4.7 mile loop through redwoods and chaparral.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 4.7 mile loop hike is easy, with about 700 feet in elevation
change. Trail elevations ranges from just below 100 feet to 800 feet (some
parts of the park top out at over 1000 feet, but there are no trails through
those areas). The featured hike begins at about 270 feet, drops slightly,
climbs to 800 feet, then descends back to the trailhead.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
2 1/2 hours.
Nice any time.
From CA 17 in Santa Cruz County, exit Mt. Hermon Road. Drive northwest on
Mt. Hermon Road through Scotts Valley to the end of the road in Felton (about
3.5 miles). Turn right onto Graham Hill Road, get into the left lane, and
turn left onto CA 9. Drive about 0.5 mile south on CA 9, then turn left
into the signed park entrance road. Drive about 0.5 mile to the entrance
kiosk, then continue straight 0.1 mile to the main parking lot, at the end
of the road.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Longitude 122° 3'48.08"W
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Restaurants, stores, and gas in Felton. The park has a nice campground that
accomodates tents and RVs.
$10 entrance fee. $2 for a park map. Lots of parking in a paved lot. Some
free parking on the side of CA 9 near the park entrance -- but it's
about 0.5 mile from there to the trailhead. Drinking water and restrooms
at the edge of the parking lot. There are designated handicapped parking
spots, and Redwood Grove Loop Trail is wheelchair accessible. Metro bus
#31 stops at the campground entrance, and #35 services Felton, but no bus
stops at the park entrance.
The park has a complicated set of rules, but following them is easy, since
they're posted on the map and on trail signs throughout the park. Some trails
(fire roads) are multi-use, others are open to hikers and equestrians, and
a few are hiking only. Dogs are not permitted on every trail described in
the following hike. They are permitted on leash only, on three trails: Pipeline
Road, Meadow Trail, and Graham Hill Trail. For day use, the park is open
during daylight hours only (generally dawn to dusk).
The Official Story:
Park office 831-335-4598
Camp and Big Trees Narrow-gauge Railroad
This hike is
described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Download the park
map pdf from CSP's website.
Dave Baselt's San Lorenzo Valley map is an excellent guide
to Henry Cowell and surrounding parklands (order
from Redwood Hikes).
Trails of Santa Cruz, by Pease Press (order
from Pease Press) shows Henry Cowell trails in great detail.
Tom Taber's Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map
and trail descriptions (order
this book from Amazon.com)
Henry Cowell in a nutshell
-- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.
photos from this hike.
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Cowell Redwoods State Park faces summer floods
of tourists like the other most popular redwood parks in the bay area,
Big Basin and Muir Woods. Cowell is bigger than Muir Woods but smaller
than Big Basin, and all three feature short and easy redwood promenades.
But Henry Cowell's day use staging area and campground have separate auto
access points, and no road travels through the park, so although the park
gets busy, visitors are somewhat dispersed. Also, Cowell, nestled in a
canyon along the San Lorenzo River and CA 9, gets significant daily traffic
from local equestrians, runners, and cyclists. These visitors move through
the park with a sense of purpose quite
different from tourists who have never seen a redwood before.
Henry Cowell abuts Pogonip and University
of California Santa Cruz property, and Wilder Ranch sprawls just on the
other side of Empire Grade. You could make a long one-way shuttle hike
through all four places on a series of connecting trails. Within the confines
of Cowell, trails range from tiny footpaths to wide fire roads, and the
trail network permits quite a few loops. Note that trails crossing the
San Lorenzo River do so without the aid of footbridges -- you may be unable
to ford the river during the wettest months, and even in summer you'll
get your feet wet.
The park's varied terrain and vegetation
is a nice surprise, adding an extra dimension to hikes. Redwoods are what
Cowell is known for, but you'll also find chaparral distinguished by knobcone
and ponderosa pines. Although Cowell is busiest in summer, that's a pleasant
time of year to visit, particularly when there's a breeze blowing uphill
You can combine a hike at Cowell with a
ride on Roaring Camp and Big Trees' narrow gauge railroad. Railroad headquarters
is right next door to Cowell's parking lot, and trains make short loops
through redwoods (outside of the park), as well as journeys back and forth
to the beach at Santa Cruz. Train whistles punctuate hikes at Cowell,
and some trains run through the park, to the delight of railroad enthusiasts
and children of all ages.
If you want redwoods but seek to avoid
the crowds altogether, you may want to visit Fall
Creek Unit, a separate, detached area of the park, north and west
of Henry Cowell's main area. Hiking is more of a challenge there,
with steep trails ranging up and down canyons.
the featured hike with the masses, at the edge of the parking lot.
A sign for the redwood grove points the way. Paved Redwood Grove
Loop Trail, closed to equestrians, crosses Pipeline Road and passes a
cross-section of redwood, then delves into a forest. The massive
redwoods are stunning, and there's a nice mix of bigleaf maple,
tanoak, California bay, and hazelnut along the broad path. At about 0.4
mile, you'll reach the far end of the loop. Bear right, then pass to
the right of a gate marked with a small sign pointing right, "to
Although several paths ascend left, toward the
railroad tracks, the trail bends right here, parallel to the tracks.
Redwoods still loom overhead as the broad dirt path ends at an unsigned
junction with Pipeline Road. Turn left.
The wide paved multi-use trail descends
about 0.5 mile, River Trail doubles back to the right, at a signed junction.
Continue to the left on Pipeline Road. The railroad trestle crosses
the San Lorenzo River here and if you hear a train whistle close-by, you
may want to wait for a remarkable view of the train chugging over
the trestle. Pipeline Trail crosses under the trestle and
runs along the river, keeping a level pace. Bigleaf maples on the
right are particularly pretty in autumn. At about 0.65 mile, River Trail
breaks off to the right. Bear right on River Trail.
The dirt path, open to hikers and equestrians
only, runs between Pipeline Road and San Lorenzo River. Gradually River
Trail bends right, following the river. At about 0.7 mile, a connector
feeds in from the
left -- continue to the right on River Trail. The path reaches
a shaded and flat area, near Cable Car Beach. Check out the beach if you
like, then head uphill to a signed junction at about 0.8 mile. Continue
straight, now on Eagle Creek Trail. (When I visited in June 2002,
I intended to remain on River Trail, but it was closed due to a bridge
Open to hikers and equestrians only, Eagle
Creek Trail climbs slightly through a dark canyon, following Eagle Creek
upstream from its confluence with the river. Dozens of downed young
redwoods lean against the sloping hillsides like pencils spilled
from a cup. At about 0.9 mile, Eagle Creek Trail crosses Pipeline Road
at a signed junction. Continue straight.
Eagle Creek Trail persists uphill at a moderate
to easy grade, through redwood, California bay, tanoak, madrone, and hazelnut.
Azalea shrubs are common, as is poison oak in sections where sunlight
filters down to the trail. A footbridge permits an easy crossing of Eagle
Creek, then its namesake trail turns right (a fairly recent reroute) and
climbs on some steps into a mixed woodland. Redwood and madrone still
line the trail, but you might also notice thicker stands of California
bay, and some towering coast live oaks. In June, sharp-eyed hikers might
see tiny white blossoms on yerba buena plants growing close to the ground.
Eagle Creek Trail crests and steps out into a
whole new world, of sunlight and chaparral. Redwood duff gives way to
white sand, and California coffeeberry, chamise, lizardtail, yerba santa,
buckbrush, monkeyflower, manzanita, and knobcone and ponderosa pine crowd
the trail. You might see bush poppy in bloom during late spring. Eagle
Creek Trail returns to a shaded woodland dominated by oaks, then reaches
a signed multiple junction at about 1.7 miles. Take the first right
onto Pine Trail.
After a few steps, Pine Trail, closed to
cyclists, returns to chaparral. Knobcone pine, with closed pinecones,
seem positively puny compared to the willowy ponderosa pines, distinguished
by open cones and bark some people describe as a "jigsaw-puzzle"
pattern. Sticky monkeyflower makes a strong showing along the trail in
June, when masses of orange-yellow blossoms are conscious amongst a sea
of olive-colored manzanita, chinquapin, huckleberry, tanoak, and ceanothus.
The sand can be pretty deep in places, but thankfully the trail is nearly
level. At about 2.1 miles, Pine Trail bends right at a signed junction
not far from the campground.
Follow the trail to the right.
A few shrubs of purple bush lupine mix
through chamise, manzanita, monkeyflower, pines, and huckleberry. Pine
Trail reaches the observation deck and multiple junctions at about 2.3
miles. This is the logical stop for lunch. There's a picnic table on the
left, but since it was occupied on my visit, I took the flight of stairs
to the observation deck, where a tall ponderosa pine shaded a corner of
the deck (there's also a picnic table, but it was in full sun). From this,
the park's highest elevation, there are some views, but at only 800 feet
the vistas are slightly underwhelming. I've read that Monterey Bay is
visible but either I missed that, or the thin layer of coastal fog blocked
the view. I was most impressed by the Santa Cruz Mountains near Loma Prieta
-- the ridge looks massive from this spot. When you're ready to continue,
descend from the deck and turn
You should pass a drinking fountain on the
right and to the left, a small sign reading "Ridge Fire Road to Pipeline
Road." A few steps later a proper sign reaffirms the route. Although
this is a multi-use "fire road," the path is quite narrow. Ridge
Fire Road descends slightly, passing through some familiar plants: look
for yerba santa, manzanita, chamise, chinquapin, monkeyflower, chaparral
pea, pines, scrubby oaks, and young Douglas fir. A forested ridge comes
into view in the distance, straight ahead. The quantity of sand on the
trail makes things interesting. One section of the trail is carved out
of the hillside, like a mini sandstone canyon. A few tall and long steps
drop Ridge Fire Road back into the woods, then at about 2.8 miles, Ridge
Fire Road meets Pipeline Road at a signed junction. Continue straight
on Ridge Fire Road (Pipeline Road, to the right, is an optional route).
The trail widens, living up its fire road
designation. As Ridge Fire Road climbs easily through redwoods, you might
hear traffic noise from CA 9, common in this part of the park. At
about 3.0 miles, Ridge Fire Road ends at a signed junction with Rincon
Fire Road. Turn right.
Broad multi-use Rincon Fire Road descends,
remaining in the redwood forest. At about 3.2 miles, River Trail begins
on the left -- an optional route if open. Continue straight on Rincon
Fire Road. The grade is steady and moderate, mostly downhill. Look
for wild ginger, starflower, iris, and redwood sorrel along the trail
in spring. Ignore a signed connector to River Trail at about 3.3 miles,
and continue on Rincon Fire Road to a signed T junction at about
3.6 miles. Turn left onto Pipeline Road.
Paved multi-use Pipeline Road climbs gently,
then levels out. At about 3.7 miles, you'll reach a previously encountered
junction with Eagle Creek Trail. This time, continue straight on Pipeline
Pipeline Road descends at a moderate
grade, dropping to the edge of a redwood forest. River Trail feeds in
from the left. As you retrace your steps on Pipeline Road, you'll have
one last opportunity for a glimpse of the train at the trestle crossing.
At about 4.4 miles, just past the trestle, you'll have an option to walk
on River Trail, or continue on paved Pipeline Road. Both lead back to
the trailhead. You can also take Pipeline Road back to the connecting
path leading to the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. I took Pipeline Road, which
remains level as it wanders through bigleaf maple, California bay, and
some huge sycamores. There are lots of squirrels along the trail, and
at one point it seemed like 4 of them were playing tag. At about 4.7 miles,
Pipeline Road passes the Nature Center, on the right, and reaches the
paved trail to Redwood Grove Loop Trail. Turn left and return to the
about 4.7 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, June 11, 2002