Hike Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell

At Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park above Santa Cruz, a single ridge separates two very different habitats. Walking the trails on the park’s east side through bright slopes of mixed evergreen trees and chaparral, it seems so unlikely that just over the hill giant redwoods nearly 300 feet tall shade a forest floor dark, moist and green. The great thing about this park is that both settings are within easy reach of a day hiker.
On a cool misty weekend morning, I arrived at park headquarters just over seven miles above Santa Cruz on Highway 9 near Felton. It was 8:30 a.m. and I was surprised to see that neither the visitor center nor the park store was open, and they would not be open until 10 a.m. Allowance had been made for me to pay my day-use fee before staff arrived, but not to accommodate my most basic need as a visitor: a map of the park. I found a park maintenance person who kindly opened the entrance station and gave me a map. I would need it.
The main attraction at Henry Cowell State Park is just steps from park headquarters. The Redwood Grove Trail is a short loop that takes you past massive 1,600-year-old coast redwoods spared the axe when this region was clear-cut to build a bustling San Francisco in the decades after the gold rush. The River Trail took me beyond the loop to the network of trails in the farther reaches of the park.
Everything that makes a redwood forest magic was there to charm my walk. Redwood duff on the forest floor softened every step and gave a warm reddish counterpoint to a landscape of green ferns, redwood sorrel and second growth redwoods. Each crease in the hill carried a cascade surely designed by Walt Disney. Then, as the morning mist thinned, sunlight sliced by the forest canopy cast streaming God-rays across a hushed forest.
I was grateful for my map because signing at trail junctions was either missing or confusing. I worked my way to the Pipeline Road that took me to Overlook Bench where there was a view all the way to Santa Cruz through an opening in the forest canopy. At Powder Mill Fire Road I turned toward home and climbed toward the Observation Deck, the highest point in the park with distant views in every direction. By now, I had exchanged a cool redwood forest for a bright open one of knobcone pines and manzanita. Carefully navigating with my park map, I returned home down Pipeline Road.
Few places present such a variety of landscapes within reach of a day hiker as Henry Cowell State Park. Bring a map and keep your wits about you, but even if you don’t know where you are, it is lovely.

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