Thursday, May 14, 2020

Heritage Grove Loop

Redwoods of Heritage Grove
7 miles, 1250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sam McDonald County Park parking fee required

Heritage Grove Loop is a quiet ramble through stately old-growth redwood forests in Sam McDonald County Park, operated by San Mateo County in a remote part of California's Santa Cruz Mountains less than an hour's drive from the bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area. When you're looking to satisfy your redwood fix but it's too difficult to snag Muir Woods permits and you don't want to deal with the growing crowds at Big Basin, the old growth redwoods along Pescadero Creek provide a secluded alternative. The redwood forests may not be as pristine or impress as much as at better-known parks, but this still makes for an enjoyable forest walk. The open meadows near the Sierra Club Hikers' Hut provides a bit of variation in scenery and some nice views of the surrounding forested ridges, as well. This hike is part of the Pescadero Creek Park Complex, a large swath of redwood forests preserved in Pescadero Creek County Park, Sam McDonald County Park, and Memorial Park.

There are a number of variations with which you can hike this trail; while I'm recommending you start at the main parking lot for Sam McDonald County Park, where there's plenty of parking, it's also possible to start at Heritage Grove itself, which would shave off 0.8 miles and 250 feet of elevation gain from this hike. However, parking along Alpine Road at Heritage Grove is extremely limited. Additionally, the East Brooke Trail segment at the far end of the loop can be skipped to save an additional mile of mostly flat hiking if you want a shorter loop and don't mind skipping some nice redwoods.

I visited Sam McDonald County Park on an overcast May weekday. It was a about a 40 minute drive to the trailhead from Redwood City along the winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. From US 101, I took Highway 84 (Woodside Road) west through Redwood City and past I-280 through Woodside. Highway 84 then climbed into the mountains, intersecting with Skyline Boulevard at Sky Londa. I continued west on 84, which was windy as it dropped down to La Honda; I turned onto the Pescadero Creek Road just past La Honda and followed it just over a mile to right turnoff for the parking lot for Sam McDonald County Park. The park collects a small parking fee.

From the parking lot, I headed out on the trail opposite the visitor center, which passed a massive logged redwood stump before crossing Pescadero Creek Road. After crossing the road, I followed the Towne Fire Road as it ascended via switchbacks past a water tank and through a redwood forest. Much of the forest was previously logged and is now second growth, but a few impressive old growth trees are left. At the first junction with the Big Tree Trail, I took the fork and headed off on this single-track trail, which made its way past a particularly impressive specimen before rejoining with the Towne Fire Road. The fire road continued ascending and soon reached a second water tank at 0.4 miles from the trailhead; the Big Tree Trail broke off here again on the left, this time for good, and I followed it downhill as it passed some massive coast redwoods.

Redwoods along the Big Tree Trail
The Big Tree Trail reversed the uphill gains made on the Towne Fire Road as it descended through forest for 0.3 miles ro reach the Heritage Grove Trail in a beautiful redwood forest. At this junction, I took the right fork to head towards Heritage Grove.

Redwood Forest on the Heritage Grove Trail
It was a 1.5 mile stretch between the start of the Heritage Grove Trail and reaching Heritage Grove itself. The beginning of this stretch featured more of the pretty redwood forest that was contiguous with the Towne Fire Road and Sam McDonald forests. Much of this was second growth, but the handful of trees that were 10-feet in diameter were still very impressive. As the trail winded in and out of ravines while maintaining a generally flat grade, the landscape transitioned from redwood forest to a drier oak forest; redwoods finally reappeared as I approached Heritage Grove, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

Heritage Grove Trail
The coast redwood is the tallest known species of tree in the world, reaching up to 380 feet in height in the moist forests of the northern California coast. Remarkably, these trees and this verdant forest exist in fairly low precipiation conditions: Redwood City, sandwiched between the Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains and named for the many redwoods that once grew there, receives only 23 inches of rain a year. How do these massive giants survive? The answer lies in the morning mist that envelops the Golden Gate Bridge and the Santa Cruz Mountains, known in San Francisco as Karl and to the rest of us as fog. The massive crowns of these redwoods reach up into the coastal fog and can absorb condensation directly rather than requiring uptake from their roots.

These forests are home to a number of woodland creatures. Mountain lions still roam the Santa Cruz Mountains today, but smaller and slower animals like salamanders and the ubiquitous banana slug are far easier (and safer!) to spot.

Banana slug
The trail passed above the upper grove of Heritage Grove before intersecting with the trail that ran down to Alpine Road. While the trail named Heritage Grove Trail itself continued onward, I took the downhill detour to the left so that I could actually explore this impressive old growth redwood grove. The trail descended through the upper grove down to Alpine Creek to meet another junction. The upper grove had a pod of four very impressive trees that were easily over 10 feet in diameter. At the junction next to Alpine Creek, the right fork led towards the Heritage Grove parking area along Alpine Road and the left headed to the lower grove. I took the left fork to see more redwood giants growing alongside Alpine Creek.

Soaring redwood in Heritage Grove
Heritage Grove is a peaceful cathedral of trees and was my favorite spot along this nice hike. The trail through the lower grove was directly across the creek from Alpine Road, but luckily the road is not particularly busy and did not disrupt the quiet of the forest. The trail ended at a washed out bridge over the creek; from here, I backtracked through the upper grove to the junction with the Heritage Grove Trail to conclude my half-mile detour to see these redwoods.

Heritage Grove
I continued along the Heritage Grove Trail, which left the redwood forest as it began a steady ascent of the ridge to the south. In springtime, there were carpets of small wildflowers blooming on the forest floor, which made for a very pretty scene. This section of trail was clearly less traveled than the trail to Heritage Grove itself, as it was very brushy in places and was on the verge of being overgrown.

Ascending to the ridge on the Heritage Grove Trail
The climb ended as the trail passed a gate and entered a wide meadow. This clearly wasn't a wilderness- a power line ran across the far end of the meadow- but the meadow, blooming with small spring wildflowers and featuring views of forested Butano Ridge in the distance, was quite pretty. Soon I arrived at a five-way trail junction, four-fifths of a mile above Heritage Grove. I took the first fork to the left, which was a less distinct and grassy trail that led towards the Sierra Club Hikers Hut. This trail reentered the forest for a short ascent but quickly reemerged into meadows at the Hikers Hut. This is a cute cabin available for overnight rentals.

Sierra Club Hikers' Hut
From the Hikers Hut, I continued uphill along a former gravel road, which traced the side of the meadow and provided views of the dense redwood forests coating this part of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains
About two hundred yards or so from the Hikers Hut, the gravel road passed a communications tower and then intersected another gravel road at a wide bend in that road. The slopes here were covered in open meadows, which provided some nice views of Butano Ridge ahead. The main hike continued by turning right onto this road and following it downhill, but first I took a quick detour to the left.

Wildflowers and Butano Ridge
The detour along the left fork immediately arrived at the high point of the ridge, just over 1300 feet. Here, a small clearing on the left of the trail provided a nice view of the grassy slopes of Mindego Hill and Russian Ridge across the Alpine Creek drainage.

Mindego Hill and Russian Ridge
From this view, I turned around and followed this gravel road downhill a hundred yards to an intersection with the Towne Fire Road (if you get confused and end up seeing a gate marked SM8, just turn around and go in the opposite direction on that road). Upon meeting the Towne Fire Road, I turned left to continue heading south along the ridge. A couple hundred yards later, a small sign marked a spur trail for a scenic view: I took this spur, which led out a hundred yards to a grassy meadow with a bench featuring a decent view over the Pescadero Creek watershed and its redwood forests. Butano Ridge was the prominent, long ridge that bound the skyline to the south. That life-providing coastal fog of the Santa Cruz Mountains crept over Butano Ridge as I lunched and enjoyed the view. This viewpoint is about 4 miles hiking from the Sam McDonald County Park trailhead, or 3.5 if you skip the detour into Heritage Grove.

Poppies and the redwood forests of the Pescadero Creek Complex
If you're looking for a shorter hike, you can head back along the Towne Fire Road from here and conclude the loop, cutting a mile off the hike. If you have time for an extra mile, you can extend the loop and see some more nice redwoods.

After backtracking to the Towne Fire Road from the scenic overlook, I continued heading south along this wide gravel trail. Over the next half mile, I passed two connector trails leading off to the right down to the East Brooke Trail; I ignored them, continuing along the fire road on the crest of the ridge. There were some ups and downs along the ridge as I passed through the oak woodlands along the ridge, but no major climbs or descents.

Oaks along the Towne Fire Road
At the 4.5-mile point in the hike, the trail intersected with the Bravo Fire Road. I took the right fork at this junction, which kept me on the Towne Fire Road. Descending slightly over the next tenth of a mile, I took a right when I arrived at the junction with the East Brooke Trail to head north. The East Brooke Trail immediately entered a pretty redwood forest growing on steep slopes with some old growth trees. The steep slopes allowed me to see the full height of some trees that were downhill from me without craning my neck, which made me finally appreciate the extraordinary height of these trees.

Redwoods on the East Brooke Trail
The full height of one coastal redwood
After leaving the redwood grove, the trail followed the contours along the side of the ridge through oak woodland with occasional openings that provided views of Butano Ridge. I ignored the initial two connector trails that led over to the Towne Fire Road. After following the East Brooke Trail for a mile, I returned to the meadow below the Hikers Hut on the Towne Fire Road; here, I took the connector trail that led me back to the Towne Fire Road, bringing me back to the five-way intersection that I had arrived at earlier from the Heritage Grove Trail about 5.7 miles from the trailhead. This time, I made a left turn and followed the Towne Fire Road west through the meadows. Plenty of wildflowers were in bloom, dotting the grasses with color, bees, and ladybugs.

Ladybug in the meadows
The trail reentered forest after a bit, including a brief stretch with some small ridgetop redwoods. My presence startled a couple of wild turkeys, which decided to race off on the trail ahead of me as I approached.

Turkeys on the Towne Fire Road
About a half mile after rejoining the Towne Fire Road, I came into a wide, pleasant meadow. I passed a junction with the West Brooke Trail and then gradually descended for two-fifths of a mile through the meadows past the Jack Brook Horse Camp.

Meadows near the Jack Brook Horse Camp
Immediately after passing the Jack Brook Horse Camp, two gravel roads diverged at a poorly marked junction. The trail heading left and uphill was the Ridge Fire Road, so I took the trail that turned right and downhill. This was a continuation of the Towne Fire Road. The trail quickly reentered an old growth redwood forest, saving some impressive redwood trees for last. I arrived back at the water tank marking the junction with the Big Tree Trail about two-fifths of a mile down from Jack Brook Horse Camp and then retraced my steps along the stretch of the Towne Fire Road that I had taken in the morning back to the parking lot.

Redwoods on the Towne Fire Road
I ran into just two other hikers over the course of my entire hike; the loop to the scenic view and East Brooke Trail was especially deserted. Many Bay Area trails are overflowing, but you can still find some peace and quiet here. Granted, I came on a weekday- but most other Bay Area trails are still quite popular on weekdays. The redwoods here are not the most impressive in California, but they still astonish with their great size; if you're looking for a quiet walk in the woods away from the crowds in the Bay Area, you've found it.

No comments:

Post a Comment