Tarwater – Pomponio – Brook – Canyon


Length 10 miles · Climbing 1270 feet
California > San Francisco Bay Area > Portola and Pescadero parks

Jones Gulch Trail

This is an all-day hike through the center of Pescadero Creek County Park. The scenery is mostly rather dull tanoak and laurel woodland, but there are pockets of lush redwoods that keep the hike interesting. Overall the scenery gradually improves over the course of the loop. Although the woods are mostly second-growth, the highlight of the trip is a fine-looking redwood grove near the end that might be old growth.

The entire hike is well away from any sort of development and gets very few visitors.

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all roads and trails
Part of the Portola Redwoods and Pescadero Creek trail map from Redwood Hikes Press (third edition, 2014)

Hike description

Click here to see the trailhead location in Bing Maps (Google Maps has a lot of errors in this area).

Start at the Tarwater trailhead, accessed by a scenic single-lane road off Alpine Road. Don't cross the paved street, but take the branch of the Tarwater Loop that starts at the south end of the parking lot. This was originally a dirt road but has become so overgrown that it looks like a trail. The road descends through a nice hardwood forest, encountering a big spruce tree near the beginning, then a huge candelabra-shaped redwood further down. The road narrows into a trail and abruptly enters a strikingly dark, cool redwood grove that was heavily logged in the 1970s. The forest still looks torn-up and is rather gloomy. Just before the trail ends, the dismal landscape gives way to an attractive and much healthier-looking area of redwoods with no visible signs of logging.

Turn onto the Pomponio Trail, which starts off as a well-maintained dirt road, continues through the band of good-sized redwoods. Although these redwoods are probably second growth, they are particularly tall and straight and some have the light bark color normally found only on old growth redwoods. The look is remniscent of the old-growth redwoods of Big Basin's park headquarters area, but on a smaller scale.

Canyon Trail

After crossing an auto bridge (which can be really slippery), the trail breaks off from the road and climbs up a hillside through logged redwoods before leveling out in a rather dull, disheveled-looking tanoak and laurel forest. After passing a spur to Shaw Trail Camp, the scenery improves as the trail loops through two two dark, cool groves of small to mid-sized redwoods with an attractive redwood sorrel groundcover.

Continue along the Pomponio Trail to the intersection with the Brook Trail. At this point, energetic hikers can take a half-mile side trip to Jones Gulch. Here, a short section of trail with two footbridges passes through a clump of perhaps a dozen good-sized redwoods. The area is remarkably lush, with lichens covering the branches and redwood sorrel groundcover. Two creeks flow in surprisingly deep and narrow channels with vertical walls, joining near Granger Bridge. After a heavy rainfall, a turbulent torrent of water rushes through the channels and over a miniature waterfall that's perhaps 6 feet tall. The side trip can be hiked as an out-and-back to Granger Bridge, or as a short loop by combining fire roads and trails.

The Brook Trail Loop climbs into a Douglas-Fir wood with scattered redwoods; this area resembles the beginning of the Pomponio Trail but is quite a bit more attractive.

The Canyon Trail descends from the ridge through second-growth redwoods. The sound of gunfire from the distant Los Gatos Rod and Gun Club can sometimes be heard, as can the sound of traffic from Skyline Drive. Fortunately these sounds can only be heard for about a quarter-mile, until the trail turns north.

Tarwater Loop

The trail enters a cool, dark ravine where the biggest redwoods of the hike grow amid a dense tanoak understory and a dusting of redwood sorrel. Unfortunately the upper half of the ravine has been logged, and big stumps are everywhere. Soon, though, the stumps disappear and the trail enters what appears to be an unlogged old-growth grove. Just a few yards later, the dark, narrow ravine opens up into a bright and relatively open flat. Here, the big redwoods and tanoak give way to smaller redwoods with a dense huckleberry groundcover. The redwoods are remarkably straight and tall, especially compared with the irregular-looking redwoods in the logged area, and despite being smaller they still appear to be old growth. This is the most scenic part of the hike.

The trail then crosses Tarwater Creek. There's no bridge here and, although it's normally not a problem, the creek may be difficult to pass in the days after a heavy rain. When the water is low, you can see how the creek got its name - a thick scum of black tar accumulates on rocks and over still waters.

There's a final nice patch of redwoods after the creek crosing. Turn left onto the Tarwater Trail Loop to begin the climb back to the parking lot. Stumps appear almost immediately, and soon the trail leaves the redwoods altogether. The trail then climbs through open grassland alternating with patches of oak woodland. There are some views of conifer-clad Butano Ridge as well as an abandoned shed.

Abandoned shed on the Tarwater Loop

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© 2006–14 David Baselt