Fall Creek Unit, Henry Cowell State Park,
California State Parks,
Santa Cruz County
In brief:
6.8 mile loop through wonderful pockets of redwoods and maples along Fall Creek.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
The featured 6.8 mile loop hike is moderate, with about 1000 feet in elevation change. Park elevation ranges from about 400 feet to 2400 feet. There are a few easy hikes, but most traverse substantial elevation.

Heavily shaded.

Trail traffic:
Light on the trails.

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time:
3 1/2 hours.

Best in autumn.

Getting there:
From CA 17 in Santa Clara County, drive southwest. In Scotts Valley, exit Mount Hermon Road. Drive northwest on Mount Hermon Road about 3.5 miles. When Mount Hermon Road ends at Graham Hill Road, turn right. After just 0.1 mile, Graham Hill Road ends at a traffic light at CA 9 in Felton. Continue straight on Felton Empire Road. Drive about 0.6 mile on Felton Empire Road, and turn right into the poorly signed trailhead.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 37 2'58.92"N
122 4'59.47"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phones, stores, and restaurants back on CA 9 in Felton. No camping at Fall Creek, but there is a campground at Henry Cowell's main unit.

Trailhead details:
Fall Creek Unit is separate from the rest of Henry Cowell, and does not charge an entrance or parking fee. Obtain a map from the park headquarters: at the junction of Graham Hill Road and CA 9, turn left. Drive south about 0.7 mile, then turn left into the park. Continue on the park road about 0.4 mile to the entrance kiosk, where you can purchase a map to Fall Creek for $1. At Fall Creek Unit, there are no facilities: no drinking water, restrooms, or maps. There is parking for about 25 vehicles in a dirt lot. No designated handicapped parking, and trails are not suitable to wheelchairs. There is no direct public transportation to the park. Santa Cruz Metro bus #34 stops on highway 9, less than 1 mile from the trailhead.

Park is open from sunrise to sunset. No dogs or bicycles. Horses are permitted on some trails.

The Official Story:
CSP's Fall Creek page
Park headquarters 831-335-4598

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's Monterey Bay Region map to get there.
Map from CSP
• Dave Baselt's San Lorenzo Valley map is an excellent guide to Henry Cowell and surrounding parklands (order from Redwood Hikes).
Redwood Hikes has a great map and descriptions of this hike, with gorgeous photos.
Trails of Santa Cruz, by Pease Press (order from Pease Press) shows Fall Creek trails.
• 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area, by Ann Marie Brown (order this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and featured hike.
The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book, by Tom Taber (order this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map of the park and trail descriptions.

View photos from the featured hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

I was 3 miles up the canyon at Fall Creek when I recalled Jimmie Brewer's e-mail describing this loop.Trailhead  Jimmie said, "this is the longest 7 miles I have ever walked, " and I was beginning to see what he meant. I had been making slow progress up Fall Creek Trail, scrambling over and under fallen trees, while following the path's meandering up and down course. Fall Creek, a unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, offers hiking opportunities very different from "modern" bay area parks. Trails are not graded to an easy 7%, streams are unbridged in winter, and many fallen trees are left blocking the paths, so hikers must scramble over or under them. This is not to say that the park is poorly maintained; on the contrary, trails and junctions are well-signed, and the park is impeccably clean. But the forested slopes and canyons of Fall Creek are rugged territory, and it is somehow appropriate that the trails correspond.
      There are no facilities at Fall Creek. A few miles south, the main section of Henry Cowell offers campsites, easy trails, and all the usual trappings of a bay area state park. This split may represent the best of both worlds for outdoor enthusiasts, as families and older folks can enjoy the redwood groves at the main park, while hikers can opt for the steep lonely canyons of Fall Creek.Fall Creek Trail
     In addition to the miles of trails, you'll find remnants of Santa Cruz County's history at Fall Creek. Drawn to large deposits of limestone and forests of redwoods, companies produced lime in Fall Creek's canyons from the early 1870s-1919. Redwoods were logged and made into barrels, while others fueled the limestone kilns, in which limestone was fired, releasing carbon dioxide and creating lime. The popular high-grade lime was used for mortar throughout California.When oil-burning kilns replaced wood-fired ones around 1920, the quarry was shut down. Samuel Cowell, son of Henry Cowell, gifted 2,335 acres to the state of California in 1972, and an additional deed of 30 acres from another landowner brought the park to its current 2,390 acres. Lime kilns, powder magazine, wood stack, rock dump, cooper's shop, and Blue Cliff Quarry all can be visited about 1.2 miles from the trailhead, via Fall Creek and South Forks Trails. Ferns cascade down the hillside on Fall Creek TrailThe Barrel Mill site is further up the canyon along Fall Creek Trail. You could create an over 8 mile loop visiting all the major historical sites at Fall Creek, but be prepared to climb to about 1900 feet before you begin to descend back toward the trailhead. Start on Bennett Creek Trail, then take Fall Creek Trail to South Fork Trail, visit the quarry and kilns, then hike on Cape Horn Trail to Lost Empire Trail. You'll see the virgin redwood, Big Ben Tree, then descend on Big Ben Trail. Follow along the stream on Fall Creek Trail, where you can stop at the Barrel Mill site, then return back to the trailhead on Fall Creek Trail and Bennett Creek Trail. For a 3.6 mile hike, take the above hike to the junction of Cape Horn and Fall Creek Trails, then head uphill on easy S-Cape Trail. At the junction with Ridge Trail, turn right, then descend back down to the canyon floor, and return to the trailhead. This hike is recommended if you're more interested in the park's plant communities than historical artifacts.
      If you plan a winter or early spring visit, you probably should call to check trail conditions before your trip. The park obviously is prone to storm damage. While the water flow peaks during the rainy season, you'll get your feet wet crossing the streams, and trails will probably be muddy. The peak time for a visit may be autumn, when trails are stable, temperatures cool, and big-leaf maples put on a show.As you follow Fall Creek up a canyon, fallen trees choke the creekbed and path
      For the featured hike, start out from the trailhead on Bennett Creek Trail (there are faint paths departing from either end of the parking lot; Bennett Creek Trail begins in the middle, although the sign isn't visible until you walk a few feet down the trail). Douglas fir, coyote brush, chamise, California coffeeberry, and manzanita line the trail, but after a few steps the chaparral fades and you'll enter a forest. The hiking-only trail passes an information signboard, then descends easily through huckleberry, Douglas fir, coast live oak, hazelnut, tanoak, and California bay. Look to the right for a long distended bay branch supported by neighboring trees. Bennett Creek Trail crosses its namesake and winds under redwood and big-leaf maple. At 0.16 mile, Bennett Creek Trail meets Fall Creek Trail at a signed junction across from another information signboard. On my late summer hike, the trail signs were nearly obscured by thick stands of thimbleberry. Bear left onto Fall Creek Trail.Equipment at Barrel Mill site
     Hiking only Fall Creek Trail follows along the left bank of the year-round running stream. A variety of ferns, hazelnut, and redwood sorrel thrive in the moist environment created by the creek and redwood fog drip. The trail keeps a mostly level course, but there are a few short rolling bits. In summer 2001 there was a large fallen redwood stretched across the trail and creek. Some previous visitors had climbed over it on the hillside to the left, but it was just as easy to duck under.One stretch of trail clings to a terraced ledge a few feet above the creek, while in other sections you'll be practically in the water. At 0.76 mile, you'll reach a signed junction at the confluence of two creeks. South Fork Trail heads up a branch of the creek, toward the kilns. Cross the bridge and turn right to continue on Fall Creek Trail.Big Ben Trail
     Even on a sunny day, hardly any light makes it all the way to the forest floor, and the creek drowns away outside noise. You may see or hear deer crashing through the woods. On my September hike, I noticed that little drips of water and wet footprints had suddenly appeared on the trail. An animal had recently come out of the creek and walked along the path, but as I followed the tracks they faded and then disappeared. Soon Fall Creek Trail comes to a stream crossing, the first of many employing a simple plank. On the other side there are damp spots where springs feed into the creek, leaving the ground mushy even in late summer. Fall Creek Trail squeezes along a shelf with a conspicuous cascade of giant chain fern, then reaches a flat and a creek crossing. After only a few steps you'll be directed to cross the creek again, and then climb over a huge redwood. At 1.36 miles, S-Cape Trail departs from a signed junction and heads uphill to the right. Continue straight on Fall Creek Trail.
     Hazelnut, thimbleberry, trillium, nightshade, wild rose, and elk clover thrive along the creek, where you might see delicate five finger ferns growing next to amazon giant chain ferns. Fall Creek Trail crosses to the left bank and soon, at 1.46 miles, reaches a two-part junction. The path passes a trail sign, takes a sharp turn left, and meets Cape Horn Trail. Turn right and continue on Fall Creek Trail. Truck Trail
      The trail passes through a bisected fallen tree, then veers right to cross the creek for the last time. The grade picks up noticeably, as does the number of fallen redwoods blocking the trail. The creekbed is choked with downed wood in some places, creating mini dams. You might see granite rocks along the stream. Fall Creek Trail wanders up and down, and every short flat stretch is welcome. At 2.26 miles, a sign on the left marks Barrel Mill site. Continue a few feet down the trail and then follow the obvious path to the left down to the site. An interpretive sign explains how downed redwoods were transformed into barrels at this spot, with water-driven staves cutting boards, and hazelnut hoops maintaining the shape of the barrel. Some rusting equipment and lumber are strewn about. When you're ready, retrace your steps back to Fall Creek Trail, then turn left and continue up the path.Ridge Trail
      Just past the Barrel Mill site, Barrel Mill Creek feeds into Fall Creek from a canyon branching up to the left, but the dense stands of redwood along Fall Creek Trail block much of the view. The trail steadily climbs and the canyon walls press toward the creek, while the tree cover creates a dark forest. At 2.86 miles, Big Ben Trail sets off to the right (the other leg of the trail departs to the left a bit further up Fall Creek Trail). Turn right on Big Ben Trail.
     This section of Big Ben Trail, open to hikers only, climbs steeply through the forest. Redwoods still grace the hillsides (including a few massive stumps), but tanoaks dominate. Big Ben takes a sudden turn right and continues to ascend. As I huffed and puffed uphill tanoak leaves crunched underfoot, certainly warning any nearby animal, but just in case some jays sounded the intruder alarm. Finally, after a 300 foot climb, Big Ben Trail ends at a signed junction with Truck Trail at 3.26 miles. Turn right on Truck Trail.Ridge Trail
     The wide fire road, open to hikers and equestrians, is well-shaded by Douglas fir, tanoak, and madrone. Initially Truck Trail descends easily, but there are a few moderately steep sections. Some sunny patches sustain pockets of coast live oak, poison oak, and (in summer) goldenrod. There are no views, but civilization is close by to the east, and traffic noise filters uphill to the trail. I also heard roosters crowing and the distinctive yips of coyotes on my September hike. Truck Trail passes through private property (although there are no signs), so stay on the trail. At 4.73 miles, Truck Trail curves left; look straight ahead for the easy-to-miss signed start of Ridge Trail (Truck Trail reaches the park boundary at a gate just around the corner). Continue straight on Ridge Trail.Ridge Trail
     A welcome relief after Truck Trail, the path, open to hikers and equestrians, is content to follow the contour of the ridge. The narrow trail winds through a thick forest of tanoaks, with some Douglas fir and madrone. Suddenly vegetation takes a major shift as the soil changes. The pale powdery sandstone sustains some knobcone pines and manzanitas, and you might also see salal and chinquapin. A few steps have been carved into the trail, which is still quite tiny. The terrain reminded me of the Big Basin hike to Buzzard's Roost. At 5.18 miles, S-Cape Trail begins to the right at a signed junction. Continue to the left on Ridge Trail.
     There is a short ascent through tanoaks, and then Ridge Trail continues an easy downhill course. Tanoak, madrone, and Douglas fir persist, joined by redwood, huckleberry, snowberry, honeysuckle, hazelnut, and coast live oak. Ridge Trail sweeps to the left and slowly swings back to the right. At 6.38 miles, Ridge Trail ends at a signed junction with High School Trail. Turn right.
     Sounds of rushing water intensify as High School Trail heads south. The nearly level hiking trail soon ends at an unsigned junction at 6.43 miles. Turn right onto Fall Creek Trail. Bennett Creek Trail
     This flat and wide hiking only trail runs above and at a slight distance from the creek. Big-leaf maples mixed through redwood and California bay reveal themselves in autumn, when their leaves blush and slowly drift down to the ground. Once over the creek on a permanent bridge, you'll find yourself at a previously encountered signed junction at 6.63 miles. Turn left onto Bennett Creek Trail and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Total distance: 6.79 miles
Last hiked: Friday, September 14, 2001