The Peters Creek Loop
Length 11.5 miles Climbing 1820 feet
The Peters Creek canyon is home to the third-largest old-growth redwood grove in the Santa Cruz Mountains, after Big Basin and Henry Cowell. The redwoods aren't immense, but there are some pretty good-sized trees, and the grove has an unusually plush carpet of redwood sorrel that gives it a lush and very attractive appearance. Getting there requires a challenging 5 mile walk each way through hilly, partially-logged redwood uplands, but it's a pleasant walk and the old-growth grove makes a rewarding payoff. There are also some isolated large redwoods on the way.
The main drawback of this hike is the lack of variety. Most of the hike passes through homogenous uplands clogged with a dense tanoak understory. This hike can also be more exhausting than the elevation profile suggests: the steep climb at the beginning combined with a second steep climb halfway through has a way of sapping your energy.
Starting from one of the parking lots near Park Headquarters, walk south along the paved service road. Walk past the Old Tree Trail and over a few small rises, then turn left at the Summit Trail. This trail starts as a dirt road but soon turns into singletrack. It climbs insistently past mid-sized redwoods, then reaches a summit and descends to an intersection with the Slate Creek Trail. Although the trees aren't very big, this area appears to be old growth and has some nice patches of redwoods.
Turn right onto the Slate Creek Trail. The distant sounds of gunfire from the Los Gatos Rod and Gun Club, about 5 miles away, can be heard from a few ridgetop locations.
The trail passes through a saddle and enters a wide, shallow valley that has clearly been logged, with lots of mid-sized redwood stumps. Fortunately the forest seems to be regenerating nicely, with none of the gloomy or dismal look that second-growth forests often have. There's a very dense understory of huckleberry shrubs.
At the 5-way intersection by the Slate Creek Trail Camp, turn left onto the dirt road that climbs gently. A discouraging sign warns that the hike to Peters Creek is a strenuous 7-mile round-trip from this point. The road runs through one of the more intensively-logged sections of forest, but the woods are relatively open and bright, and the late-afternoon sunlight slanting through the trees can make the area attractive.
The road, now cut into a hillside above a canyon, soon narrows to a trail. The stumps end at this point and a narrow strip of old-growth redwoods appears in the canyon, with about half a dozen big trees and many smaller ones. You have to peer through the dense screen of tanoak to see some of the redwoods.
The trail leaves the redwoods and briefly climbs through thick brush before entering an attractive wood near the highest point of the hike. There's a lot of poison oak beginning at this point and continuing all the way to the old-growth grove. The poison oak is worst just before the high point of the hike, where the trail can be completely overgrown, but it's usually clear.
Finally, the trail begins a steep descent into the Peters Creek canyon. The trail, which can be faint in this area, at first descends through a grove of light-colored fir trees. Near the start of the descent is a brief and very limited view through a small break in the trees. The high ridge in the distance is Butano Ridge and is part of Pescadero Creek County Park. Below that is a prominent knob; the Slate Creek Trail, which you just hiked, is cut into the left side of that knob.
The woods get noticably more lush as the trail approaches the bottom of the canyon. The trail rounds a bend and passes through a small band of redwoods, then descends a little more and enters a darker, lusher redwood grove. The change in the landscape is sudden and dramatic; it feels like a different world in the redwoods. As the trail descends into a vast sea of redwood foliage, a creek burbles below and the steep hillside is covered with the most extensive carpet of redwood sorrel that I've seen in the Bay Area. There's a dense understory of tanoak.
The trail descends into the cool and shady Bear Creek canyon, the lushest and most impressive part of the old-growth grove. The point at which the trail crosses Bear Creek is the scenic high point of the trip. The trail then runs along the hillside above the creek to the loop trail intersection. Turn right to follow Peters Creek through some nice old growth. Just before the trail crosses the creek, it passes an especially large redwood, maybe the biggest in the grove.
The creek crossing doesn't have a bridge but is normally only a few inches deep, even when it's raining. However, the scenery isn't quite as good on the other side, so don't cross the creek if the water happens to be unusually high. The trail climbs to an old dirt road and runs high above the creek, along the edge of the old growth.
The trail crosses the creek again. Compared with the northern half of the loop, the southern half isn't quite as as lush and scenic, and is more clogged with tanoak. Returning to the loop intersection, turn right to rejoin the Bear Creek Trail and return the way you came. The climb out of the canyon has an unusually steep 16.5% grade and can be slow and tiring. However, I always get the most tired on the long, flat section of the Slate Creek Trail that follows.
For an optional side trip, turn left at the 5-way intersection near Slate Creek Camp and hike a mile down the Slate Creek Trail, turning around at the point where it crosses Slate Creek and begins to climb steeply. The trail begins as a dirt road that descends into a dark, redwood-lined ravine. The best scenery is past the Page Mill site, where the trail becomes singletrack. This area has unfortunately been heavily logged, but the unusually lush environment still makes an interesting and scenic walk.
For variety, take the Slate Creek Trail instead of the Summit Trail back to the park headquarters area. The Slate Creek Trail is a little longer, but less it's steep and passes a nice redwood-filled ravine.
© 2006–2014 David Baselt