Observation Deck at Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, ironically named for the lime magnate who felled the majestic trees on his land to feed his kilns, nonetheless claims a strong connection to the beginning of the Save the Redwoods movement. As the story goes, famed redwood photographer Andrew P. Hill was on assignment to get some shots of the aftermath of a Felton fire that was put out by wine from a local winery. He took a detour to snap a few old growth redwoods but was chased out by the landlord of what was then a resort. The run-in inspired him to join the burgeoning movement to save the majestic giants. Later Hill would be instrumental in the forming of the Sempervirens Club and in lobbying for preservation. Though Big Basin Redwoods State Park would be the first park to be established in this early burst of environmental activism, Henry Cowell proudly boasts its connection to this defining moment in history.

What To Do

The park does allow dogs on certain trails. All paved paths, picnic areas, and campgrounds are fair game, as at most State Parks. Which at this park actually means quite a bit, most notably through the park-traversing Pipeline Road, which follows the river for a couple of miles south from the Visitor’s Center before continuing on to the far corner of the park’s boundary. Multiple trails also permit pooches, such as the Meadow Trail in the day use area and the Graham Hill Trail by the campgrounds, plus the dirt-track Powder Mill Fire Road. Add all those together, and you can do quite a bit of hiking with the hound, though no loops present themselves.

If you’re looking for redwoods, you should find them easily: they’re on the Redwood Loop. Most of the giant old-growth specimens are here, as the rest of the park was largely clear-cut in the “age of progress.” This .8-mile trail, with its entrance/exit located directly adjacent to the Visitor’s Center, is ADA-accessible. Flat and wide and with benches placed periodically along it, this loop is the best bet for a short, easy hike and a must for tree seekers. Highlights include the white-leafed albino redwood, the cave-like Fremont Tree, the many-trunked Wonder Tree, and the aptly named Giant.

Go on a quest to find the Lost Redwood. Hint: it’s on the Eagle Creek Trail. Big hint: it’s off a very short little side trail just down the hill from the footbridge, about a quarter-mile south of the junction with the Pine Trail. There’s a bench there dedicated to a former Sierra Club leader, so you can sit and really take in this unique tree, perhaps the only old-growth tree outside of the Redwood Loop.

The Observation Deck boasts the best view in the park, and sits along the Ridge Fire Road just about a mile from the campgrounds, which by the way is open to day use visitors- see “Where to Go” below. Alternatively, you can make a full day hike of it by incorporating the River and Eagle Creek trails into a loop of about 4-5 miles or throw in a trip to the Cathedral Redwoods fairy ring to extend the adventure.

Swimming has been one of the park’s biggest attractions since it first opened as a Santa Cruz County Park back in the 1930s. Today there are plenty of great little swimming spots to be found along the River Trail, including Cable Car Beach, which at the crossroads of the Eagle Creek and River trails provides the most convenient river access for campers. Day users can enjoy the walk out to it, though you’re sure to find more than a few spots just by walking the River Trail, starting by the first picnic area. Be warned about the infamous Garden of Eden, though- it’s quite popular, especially with the party crowd. On top of that, it doesn’t have a service road leading to it, so there’s a lot of trash and not a lot of ranger presence.

When To Go

Typically the park is only open sunrise to sunset, but they do have a number of free interpretive activities that allow summer visitors to enjoy the park…after dark. Join weekly Star Strolls up to the Observation Deck from the campgrounds or enjoy live jazz monthly at Full Moon Madness down at the Visitor Center. Both are fun, family-friendly events that are open to anybody with a day pass.

‘Tis the season, always! Redwoods are perhaps at their most beautiful in the winter rain and fog, and of course, less-than-ideal weather keeps most of the crowds away. That said, the river provides summer swimming, spring is bouncing with wildlife, and in the fall you can watch the leaves of the Dawn Redwood by the kiosk turn a vibrant rust-orange. You really can’t go wrong.

Where To Go

There are two (2) main entrances to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. If you’re looking for the day use area, replete with Visitor Center, Picnic Areas, the ADA-access Redwood Loop and the San Lorenzo River, you want to go to the entrance located off of Highway 9. The address is 101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton CA 95018.

If you’re looking for the campground area, to camp for the night or just enjoy the incredibly rare Sandhills for the day, you’ll want the entrance located at 2591 Graham Hill Rd, Scotts Valley, CA 95060. There’s day use parking for non-campers, but you’ll need a parking pass. That’s not a problem April to November, but when the campgrounds close you’ll either need an annual pass or you’ll need to go to the day use kiosk on the other side of the park to buy a day pass ($10). If you do, keep in mind that the Rangers can’t patrol the lot very often in the off-season and break-ins are known to happen there.

Then there’s door number three, the Fall Creek sub-unit. A lesser-known section that doesn’t boast the vistas or unique biology that can be found in the main park, nor does it allow dogs, but it does have its own charms and history. Follow its winding trails along the picturesque rolling brook that is the unit’s namesake. Explore the telltale ruins of the historic IXL Limekilns. Just keep in mind that the parking lot is just that, a dirt lot. There are no bathrooms, maps, or running water available at the trailhead. To get there, go about a half-mile up Felton Empire Road past the junction with Highway 9 in downtown Felton, the dirt parking lot is on the right.

Tips

Though it’s not the biggest park in the county, there are hiking, biking, and equestrian options beyond what’s described here. It’s strongly recommended that adventurers go by the Visitor Center and talk to the docents about hike ideas, trail closures, wildlife sightings, and whatever other essential info they think you should know that day. Plus you can check out the 3D trail map, which really gives perspective about the elevation changes you can expect on your travels.

The Mountain Parks Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park, operates a store next to the main day-use-area parking lot. They sell all kinds of fun and kitschy souvenirs to commemorate your visit to the park, as well as some light refreshments to enjoy, including Marianne’s Ice Cream Sandwiches. Mountain Parks funds all interpretive programs at Henry Cowell, so if you want to help support things like campfires, Junior Rangers, and guided hikes, buying a banana slug magnet is a great way to do it.

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