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Hike Among Redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park

When a steam train chugging through soaring redwoods is just one among many amazing sites you'll see at Henry Cowell State Park, you know you're in for something magical. There’s also the ancient redwood grove, beautiful river, conifer-covered footbridges, and sandy beach. See the highlights on this 5-mile, figure-8-shaped hike that includes an observation deck with 360-degree views to inspire.

Start at the Redwood Grove Loop, heading southeast towards the River Trail. The wide, gentle path meanders among peaceful coast redwoods, the tallest tree species on earth. Bay trees and redwood saplings fill the understory, with wild ginger and redwood sorrel carpeting the forest floor. Railroad tracks run along the grove’s eastern side, with Roaring Camp trains taking passengers up to Bear Mountain.

Redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park

Exit the far end of the grove by the Fremont Tree and pick up the quiet River Trail, heading southeast. The San Lorenzo River flows peacefully beside the dirt path. From the leafy forest, you may see great blue herons, ducks, and Steller’s jays. Pass under a railroad trestle, continuing on the River Trail to Cable Car Beach. Clamber down to a sandbar and enjoy the meditative flow of the river. Then, pick up the adjacent Eagle Creek Trail, beginning a clockwise loop towards the campground. Second-growth redwoods and Douglas firs tower over Eagle Creek as you climb the edge of a tanoak- and trillium-lined ravine.

After a mile, hop on the Pine Trail, climbing south towards the observation deck. Knobcone and ponderosa pines surround a deep, sandy trail. It almost feels like you’re walking on an ocean beach, except you’re surrounded by manzanita, sticky monkeyflower, and madrone. This special place is a sandhill chaparral ecosystem.

A half mile up the beachy mountainside, reach the observation deck at 805 feet. A flight of stairs leads to 360-degree views of Santa Cruz forests and ridges. North and northwest views include the San Lorenzo Valley, Scotts Valley, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Signs point out nearby mountains, including Mount Thayer. To the southeast is Fremont Peak, and on clear days you can see the Santa Lucia Mountains. You’re just past the halfway point here, so it’s also a good picnic spot.

When ready, take the Ridge Road (behind the observation deck), descending west to Rincon Road. This section is exposed, so plop on your hat as you continue on the sandy trail for the next 0.7 mile. At Rincon Road, descend north to the River Trail, enjoying the shade once more.

Pass delightful redwood family circles bearing left onto a hiker-only portion of the River Trail. (Family circles in redwoods refers to a “papa” redwood stump in the center, with “children” radiating outward; they’re easy to spot because they form circles.) Close the loop back at Cable Car Beach. Retrace your steps back to the Redwood Grove Loop, finishing your hike among wondrous giants.

Hike the Redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park

The trail begins from the North Big Trees Road parking lot in Henry Cowell State Park’s main unit in Felton. Trail junctions are well-signed, but there are a lot of them. It’s a good idea to bring the park brochure with a map. Numbered signs on the Redwood Grove Loop correspond to a pamphlet on the park’s website. Parking fee is $10, payable at the entrance station. No dogs.

Story and photos by Melissa Ozbek, @melissaozbek

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