In the central Santa Cruz Mountains are five redwood-blanketed parks: Portola, Pescadero, Memorial, Sam McDonald, and Heritage Grove. These parks have an interconnected trail system and offer some very nice hiking, mostly in second-growth forests, but with a few patches of old growth.
There aren't really any spectacular sights in these parks, but if you live in the cities of the Peninsula or South Bay you'll find that the forests here are definitely a few notches nicer than the ones on the bay side of Skyline Ridge. The woodland is strikingly lush and green, and the area is quiet and remote, with little or no traffic noise on most trails and relatively few visitors.
Located just two miles north of Big Basin, Portola doesn't have the stately, serene redwoods, but it has some of the same mountain getaway feel and is much less crowded. It's really more of a quiet neighborhood park where people go to hang out and relax.
The park's main entrance and visitors' center are located in a redwood grove that's been protected from logging since 1924. The interpretive signs say the region was selectively logged before then, but most of the area still appears to be old growth, and Lawrence Fox's seminal 1986 redwood inventory classifies the area as old growth. The grove doesn't have the really big trees that we'd normally expect to find in an old-growth redwood lowland, so it has more of an upland appearance, but that's probably the natural condition of the area; practically no stumps are visible except for a cluster near the campfire center. It's possible that Portola escaped significant logging because it was too far from the mills and didn't have the big redwoods that other nearby locations, like the Middleton Tract and Slate Creek, offered.
Besides the main grove, the park has two remarkable outlying groves: Peters Creek, which is old-growth and can only be reached by a long trek with lots of climbing, and Slate Creek, which has been heavily logged but is nontheless quite scenic and easier to reach.
On a side note, the Portola visitor's center has one of the best park relief maps I've ever seen. The big, detailed three-dimensional map covers not just Portola but much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, including all of Big Basin State Park, plus Skyline Ridge and even Ben Lomond Mountain.
Pescadero may be the peninsula's most underappreciated park. Despite its attractive forests and an excellent, well-maintained network of trails, hardly anyone comes here. Even on a nice summer weekend you may not meet a single hiker on the trail. The land was at one time owned by a timber company and throughout the park are scattered dismal areas of logged redwooods, with lots of big stumps and a dense growth of small trees. However, most of the park consists of more gently-managed forests that don't show any sign of logging except, perhaps, for a lack of fallen trees. The redwood forests are restricted to the lowest elevations, with mixed forests and open grasslands higher up the hillsides. Taken as a whole, the park is more attractive and enjoyable than some old-growth redwood parks.
Pescadero lacks visitors because it hasn't been developed: there's no ranger station or visitor center, only two primitive trail camps, and no facilities. In fact, you can't even drive into the center of the park; you have to hike in from a neighboring park or from the Tarwater trailhead, a remote dirt lot that's accessed by a single-lane road. Plans to develop the park — which included a proposal to generate income for the county by logging its forests — were fortunately defeated by local residents concerned about traffic.
As a result of its isolation, Pescadero is strikingly quiet and peaceful, with a complete lack of traffic noise that's something of a shock for those of us who frequent the suburban parks around San Francisco Bay. Surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of conifer-clad hills, the park has a wild, remote feel that you just don't get closer to home. What's more, the park is close to the ocean and usually has refreshingly crisp and cool air in the summer, yet rarely gets the depressing all-day fog that cloaks the immediate coastline.
Two smaller neighboring parks, Memorial Park and Sam McDonald Park, are more developed than Pescadero Creek, with extensive camping facilities and some nice trails. Memorial County Park has a large and very popular campground set in an old-growth redwood grove. Sam McDonald County Park has a series of group campgrounds located in second-growth redwoods; there's also a horse camp and a hikers' cabin. A fourth park, Heritage Grove, is a tiny and attractive redwood grove located on Alpine Road. Together, the four county parks are known as the Pescadero Creek Complex.
The only staffed location in the Pescadero Creek Complex is the Memorial County Park entrance kiosk, where you can buy maps and ask about trail conditions.
** The Peters Creek Loop (11.5 miles)
A strenuous hike through unexceptional redwoods to a scenic redwood-filled canyon.
** Heritage Grove (0.5 miles)
Although this tiny park only contains a few dozen big redwoods and a few hundred feet of trail, it's worth a visit since it's really a very nice redwood grove.
** Coyote Ridge and Shingle Mill (5.8 miles)
This hike is a nice introduction to the area. Half the hike is in Portola and half in Pescadero, and the loop highlights the subtle differences between the two parks.
** The Mount Ellen Loop (4.6 miles)
This hike through Memorial County Park has more variety than most other hikes in the area, with only about a quarter of the hike passing through redwoods and the rest passing through chaparral and some unusually lush mixed-species forest.
* Butano Ridge (13.1 miles)
This exceptionally quiet and remote hike climbs to the top of a large isolated ridge that looms over the park. There aren't any views, but there are a lot of nice second-growth redwoods.
* Tarwater - Pomponio - Brook - Canyon (10.6 miles)
This very peaceful and isolated hike, an extended version of the Tarwater Loop, shows off the pleasant, bright redwood and hardwood forests of central Pescadero Creek County Park.
* The Heritage Grove Trail (6 miles)
This loop explores the best trails of Sam McDonald County Park. It climbs to a grassy ridgetop with panoramic views, passes the Hikers' Hut, then descends into mostly second-growth redwoods.
The Sheriff's Honor Camp, more commonly known as the La Honda Jail, has been (temporarily?) re-opened to relieve overcrowding in Redwood City jails. See this article in the Half Moon Bay Review and another in the Oakland Tribune.
All of the loop trails in Pescadero Creek and Sam McDonald County Parks were renamed in late 2015. Cheerful new trail markers were installed throughout the park and the drab old ones removed. The new signs also have intersection numbers.
The new trail names appear on the current editions of all Redwood Hikes Press maps.
© 2006-2015 David Baselt