Eaton Park & Big Canyon Park,
City of San Carlos,
San Mateo County
In brief:
3.4 mile out and back through surprisingly pretty woods bordering residential neighborhoods.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
Trails wobble up and down a bit, but overall, this 3.4 mile hike is easy. Trailhead elevation is about 290 feet. The hike's high point is about 600 feet.

Mix of sun and shade.

Trail traffic:

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails.

Hiking time:
1 1/2 hours.

Nice any time.

Getting there:
From Interstate 280 in San Mateo County, exit Edgewood Road. Drive about 2.5 miles east on Edgewood Road, to the junction with Alameda de las Pulgas. Turn left and drive about 0.1 mile to the stop sign at Eaton Avenue. Turn left and follow Eaton Avenue about 0.8 mile to the end of the road (bear left at Terrace, and right at Oak Creek).

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3728'59.82"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, pay phones, and restaurants in nearby San Carlos and Redwood City. No camping.

Trailhead details:
• Side of the road parking for about 6 cars on a cul de sac in a residential neighborhood. Mind the no parking signs. No parking or entrance fees. No facilities (drinking water, maps, or restrooms). No designated handicapped parking, and trails are not suitable for wheelchairs.
• You can also enter either park from Brittan Avenue, where there is abundant side-of-street parking: from Interstate 280 drive east about 1 mile on Edgewood, and then turn left onto Crestview. Drive north on Crestview to Brittan Avenue. Turn right and park on the side of the road near the signed "entrances" to Big Canyon and Eaton Parks. SamTrans bus #261 stops right in front of the parks on Brittan Avenue.

Parks are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Dogs are permitted. No other rules are posted, but equestrians and cyclists are unlikely to use these trails.

The Official Story:
City of San Carlos's Big Canyon Park page
City of San Carlos's Eaton Park page
San Carlos Parks and Recreation 650-802-4286

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there
Trail Map of the Central Peninsula, by the Trail Center (order this map from is the best map available.
• Peninsula Trails
, by Jean Rusmore, (order this book from has a simple map and park descriptions.

View photos from this hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

San Carlos' TrailheadBig Canyon and Eaton Parks are overshadowed by two larger nearby preserves, Edgewood and Pulgas. The trails at Big Canyon and Eaton seem to be mostly used by locals, and on weekdays you might have both parks to yourself. These aren't "destination" parks, but should you find yourself in the neighborhood, or live nearby, one visit to Eaton and Big Canyon may hook you permanently.
     Although the footing can be tricky, Eaton and Big Canyon Parks make a fine track for a daily run or dogwalk. You'll need to be alert, for low hanging tree branches, steep steps, and leaf litter can make for a challenging run.Eaton Trail
      Both parks can be entered from Brittan Avenue, which offers more parking than Eaton Road,but I thought it was more fun to hike out and back from Eaton Road. If your time is limited, the Eaton Road trailhead is full, or you just want to visit one park, the Brittan trailhead may be a more logical choice.
     The trails are short and easy enough to permit explorations of both Eaton and Big Canyon in one visit. Each park offers one trail, and although Brittan Avenue serves as the park boundary, it's easy enough to cross the road from one to the other and continue hiking.
      Vegetation is similar at Eaton and Big Canyon, and although Big Canyon has some coast live oak and California bay woodland, most of the park has exposed south-facing dry slopes dominated with chamise, sagebrush, and coyote brush. Eaton TrailEaton Trail spends most of its length under cover of California bay, coast live oak, and buckeye, contouring along the north side of a hill. Surrounded on all sides by houses and streets, there are sights and sounds from civilization throughout this hike, but perhaps that makes any nature encounter more special. Some hikers report coyote sightings, and deer are common. Bobcat prints mark the dust on Big Canyon Trail. On my visit a hawk flew right above Eaton Trail just 10 feet from me, before settling in a nearby oak. The woods, chaparral, and grassland support a variety of spring wildflowers and blooming buckeyes, and seasonal creeks morph into tiny waterfalls in late winter. Although there are no big-leaf maples to gawk at in autumn, the buckeye trees, with their dangling pods, are pretty and the temperatures pleasant. In the heat of summer you'll probably want to stick to the shaded woods of Eaton Trail, eschewing the hot slopes of Big Canyon.Crossing Brittan Avenue and entering Big Canyon Park
     Start at the Eaton Avenue Trailhead, pass through the chain link fence, and head uphill on unsigned Eaton Trail. This wide fire road, lined with coast live oak, toyon, and California bay, climbs steeply, then reaches an unsigned junction at .05 mile. There's a map on a little post, but only one trail is shown on it, and as you'll be standing at the confluence of two trails, the map is not all that helpful. Bear right (an orange-painted piece of pipe sticking up from the ground on the right is a clue that you are on the correct path).
      Eaton Trail dips down to a seasonal creek graced with some buckeyes, then begins a moderate climb. Coyote brush, poison oak, sticky monkeyflower, and sagebrush mark a transition into chaparral, but there are still some coast live oak and a few lovely blue oaks on the fringes of the trail. Big Canyon TrailSwitchbacks snake up the hill, but they have all been shortcut, leaving the grassland scarred with dusty and erosive paths. Eaton Trail takes a sharp turn left and the grade stiffens. On a clear day, if you look over your shoulder you'll have views east to the bay. Some acacias seem out of place along the trail. At 0.30 mile, Eaton Trail reaches a saddle and an another unsigned junction. Look for a second orange-painted pipe, and continue straight on the trail.
     Eaton Trail narrows and heads downhill under the cover of coast live oak. Chamise, monkeyflower, and toyon line the trail as it easily descends along the contour of a hillside. You'll meander through small patches of chaparral, but most of Eaton Trail is well-shaded by California bay, coast live oak, and buckeye. The trail ducks under some low tree branches, crosses a handful of seasonal creeks on simple planks, and skips down some steps. A bridge on Big Canyon TrailWatch your step for banana slugs; on my hike I saw some on the trail and about 40 of them sprawled together in one creekbed. A short series of switchbacks ascend through creambush, chamise, monkeyflower, and toyon, and there are views of the surrounding neighborhood to the north. Soon after you'll cross through a level "exotics alley," where a host of non-natives thrive, including pine, eucalyptus, pampas grass, and broom. Then the trail heads back into the woods, where you might see snowberry and ferns. Deer are common through here, and I saw a family of 5 bedded down on the hillside. Ascending to a sunny spot where pitcher sage and mule ear sunflowers bloom in spring, there's a bench on the right side of the trail. (If you're ready to head back, this is a logical turn-around point.) Just a few steps later, the trail splits at an unsigned junction. Steps from Brittan Avenue back into Eaton Park Stay to the right and look for small switchbacks and then steps leading down into a residential neighborhood. It looks like you'll end up in someone's yard, but the steps stop at a path between houses which leads you to Brittan Avenue, at 1.11 miles. Carefully cross the street and enter Big Canyon Park.
A few landscaped trees, a park sign, and a rickety bench are the extent of the welcome. A broad flat trail heads into the canyon, and at 1.19 miles, the two ends of the loop split (there was a big pile of dirt here on my visit). Turn right at the "Start of trail" sign.
     Narrow Big Canyon Trail begins switchbacking up the hillside. A few coast live oaks are in the minority, for coyote brush, sagebrush, poison oak, and monkeyflower dominate the landscape. You'll pass a bench with a view across the canyon, as well as many sections of an older trail. As you reach a level stretch at the hike's highest point, downslope from a row of houses, sun-loving chamise, yerba santa, and pitcher sage thrive, accompanied by a few clumps of fennel and holly-leaf cherry shrubs. View on the return hike down Eaton TrailPlank boards provide primitive creek crossings, where California bay and buckeye shade the trail. Just past a post with an arrow that offers no explanation and might give you pause, a path breaks off uphill toward a water tower. Continue straight, and at a switchback, look up to the right for a bench in a grassy spot, and a sign pointing out that the nearest restroom is 1/4 mile away at Crestview Park. Big Canyon Trail begins to descend in earnest, although the grade is always easy. Coast live oak and California bay are common. The trail draws near to the canyon's main creek, and drainage structures are visible at the canyon floor. After one last bridge, Big Canyon Trail ends back at a previously encountered junction with the other end of the trail, at 2.16 miles. Turn right and walk back to Brittan Avenue, then retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Total distance: 3.38 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, September 18, 2001