I often feel blessed to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, with its numerous parks and open spaces that have been set aside to protect land and habitat for both people and wildlife. One of the unique and, to me, most treasured natural resources is the habitat for coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). These magnificent trees can grow to heights of over 300 feet with trunk diameters up to 30 feet, and can live up to 1200 years. In the Santa Cruz Mountains along the San Francisco peninsula there are relatively few old-growth trees, since the area was heavily logged to help build housing in San Francisco both before and again after the great 1906 earthquake. Most of the local redwood forests and groves are populated by so-called second-growth trees, which are “only” 100-150 years old with heights less than 200 feet – still magnificent, in my opinion! Organizations like Sempervirens Fund and Save the Redwoods League are working with other agencies to protect redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains and, in some cases – each organization has its own mission and vision – elsewhere in California.
This November REI generated notice and public support by announcing that they would be closed on Black Friday to allow employees – and to encourage the public – to spend the day in the outdoors. In support of the idea, California State Parks, Save the Redwoods League, and others joined together and secured funding for Free Redwood Parks Day, with free parking passes for a limited number of visitors to each of the 49 so-called redwood state parks. I was lucky to find out about the program in time to obtain a pass to visit Portola Redwoods State Park, which I had not previously visited.
When I researched the hiking opportunities in the park it was an easy decision to plan to hike to the Peters Creek Loop Trail, a 13-mile round-trip hike rated as strenuous. Due to the season and recent cold weather, one of my challenges would be to begin hiking early, to have sufficient daylight to complete the hike, but not too early, to avoid the coldest dawn temperatures. I actually began hiking about 9:30, a little later than my plan but just in time to enjoy a nice warm-up during the first climb. The GPS track shows the route of my hike, with the orange dot denoting the start and end.
The route was kind of a dumbbell shape, with a loop near the start and another, the Peters Creek Loop, at the far end and a 4-mile out-and-back section joining the loops. As I was approaching the end of the main hike I took a 0.8 mile round-trip detour to see the Old Tree, an impressive old-growth redwood relatively easily accessible from the park’s visitor center.
While I was able to fairly quickly peel a layer or two of clothing as the morning warmed up, I never put on my sunglasses even though the day was sunny. And, although I finished the hike nearly 45 minutes before sundown, it was already getting dark within the dense forest.
Clearly the stars of the hike were the redwoods, as well as other elements of the redwood forest. Walking along the trails you are among the trees: they are simply there, and they are beautiful.
There are several groves that have been named, and often the trail has been routed nearby. I enjoy walking into the middle of such a grove and looking straight overhead into the upper canopy.
My hike began along the service road just south of the visitor center, passing the Old Tree Trail (where I would finish the hike) and trails to Tiptoe Falls on the right before reaching the junction with Summit Trail after about 0.4 mile. Summit Trail climbs fairly steeply (13½ % grade) for 0.6 mile, then drops slightly to a T junction with Slate Creek Trail. At Slate Creek Trail I turned right for a 1.2-mile flat section to a 5-way junction near the Slate Creek Trail Camp.
Along Slate Creek Trail I noticed a particularly unusual tree, part of the tanoak and deciduous understory. I surmise that, when the tree was about 12 feet tall, it fell over in a storm and almost – but not quite – dislodged its tap root. It happened to fall against another tree. Miraculously, the tree continued to grow, twisting its way around its rescuer and growing upward toward the sunlight. The trail passes under the horizontal section of the tree.
The redwood forest ecosystem is cool and damp, providing ideal conditions for many other plants and animals. Numerous trees, including living trees, tree stumps, and down trees, are covered with moss. Lichen hangs from some trees, and there are feathery bits on the ground. Poison oak is here and there, in the fall with bright red leaves. Ferns are abundant.
In general, the redwood forest is quite dense. When you look into the forest you often see hundreds of trees within the field of view. This view was near the Slate Creek Trail Camp.
At the junction near Slate Creek Trail Camp signage indicates Bear Creek Trail, which goes to the Peters Creek Loop Trail. A prominent sign advises that a strenuous 7-mile hike is ahead and cautions hikers to allow sufficient time to return before dusk. Bear Creek Trail is about 2.8 miles long, climbing 500 feet before descending nearly 800 feet to a confluence of creeks near the Peters Creek Loop Trail.
Along the first part of Bear Creek Trail I started seeing patches of redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), a type of wood sorrel that thrives in redwood forest. In places the trail is defined by an almost rust-colored strip through the brilliant green sorrel, quite a pretty sight.
There is a section of trail I especially liked, around 0.8 mile past the trail camp. The hillside is quite steep. On the right (downhill) side, toward Slate Creek, you see numerous very tall redwoods. You have an unusual perspective because, if you look straight out, your view is 50-100 feet up from the base of the trees – and they still tower overhead! There is a similar place in Purisima Redwoods Open Space Preserve where I especially enjoy this unusual perspective.
The redwood understory includes deciduous trees: during the fall, golden leaves on the ground announce the presence of big-leaf maples.
In the moist redwood forest there is a variety of fungi. Here is a large (about the size of my hand with fingers spread out) example of a brown fungus that looks like dyer’s polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii), which is a source of dyes.
The downhill section of Bear Creek Trail in the outbound direction averages nearly 14% grade with a few even steeper sections, but there are some nice surprises along the way. One find was this distinctive tree, which I informally call the trident tree.
During the downhill section the trail actually goes along a ridge-top – so there is no other less-steep alternative route. About 1.9 miles from the trail camp, suddenly there are a few breaks in the trees to the left, southwest, with pretty views toward forested ridges in the direction of Big Basin Redwoods State Park and/or Butano State Park.
Only a few steps farther there is a sufficient break in the trees to the right, northeast, to show nearby open ridges, probably in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve near Skyline Blvd (CA-35).
About 2.5 miles along Bear Creek Trail, as the trail completes the long descent, there is a pretty view of the trail passing among redwoods and sorrel.
The trail passes the Dean Witter Grove just before reaching Bear Creek. I mention this because the trail signage does not name the creek and, at first, I incorrectly thought I had arrived at the Peters Creek Loop Trail. A social trail goes over a large down tree and slightly uphill along Bear Creek toward a small, pretty waterfall barely visible in the picture. The forest seems to be in a natural state, with large down trees lying haphazardly, and with ferns and moss growing on the trunks.
As the social trail faded away I turned around and continued the other way on the main trail, thinking I was starting around the Peters Creek Loop clockwise, though I had only negotiated the switchback leading to the entire loop. Barely 0.1 mile later I arrived at a bigger creek, this time Peters Creek, and went to the right to go around the loop counter-clockwise.
The 1.1 mile long Peters Creek Loop Trail passes through an especially pretty area. Like most of the rest of the hike, I had the trail to myself and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and solitude. Near the creek crossing at the north end of the loop the trail passes next to an impressive old-growth tree. It is difficult to show the size of this amazing tree, so I simply placed my poles against the base of the trunk for the photo: note the two small bright green lines between two of the “toes;” my poles are about 1.1 meter long. Seeing such a majestic tree, I could not help feeling sad that so many others were sacrificed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the sake of shake roofs in San Francisco.
Along the loop trail I also came across some Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), identified by the distinctive leaf pattern and veins in the leaves, presumably in kind of a dormant winter state.
I also found some very large grey-colored mushrooms; I did not try to look at the underside to verify that they were mushrooms rather than another type of fungus.
I also found a few trillium plants, possibly western trillium (Trillium ovatum), the only local type of trillium whose flowering stalk rises above the characteristic three leaves.
In the southern part of Peters Creek Loop there are several named/signed redwood groves, each one quite lovely. This is the Susan Swinerton McBaine Grove.
After two more creek crossings (three total, none with bridges) I completed the loop and started making my way back toward the trail camp. There are not many places where it is convenient to take a sit-down break, but I did find one place and stopped there. I should note that the redwood state parks have a “crumb-clean” policy, so I was careful not to drop anything. This policy is to discourage stellar jays and other species that prey on the eggs of the endangered marbled murrelet, a sea bird that nests high in the canopy of old-growth redwood trees. A nesting pair only lays one egg per year, and if the egg is destroyed by a jay or any other predator, another is not produced until the next year. Northern spotted owls also rely on old-growth redwood forest for nesting sites.
After hiking the full length of the Bear Creek Trail to the trail camp, I followed Slate Creek Trail to the junction with Summit Trail. Instead of returning via Summit Trail, I continued on Slate Creek Trail toward the main campground near the visitor center. The slope of this section of trail was less steep than Summit Trail had been, except for a very steep section with steps near the bottom of the hill. Along the continuation of Slate Creek Trail, it seemed that the trail had been routed to pass by numerous beautiful redwoods, including a couple more named groves.
About 1.3 mile past the junction with Summit Trail, Slate Creek Trail merges with Old Tree Trail. Since I wanted to see this old-growth tree, I turned left at the merge and followed Old Tree Trail slightly uphill; it climbs about 150 feet. There are several interpretive signs with information about the redwood forest and its residents. The Old Tree is, in a word, majestic, standing some 280 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 12 feet and an estimated age of over 1200 years. It is difficult to do photographic justice to the sheer physical stature of an old-growth tree, continuing to bear witness to the surrounding forest long after its original companion trees have been cut down.
After I got back to my car I decided to try a short exploration of the self-guided Sequoia Nature Trail near the visitor center. However, I soon discovered that the seasonal bridge that crosses Pescadero Creek had been withdrawn and stowed for the winter. I will have to return to this beautiful park after the winter rains are done, to see some of the other park areas, including Tiptoe Falls.
I started my drive home during the dusk that immediately precedes sundown. In fact, as I drove up the park access road and then Alpine Rd, climbing the ridge to Skyline Blvd (CA-35), the sun re-appeared above the horizon as I gained altitude. I stopped a couple of times to quickly take a few pictures of the sunset, with a beautiful orange sky but no coastal fog. It is unusual and delightful to have such a clear view of a Pacific Ocean sunset in this area.
The beautiful sunset seemed a fitting way to cap off an inspiring hike through the Santa Cruz Mountain redwood forest. I look forward to return to this and other local redwood parks at other times of the year.