Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers 30 miles of trails for hikers. Routes are complicated, always take a map with you when hiking. A free map is included in the park brochure, either online or at the entrance station. Purchase a more detailed topographic map from the Mountain Parks Foundation Nature Store.
If you have an hour, hike the shady, flat Redwood Grove Loop Trail. The largest tree is approximately 277 feet tall and 1,500 years old. Take a flashlight and step inside the famous Fremont Tree. There’s room for the whole family!
If you have half a day, walk from the campground through the ponderosa pines and chaparral of the sandhill community down to the Redwood Grove Loop trail and back—about 5 miles roundtrip. Take some time to loll along the San Lorenzo River. At the halfway point, head to the visitor center to learn about wildlife, plants, logging, and other park lore.
If you have a full day, see some of Cowell’s finest sights on a loop that includes the Redwood Grove, Observation Deck, Overlook Bench, Cathedral Redwoods, and Cable Car Beach. (For details, see “Cowell Highlights Loop” below.)
Redwood Grove Loop Trail
Trailhead: visitor center; 0.8 miles loop, elevation change 30 feet.
This ancient redwood grove is the park's most popular attraction. Among the grove’s admirers were explorer John C. Fremont, who camped here in 1846 while surveying the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Photographer Andrew P. Hill’s visit to the grove in 1900 helped launch the Sempervirens Club and the redwood preservation movement.
The hike is wheelchair-accessible, with restrooms available at the half-way point. Dogs, horses, and bicycles are NOT allowed. A printed guide to the loop is available in English and French. If you’d rather listen to the information, you can download mp3 files to your phone or computer.
Trailhead: main entrance; approximately 1 mile loop , gentle terrain.
Start on the Meadow Trail, which begins just after you cross the San Lorenzo River on the park entrance road just off Highway 9. You’ll skirt the meadow, past sycamores, box elders, and open grassland. It’s a good place to see deer, coyotes, and birds—especially at dusk and dawn.
The Meadow Trail ends at the Mountain Parks Foundation’s Nature Store. From there, return on the River Trail. Look for lush streamside vegetation, waterfowl and steelhead trout. You’ll surely see or hear one of the park’s Steller’s jays, a brash steel-blue bird with a crest. [link to crumb-clean video]
Trailheads: campground at Powdermill Fire Road; approximately 1 mile roundtrip, elevation change 250 feet.
This gentle hike will walk you through rare ancient marine deposits known as the Santa Cruz Sandhills — one of the few places you can see ponderosa pines below 3,000 feet in elevation. It’s the only place you can see silver-leaf manzanita, Santa Cruz kangaroo rats (if you're lucky!), and Mount Hermon June beetles. Up top, you’ll be rewarded with expansive views of Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. (If you’re on horseback, there’s even a special drinking fountain for your steed.) Look for deer and listen for the raucous calls of acorn woodpeckers. You’ll also get a look at some of the places where the park has conducted controlled burns. After years of fire suppression, these fires rejuvenate the vegetation and protect against catastrophic wildfires.
A longer hike to the Observation Deck starts from the visitor center. (see below in the “Moderate Hikes” section).
Observation Deck - highest point in the park at 805 feet elevation (245 meters)
Trailhead: visitor center; approximately 5 mile roundtrip, elevation change 600 feet.
Walk a mile up Pipeline Road through thick stands of second-growth redwoods. Veer left onto the single-track Eagle Creek Trail, and head up a lush, spring-fed hillside for 0.8 miles. Just before you reach the campground, turn right onto Pine Trail. Walk 0.7 miles along that single-track through the Santa Cruz sandhills to the Observation Deck. Have a look at the tall ponderosa pines along the way.
Trailhead: visitor center; approximately 4 miles, elevation change 300 feet.
To reach this breathtaking family circle of coast redwoods, take Pipeline Road to Rincon Fire Road, to Big Rock Hole Trail. On the return trip, head to Cable Car Beach for a swim and continue back to the visitor center on the River Trail.
Cowell Highlights Loop
Trailhead: visitor center; 5.9 miles, elevation change 420 feet.
Like Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, this hike has everything: redwoods, views, and water. From the visitor center, head up through the redwoods along Pipeline Road to the Eagle Creek Trail. Near the campground, turn right on the Pine Trail. In less than a mile you’ll reach the Observation Deck at 805 feet, the highest point in the park. From there head down the Ridge Fire Road to great views of downtown Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay from the Overlook Bench on Pipeline Road. As you loop back, you can swing by Cathedral Redwoods (on the Big Rock Hole Trail) and Cable Car Beach (on the River Trail). On a warm day, that’s a good place to finish with an afternoon swim.
Trailhead: south end Fall Creek unit; 3 miles roundtrip, elevation change 300 feet.
From the south end of the Fall Creek Unit, take Bennett Creek Trail to Fall Creek Trail to South Fork Trail. A second-growth redwood forest changes to madrone and tanoak near your destination: the ruins of entrepreneur Henry Cowell’s limestone kilns.
Campground to Redwood Grove Loop
Trailhead: campground; 5 miles, elevation change
Walk between campground sites 82 and 84, past the scrubby chaparral of the Santa Cruz sandhills. Take Eagle Creek Trail down to Pipeline Road to the Redwood Grove loop trail and back. Along the way, take some time to loll along the San Lorenzo River. At the halfway point, head to the visitor center to learn about wildlife, plants, logging, and other park lore. Check out the steam trains next door before heading uphill back to the campground.
Trailhead: Fall Creek; approximately 7.5 miles round trip, elevation change 1,400 feet.
Almost all of Fall Creek’s ancient redwoods were cut down to fuel Henry Cowell’s lime kilns. One that remains is a mid-sized (six feet in diameter) tree called Big Ben. To view it, follow the directions for the 1.1-mile hike to the Kiln Ruins (above). From there take the Cape Horn Trail to the Lost Empire Trail for an additional 2.7 miles. Return the way you came.
If you’d prefer a less epic hike: Park where the Sunlit Trail starts along the Empire Grade. With a mere half mile of effort, you’ll get to see Big Ben, but you’ll miss the kiln ruins.
Four Crossings (there are NO bridges at these river crossings; crossings can be difficult to find, always hike with a map)
Trailhead: campground at Powdermill Fire Road to Buckeye Trail to Rincon Fire Road to Ridge Fire Road to Powdermill Fire Road; approximately 5 mile loop, elevation change 600 feet. July to October.
If you have a good sense of direction and adventure, try this exploration of the San Lorenzo River Gorge. There are NO bridges at these crossings. From July to October the hike’s four river crossings are doable for most people. But in the rainy season, beware! If the water rises above knee height, choose a different hike. In any season, this hike poses route-finding challenges. Each year the storms and the river slightly change how the crossing locations, so please BRING A MAP.
Follow Powdermill Fire Road to the Buckeye trailhead, to Rincon Fire Road, the to Ridge Fire Road to hike back through the Santa Cruz Sandhills and the Observation deck to hook back up with Powdermill Fire Road to return to the start.