Fall Creek Unit, Henry Cowell State Park

I love redwood hikes, and we are blessed with many fine ones in the Bay Area. But finding the “perfect” redwood destination is tricky. It needs to be a nice redwood forest, and some of the more convenient redwood hikes aren’t that redwoody. Plus, driving to the destination should not be a chore. The best redwood hikes, buried deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, require a time-consuming drive over twisty roads that nauseate my kids and can ruin the experience for everyone.

When I’m in the mood for a quick redwood hike, I typically go to Wunderlich County Park in Woodside, which is quite good but suffers from less-than-peak redwoodiness, plenty of crowds, and lots of horse poop. When I’m in the mood to drive a little longer for a better redwood experience, my new favorite is Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell State Park. Its selling points:

* redwoodiness: the park is in prime redwood country. It was heavily logged a century ago, but it remains a first-rate second-growth redwood forest. The lovely year-round Fall Creek enhances the scenery.

* convenience: it’s just a half-mile outside of Felton. Getting there via Highway 17 is no joy, but I find 17 OK if I leave early and drive slow. The park’s official website instructs visitors to drive to Santa Cruz and then back to Felton on Highway 9, but it’s quicker for Valley residents to take 17 to Mt. Hermon Road, which turns into Felton Empire Road as it crosses Highway 9. The park entrance is just a half-mile further on Felton Empire on the right. Door-to-door from Mountain View is about 40 minutes with no traffic (only about 15 minutes each way more than Wunderlich for a noticeably better redwood experience).

* bonus attractions. In addition to top-quality and convenient redwood hike, Fall Creek Unit has other points of interest, including limekiln ruins (lime is used to make cement, which helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 fire) and the ruins of a cooperage which manufactured redwood barrels to ship the lime. The park also offers its own named redwood tree, “Big Ben,” which I found underwhelming and not worth the extra hike (but the extra hike was worth it for other reasons). My favorite part of the park was “Lost Camp,” an incredibly scenic hollow. Note: when we went, the signage from the Fall Creek Trail going to the Big Ben Trail was missing, so we blew right past it. Pay close attention at that intersection. See the entire photo album from our hike.

* free parking! The parking lot isn’t that big, so go early. On the plus side, once we got past the limekilns, we pretty much had the park to ourselves.

Wunderlich remains my default redwood hike, but Fall Creek Unit is a great option to add to my mix. Plus, Felton or Santa Cruz offer convenient after-hiking festivities if time permits.

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