Henry Cowell’s redwood grove is the largest old-growth grove south of Big Basin and is an intriguing glimpse into what the extensive redwood forests around Santa Cruz might have once looked like. The grove is on an alluvial flat just south of the logging town of Felton. Besides the 0.8-mile loop trail, the Roaring Camp Railroad passes through the grove, and the silence of the redwoods is often pierced by the loud hoots of trains.
In many ways the grove has a typical old-growth feel; it’s remarkably cool and lush, with a groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel, and there’s a characteristic hush from all the sound-dampening foliage. However, typically for southern groves near the ocean, there aren’t a lot of big redwoods here, and an unusual number of the trees are oddly mishhapen. Also, mixed in with the redwoods is a thick understory of tanoak and bay trees that obscures the redwoods and makes the grove look like a dense deciduous forest. The broadleaf growth is densest within the redwood loop; the old growth just outside the loop is much more open, suggesting that the grove’s appearance may be partly the result of fire suppression or other land management practices.
Compared to nearby Big Basin, the Cowell grove is more lush but less redwood-dominated; Big Basin has more impressive redwoods and feels more wild. Nontheless, Henry Cowell is still a good place to appreciate an old-growth forest, especially since the grove acts as a gateway to the San Lorenzo River and second-growth forest hikes. Although some of the second-growth areas of the park are quite pleasant, passing through the big redwoods makes you appreciate the grandeur and the special beauty of old growth forests.
This was the first coast redwood grove to be saved from logging. As the story is told in Deborah Osterberg's Historic Tales of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the grove became well-known after the explorer John C. Fremont published a description of the largest tree in the area, The Giant, or Fremont’s Tree, in 1846. At the time the tree and the grove around it was owned by Isaac Graham, a local sawmill owner for whom Graham Hill Road is named.
After Graham died, the grove came up for sale. In 1867 it was purchased by Joseph Welch, who had moved to California during the 1849 gold rush and made a living in the newspaper delivery business. Welch, who lived in San Francisco, apparently took a hands-off approach to managing the grove, and allowed anyone to enter or picnic there for free.
In 1875, a logging rail line from Santa Cruz to the south end of the grove opened and dramatically increased the number of visitors. Four years later, the line was extended through the old growth, cutting off part of the grove.
After Welch’s death in 1875, his widow hired a manager who built a small hotel near The Giant, beginning the transformation of the grove into a resort. The resort wasn’t profitable, so in 1891 it started charging a 10 cent per person admission fee, and in 1897 raised it to 25 cents, roughly equivalent to $10 today.
In 1899, San Jose photographer Andrew P. Hill visited the grove and was rather rudely treated for taking a picture of The Giant, since such pictures would cut into the resort’s profits from selling its own prints. As he was waiting for the train back to San Jose, fuming over the incident, he came up with the idea to create a public redwood park. At first the plan was to buy Welch’s grove, but when the owners refused to sell, the much larger Big Basin Redwoods State Park was created instead.
Welch’s Big Trees Grove ended up becoming a public park anyway when it was sold to Santa Cruz County in 1930.
Today the resort is gone, but you still have to pay $10 to get in, you can still see The Giant, and steam engines still puff noisly through the grove, much like in the 1890s.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
There’s a $10.00 fee to drive into the park, but a lot of people park on Highway 9 and walk in for free.
From the parking lot, the loop dives into the redwoods, passing a large gift shop and the visitor center. The largest trees are clustered around the southeast side of the grove; the most notable is the 1400-year-old redwood known only as “The Giant”.
The grove is quite popular, with about 2&ndash4 groups per minute on a nice weekend afternoon.
Just across the railroad tracks from the Loop Trail is the little-known Indian Creek Nature Trail. About a quarter-mile of this bumpy dirt road passes through old-growth redwoods (the other, rather unspectacular, quarter-mile connects to the Roaring Camp train station). The redwoods are more dominant here and the tanoak understory is not as dense.
There’s also a small grove of old-growth redwoods in the Roaring Camp area. From the pathway that connects the Henry Cowell parking lot to Roaring Camp, walk directly east along the gravel path for about 100 yards, crossing the tracks to reach a picnic area under a dense forest. From here, an unmarked trail leads uphill for a few yards through some large redwoods.
It’s also worth a short detour to see the San Lorenzo River: at the south end of the loop trail, look for a gated dirt road. The road leads a few yards to an attractive spot where a railroad bridge crosses the lushly-vegetated river.
© 2006, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2022 David Baselt