Hiking where summer looks like springtime


Yes, California’s golden (read: brown) hills are lovely, but even in non-drought years our mid-summer landscape seems coated by a dusty tinge that makes me long for a cool verdant setting. Fortunately for us, medicine for parched souls is just over the hill.
In addition to the heavier winter rains that pound the west slope of the coastal hills, trees trap about a third of their annual moisture from summer fog drip. All this makes for a landscape where summer looks like spring: running creeks, green hillsides and even August wildflowers.
Hidden in a secluded portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains, four adjacent parks join forces to cradle a huge chunk of the Pescadero Creek drainage. Looking at the map prior to my visit, it was clear this region between Palo Alto and San Gregorio was not handy. And in fact, just getting there was an adventure. But “remote” only adds to the attraction.
Memorial County Park, Sam McDonald County Park, Pescadero Creek County Park and Portola Redwoods State Park adjoin one another, and with their interconnected trail system, they are virtually a single park. From among the myriad hiking options, I chose a loop in Sam McDonald County Park that promised old-growth redwoods; survivors of long-gone lumber operations.
Several times on the drive down Alpine Road west of Skyline Boulevard, I pulled over thinking I must have missed something. Surely, I should be there by now, but I pressed on and finally arrived at a quiet and lonely parking lot. I put my day-use fee ($6) in the envelope and dropped it in the iron ranger, then stepped onto the Heritage Grove Trail and into a cool quiet redwood forest. Logging operations decimated this region 100 years ago, but Mother Nature has healed the wounds. Each step along the Heritage Grove Trail was through a lush second growth forest much of which has sprouted from the trunks of downed ancestors. Many of the stumps bore notches cut for springboards that supported loggers working opposite ends of a two-man saw.
Up the gently but steadily rising trail, from time to time I was abruptly jolted from my trail-walking reverie by a staggering tree beast. There I would stand, head tilted fully back, mouth agape, looking up in utter disbelief as the massive trunk rose and rose until it finally disappeared into the forest canopy. They all had aged with grace, but each bore scars, evidence of a long life and stories to tell.
Two miles out, a short trail spur led down to weakly flowing Alpine Creek and into the trail’s namesake, Heritage Grove, a lovely creekside gathering of impressive redwoods with benches for those who wish to linger. Back on the main trail, still climbing, the going began to brighten as the redwood duff that had been underfoot gave way to leaves of tanoaks and bays.
At the top, a single step popped me out of the forest and into an open field. Here was my first view across the more heavily forested hills toward Butano Ridge and the Pacific Ocean.
Concise driving instructions and precise trail linkages are too involved to give here, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter. I hiked the Heritage Grove Trail/Towne Fire Road Loop, but I imagine that a loop in any of these four parks will yield similar scenery. After my 5-mile walk in mid-70’s weather, I returned home to a 90-degree afternoon.
Is our long hot summer leaving your heart a little dry, dusty or thirsty? Refreshment is just over the hill.