s a hard slog over some single- and double-track trails of pure sand.

By the time you’re done swearing at the increased effort, you’ll eventually start wondering why the trails are so sandy. Nearing the peak, where the observation deck juts out, a state park informational sign with the title “The Sandhills Treasure” gives the answer:

“The sand beneath your feet was once part of an ancient sea floor. More than 10 million years ago, this area was under a vast ocean. How do we know this? Scientists have found fossils of shark teeth, sand dollars, and other evidence of the marine animals that once lived here.”

The sign goes on to explain that the so-called “Sandhills” are so rare that they occur only in Santa Cruz County and feature such oddities as the Santa Cruz kangaroo rat, Santa Cruz wallflower, Ben Lomand buckwheat and the Mount Hermon June Beetle. It also clues you in to listen for the “cackling calls” of the Acorn Woodpecker, in the ponderosa pines. Alas, the trees were silent on the morning I visited.

I did notice, though, that swaths of the area around the observation tower – the views from the platform stretch to the ocean, if the fog isn’t too thick, by the way – seemed a bit charred. I worried that the summer of wildfires had scorched the acreage, as in so many other areas. But other handy sign, titled “Fire’s Return to the Santa Cruz Chaparral,” explained that the blackened spots are part of a controlled burn plan by state parks officials. The reason: “Without fire, the irreplaceable plants and animals found here are disappearing.” (The fires, wisely, are set during the winter, according to the sign.)

You can get so caught up in reading about the landscape and peering at the horizon that you might forget you’ve got a little less than half the trek left to cover. You could stay a little longer and dine at the picnic table on the observation deck. But, eventually, you’ll have to make your way back to the river.

It’s almost all downhill, and not as sandy, on the Pine and the Powder Mill Fire Road for the next mile. When you reach a T-junction, go right on unmarked Pipeline Road. Soon, you’ll reach … pavement.

Bane of trail blazing though it is, you must head downhill on Pipeline for slightly less than a mile. If you stay to the shoulders, you can trod on mulched leaves to help limit the pounding on your joints. About halfway down the hill, there’s a bench on an overlook with a sweeping view of the ocean framed by verdant hills. It’s worth a stop.

An even prettier sight comes after you make a left turn on the Rincon Fire Road and amble 0.3 of a mile, first up and then down. On the winding descent, you see and hear the rushing Eagle Creek down below. Soon after crossing the footbridge, you’re back on the River Trail heading toward your car – and the star attraction, the redwood groves.

Yes, I’m giving you permission now to ogle the Cowell’s redwoods as long and lustily as you like. Just remember, though: Those oaks and pines and madrones, they can loom large in your consciousness, too.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


Trail Length: 5.5 miles

Elevation gain: 773 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, Take Interstate 80 to I-680 over the Benecia Bridge and through Contra Costa. After the Sunol Grade, turn right on the Mission Boulevard exit (the second Mission exit; look for I-880 sign). Take Mission to I-880, which turns into Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Take the Mount Hermon Road exit. Go right on Graham Hill Road, then a quick left on Highway 9. The entrance to the park will be on the left. Follow road to the main parking lot.

Route: From the sign saying “To River Trail” to the right of the bathrooms and gift shop, follow the River Trail about a mile under the train trestle. Veer left, uphill on the signed Eagle Creek Trail. Follow Eagle Creek a mile and go right on the Pine Trail for 0.6 of a mile. Cross the fire road at the observation deck and continue down on the Pine Trail 0.4 miles to the Powder Mill Fire Road, where you’ll go right. After 0.3 of a mile, turn right at a T-junction onto Pipeline Road (paved). Go a mile and make a left onto the dirt Rincon Fire Road. Travel 0.3 of a mile and veer right back onto the River Trail. Go about a mile back to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate. There’s climbing after leaving the River Trail.

Exposure: Mostly shady, except for the top of the Pine Trail at the observation deck.

Toilets: At trailhead/visitors center.

Water: At trailhead.

Entrance fee: $10 to park.

Probability of getting lost: Slim. Well-marked trails.

Will there be blood? Mostly a soft and forgiving surface, but some roots and rocks.

Note: Mountain bikes allowed only on certain fire roads and the paved Pipeline Road.