Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pohono Trail: Tunnel View to Dewey Point

El Capitan with Ribbon and Bridalveil Falls, viewed from Crocker Point
10 miles round trip, 3700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The stunning view of the massive granite face of El Capitan from Dewey Point and the lovely views of Bridalveil and Ribbon Falls from Stanford and Crocker Points make this collection of three viewpoints an excellent hiking destination in California's Yosemite National Park. The three viewpoints see far fewer visitors than other trails in the Yosemite Valley area, even though the trail that visits them- the Pohono Trail- connects Glacier Point and Tunnel View, two of Yosemite's best known viewpoints. The hike to these three viewpoints from Tunnel View is a bit strenuous and tiring, but it's still one of the easier ways to reach a viewpoint of the valley from above in the spring and is a very enjoyable hike. However, this is a very destination-oriented hike and does not have too many rewarding views en route. Artist Point and Inspiration Point are often advertised as intermediate stops along this hike and destinations of their own but I do not recommend doing a dedicated hike to either, as the views are either quite similar to Tunnel View or have been obscured by trees over time. Commit to reaching at least Stanford Point or consider another hike in Yosemite Valley.

In summer, hikers can more easily access these viewpoints from Glacier Point Road: thus, I recommend this as a spring hike, when hikers can enjoy waterfalls at peak flow and Tunnel View provides the easiest (but still quite difficult) access. Early season hikers are likely to run into snow, so come prepared with hiking poles, boots, microspikes, and a map.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

3700 feet of elevation gain is no walk in the park, but that's not the primary reason for this hike's strenuous rating. What made this hike particularly difficult was that there were upwards of a hundred downed trees on the trail during my visit. At such an early point in the season, it made sense that trail crews had not yet had a chance to clean up the area; but the extent of fallen trees was really quite shocking. This being one of my first springs in the Sierra, I wasn't entirely sure whether this was typical following a standard winter's storms or whether all of the fallen trees were related to a severe Mono Winds event in January of that year.

I hiked to Dewey Point during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is at Tunnel View, perhaps the one of the most photographed views on our planet. Coming from San Francisco after I left work on Friday, I approached the park on Highway 120 and entered through the Big Oak Flat entrance. I reached Yosemite Valley by taking Big Oak Flat Road down to the valley from Crane Flat; how you reach Yosemite Valley will largely depend on whether you're coming from the Bay, Fresno, or Merced. Once in Yosemite Valley, I took Southside Drive to its junction with Wawona Road. Here, I turned right onto Wawona Road, following it towards Fresno and Wawona. I followed Wawona Road uphill for two miles to Tunnel View. I parked in the lot on the south side of Wawona Road at Tunnel View as the trail starts on the south side of the road.

Tunnel View is always a bit of a zoo: hundreds of tourists are always standing at the stone-lined overlook platform, posing for selfies with this iconic view that encompasses many of Yosemite Valley's greatest features: El Capitan, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall. Parking is usually full here and you'll sometimes have to wait for a spot, but tourists cycle in and out of this lot quickly so you shouldn't have to wait too long. On the day of my hike, there were already many carloads of visitors at just after 9 AM as well as a couple doing an engagement photo shoot.

Tunnel View
The Pohono Trail started from the southern lot at Tunnel View. The trail immediately began heading uphill on a rocky trail. Just fifty meters from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail made a very sharp switchback. Watch out for this switchback! Many hikers assume that the trail continues going straight here and end up off trail; my family experienced this when we tried to hike to Artist Point during a 2006 visit to Yosemite. 

Pohono is the native Ahwahneechee name for Bridalveil Fall, meaning "spirit of puffing wind," alluding to the breezes that often deflect the stream of that free-falling waterfall. The hike justifies its name, delivering many lovely views of Bridalveil Fall, especially later from Stanford and Crocker Points.

The Pohono Trail continued climbing through steep, rocky switchbacks in brushy terrain with some forest cover after the initial tricky switchback. As the trail climbed higher, occasional views began to open up to the east of Yosemite Valley, views that were generally quite similar to those at Tunnel View, albeit with far less jostling with other tourists to take photos. El Capitan's massive granite face was especially impressive across the valley. At a a half mile from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail crossed the Old Wawona Road. Artist Point lay a half mile to the left down Old Wawona Point from here, but I skipped the extra mileage for my hike, as the view from Artist Point does not differ too much from what you can see at Tunnel View.

View near Artist Point
El Capitan
After crossing the Old Wawona Road, the Pohono Trail continued to ascend steadily, climbing another 500 feet in a half mile to reach Inspiration Point. At Inspiration Point, there was a wide, flat shelf on the mountainside, where in the past there must have been a viewpoint; today, the forest has entirely swallowed Inspiration Point and there are no Yosemite Valley views from here. Inspiration Point is a misnomer today; that it is still called such on park signage is surely misleading for at least some hikers who think they can find inspiring views here. The true views of this hike were still to come, another 1600 feet uphill from Inspiration Point.

Leaving Inspiration Point, the Pohono Trail entered the main, extended ascent of the hike. Over the next 1.8 miles, the trail climbed nearly 1600 feet; after a few initial switchbacks, the trail began heading southeast, following the sloping back of the mountain up towards the rim of Yosemite Valley. This stretch of trail was made harder at the time of my visit by the numerous downed trees, most of which I assumed had fell during an extreme wind event during the winter (it's hard for me to imagine that the National Park Service would continue to leave this popular trail so poorly maintained during peak tourist season, though). 

Snow began to appear on the trail as I approached Artists Creek, at 2.5 miles into the hike. In spring, the creek was flowing well, but crossing was still relatively easy. After crossing the creek, the trail became especially steep as it ascended through the forest to cross a high ridge above Old Inspiration Point. Topping out on the ridge at just under three miles, I caught the first glimpse of the views for which I had traveled here: through the trees, I could see Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Canyon, and the Cathedral Range in the distance. 

Cathedral Range, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome from above Old Inspiration Point
The top of the ridge finally marked a break from the endless ascent up from the trailhead. Leaving the ridge, the trail descended gently through the snowy forest to Meadow Brook, where it crossed the stream in a small clearing at 3.3 miles into the hike. At the time of my hike, this was one of the most hazardous portions of the hike: the ground was entirely covered with snow and the creek was running beneath a snow bridge, making only a few appearances beneath collapsed portions of the snow. I gingerly crossed the snow bridge to reach the other side of the creek. If you come after the snowmelt, this crossing is likely to be easier, as long as the water is not too high.

The trail turned sharply to the left after crossing Meadow Brook and I enjoyed a brief stretch of flat hiking through the forest. Soon, the Pohono Trail began to descend, dropping about 100 feet as it approached the rim of Yosemite Valley and came to a junction with the spur trail to Stanford Point at 3.6 miles. I took the spur trail at the junction, descending steeply but briefly until the forest ended and I found myself gazing down into the airy chasm of Yosemite Valley. The trail ended at the rim, but I headed to the left along social paths until reaching the very edge of Stanford Point, where there spectacular views of both sides of the Valley below.

Many of Yosemite Valley's major rock features were visible from here. Most impressive was El Capitan, the 3000-foot tall granite face rising across the Valley from the south rim. Ribbon Fall plunged down the west shoulder of El Capitan- this seasonal waterfall, usually only visible during the early spring snowmelt, is the tallest single-drop waterfall on the continent, with a single plunge of over 1600 feet. Half Dome, North Dome, Clouds Rest, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel were visible further down the Valley, along with a view of the snowy Cathedral Range in the High Sierra. The Cathedral Rocks appeared to be almost directly below me from this angle, with graceful Bridalveil Fall leaping out of its hanging valley, suspending momentarily in the clear mountain air before floating down to join the Merced. To the west, I could see where the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley transitioned into the river-carved Merced gorge. Tunnel View, where I started my hike, was visible below, its parking lot now overrun with tour bus tourists at midday. In the distance, I could see the crashing waters of Cascade Creek, falling haphazardly down granite cliffs and past Big Oak Flat Road.

Yosemite Valley view from Stanford Point
Cascade Creek Falls, the Merced Gorge, and Tunnel View from Stanford Point
After enjoying the sweeping view from Stanford Point, I backtracked slightly uphill to rejoin the Pohono Trail, taking the trail east at the junction to continue towards Crocker and Stanford Points. The trail continued through snowy forest, crossing another stream at 3.9 miles. A steady ascent through forest past the stream crossing brought me to Crocker Point at 4.3 miles; I took a short spur left from the Pohono Trail here to reach the second of the trail's three big viewpoints.

Snowy forest between Stanford and Crocker Points
The airy view at Crocker Point was similar to that from Stanford Point, but this panorama incorporated a bit more of the snowy High Sierra, including Mount Hoffman. Crocker Point had lovely views of Bridalveil Fall and Ribbon Fall. The viewpoint was airy and vertigo-inducing, with a direct, 3000-foot drop down sheer granite cliffs from Crocker Point to the Valley Floor. 

Crocker Point view
Ribbon Fall from Crocker Point
Both Stanford and Crocker Points are named for wealthy industrialists (robber barons, by some interpretations) who played integral roles in California's economic development by investing in the earliest transcontinental railroads. Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker had small fortunes associated from running businesses in Gold Rush California before their investments in the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads made them some of the richest men in California. Stanford later founded a namesake university in Palo Alto. Dewey Point- the hike's final destination- was named instead after Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, who became the highest ranking officer in United States Naval history after winning the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. All three men were prominent participants and champions of late nineteenth century European American ideas of Manifest Destiny and imperialism; their complicated legacies contributed to creating the world that we know today, but were at least partially responsible for the displacement and genocide of California Native Americans, rampant natural resource exploitation in the West, and US colonial rule in the Philippines, among other things.

Leaving Crocker Point, the Pohono Trail followed the rim of the valley south and then east on a steady ascent. Slightly further up on the rim, there were magnificent views back to the great prow of Crocker Point, where vertical cliffs culminated at a lofty point on the rim above the incomparable valley.

Looking back on Crocker Point
The trail drew back from the rim as it ascended through the forest, climbing gently until it leveled out at 4.8 miles. After crossing a tree-strewn, snow-covered, forested flat area just south of the rim of the valley, the Pohono Trail descended slightly to reach Dewey Point, a thin peninsula of land extending into the airy open of the Valley, at 5 miles. Dewey Point- being the highest of the hike's three viewpoints- had the widest and most spectacular views. Large portions of Yosemite's High Sierra were visible from here, including the Cathedral Range, the high peaks around Mounts Lyell and Maclure, and the Clark Range. Many prominent features of the south rim of the valley were visible, including the Sentinel, Sentinel Dome, and Taft Point. El Capitan's massive sheet of granite was very impressive from here, dominating the view across the valley. While the pointed spires of the Cathedral Rocks were visible, Bridalveil Fall had fallen out of sight here, blocked by other granite features of the Valley's high walls. North Dome, Mount Watkins, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, all uniquely-shaped granite domes, rose at the east end of the Valley. Looking back to the west, my view of the Merced River Gorge encompassed Tunnel View, where I had started the hike that morning and where tour buses were discharging loads of tourists to compete for selfies with El Capitan.

High Sierra and Sentinel Dome
Yosemite Valley from Dewey Point
Ribbon Fall, El Capitain, and Mount Hoffman from Dewey Point
Clark Range from Dewey Point
Merced Gorge and Tunnel View from Dewey Point
While you'll see half the people in the park at Tunnel View, the hike up to Dewey Point is actually pretty quiet. Most hikers drop off in the opening mile of the trail between Tunnel View and Inspiration Point and while there were still a handful of hikers that I saw up by Stanford, Crocker, and Dewey Points, I largely had these viewpoints to myself. Dewey Point is a bit busier that the two other viewpoints, as it also sees visitors coming by a shorter hike from either Badger Pass in winter or the Glacier Point Road in summer. However, even then, I would expect these viewpoints on the Pohono Trail to offer a quieter alternative for experiencing Yosemite Valley than sitting in traffic behind a parade of RVs near Yosemite Village.

There are certainly more spectacular hikes in Yosemite National Park, whether in the Valley or the High Sierra, but the hike of Dewey Point from Tunnel View is still highly rewarding and worthwhile, especially early in the season when it is one of the few high viewpoints accessible from the Valley by day hike. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Tuolumne Grove

Big Red, the largest sequoia in Tuolumne Grove
2.8 miles loop, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Tuolumne Grove is one of three groves of giant sequoias in California’s Yosemite National Park; unfortunately, with just a handful of these giant trees, it is also the least impressive of those groves. There are about 25 sequoias in this grove, which is still extremely popular as it is reachable by a short downhill hike from the Crane Flat area of the park and hosts the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree. The trail down to the grove is a paved road, though a nice dirt loop trail winds through a less nice corner of the grove. At the end of the day, though, mature giant sequoias never fail to impress: this grove is still beautiful, just less so than Mariposa or even Merced Groves, not to speak of the forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Hikers who have already visited the larger sequoia groves may find this to be an enjoyable winter hike or snowshoe, when the park is less crowded; however, visitors with limited time in the Sierra Nevada should head to just about any other sequoia grove.

It's important to note that Tuolumne Grove is about 500 feet downhill from the trailhead at Crane Flat. This means that hikers will have a fairly stiff ascent on the return- don’t go down to the grove if you aren’t certain that you’ll be fine making it back up.

I hiked to Tuolumne Grove on a sunny February day. In winter, Big Oak Flat Road- which leads to Crane Flat- is plowed and maintained and usually accessible except immediately after major snowstorms, although tire chains may be necessary; call (209)372-0200 to check park road conditions before leaving for a winter visit (the NPS website for Yosemite does not necessarily stay up to date on chain requirements). The first mile of Tioga Road from the junction at Crane Flat to the Tuolumne Grove trailhead, along with the trailhead parking lot, are also routinely plowed. With fresh snow, Tuolumne Grove is a popular snowshoeing and cross-country skiing destination. However, a few weeks removed from fresh snow, the snow on the ground solidifies and becomes packed and uneven, making snowshoeing and skiing more difficult but still necessitating bringing microspikes or Yaktrax. Summer visitors will find no such gear restrictions, but again, it’s not clear that it’s worth battling crowds to walk down a paved road to visit this small grove during peak season.

To reach the trailhead from Yosemite Valley, I followed Big Oak Flat Road west from the valley towards Highway 120 and Manteca, climbing uphill to the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, about 15 miles from Yosemite Lodge. I turned right onto Tioga Road and followed it north for one mile to the left turnoff for Tuolumne Grove and parked in the large trailhead parking lot, which had pit toilets and room for about 50 cars. Visitors coming from Manteca and Groveland in the west can follow Highway 120 into the park and then turn left at the junction for Tioga Road at Crane Flat.

During my February visit, I was able to avoid hiking directly on the paved road leading down to the grove, as there was about two feet of packed, uneven snow on the ground. Putting on my microspikes, I set out on the snowy road, which traveled through a pine forest. The trail’s initially gentle downhill grade turned into a steeper descent at 0.3 miles and the trail dropped steadily through the forest to a sharp switchback to the left at 2/3 of a mile where an informational placard discussed the trail’s former role as Old Big Oak Flat Road, a stagecoach road in the early days of the park which ran directly through Tuolumne Grove.

Snowy trail through forest on the way down to the grove
After descending to the next switchback- a sharp turn to the right- I reached a sign indicating my arrival in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias at 0.9 miles. This sign was ultimately premature, as the trail would travel another 200 meters along the road trace before arriving at the first of the grove’s giant sequoias.

At just over a mile from the trailhead, I came to the base of Big Red, the first visible and largest tree in Tuolumne Grove that came into view well before I reached the actual base of the trunk. For all the disparagement that I’ve lobbed at Tuolumne Grove through this post so far, Big Red was really a very impressive tree: it maintained an immense girth well up its soaring trunk and had multiple massive branches that surely were each as wide as a person is tall. Mature giant sequoias like Big Red never fail to astonish; however, unlike at other, larger groves, Big Red stood alone to the left and downhill from the trail, with two much smaller sequoias growing to the right and uphill. Big Red also marked a junction with the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail: the park recommended doing the loop clockwise, which meant continuing to the left along the road trace and later returning from the other side.

Big Red
As I hiked down along the road trace from Big Red, I spotted at least six other giant sequoias of impressive size downhill of the road in the valley: most of these trees reached a size comparable to the trees of Mariposa Grove, although I was unfortunately only able to view them from a distance, as a fence and signage prohibited heading downhill to visit these trees. I understand the National Park Service’s desire to protect these trees, as Tuolumne Grove receives far too many tourists in summer and opening the bases of those trees to tourist access would undoubtedly harm them, risking losing some of the few remaining giants in the grove to soil compaction. Nonetheless, it was a little disappointing that, with the exception of visiting Big Red, the loop trail here stuck to visiting the smaller trees in the grove.

Larger sequoia in Tuolumne Grove
At 1.2 miles, I came to a small picnic area on the right side of the road, with a few tables located in a clearing at the base of a medium-sized sequoia. This marked a complicated five-way trail junction. The road trace leading straight ahead continued towards Hodgdon Meadow, near the park entrance; the two paths to the right of the road, branching off to either side of the picnic tables, form the two ends of the first of two loops that made up the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail. The rightmost fork, which bent sharply backwards and uphill, is the start of the second fork of the Tuolumne Grove Loop.

I started out on the first 0.4-mile loop, taking the leftmost trail branching out from the picnic tables and following signs marking the Grove Loop. This first loop started out by crossing a small creek on a sturdy wooden bridge; however, there were initially no sequoias along this trail! At the far the extent of the loop, the trail followed a fallen redwood giant, before winding its way uphill and approaching a set of three medium-sized sequoias that were somewhat spaced apart. It’s unfortunate that the biggest sequoias along this stretch of the loop have long since toppled; an informational placard along the trail here noted that toppling is one of the key ways that sequoias die, as they are otherwise quite resilient (the Rough Fire, the SQF Complex Fire, and the KNP Complex Fires in the last decade have proven otherwise, though).

Sequoias of Tuolumne Grove
Crossing the creek via bridge again, I found myself back at the picnic area with the multi-way junction. I took the leftmost fork from the perspective of coming off the first loop to start on the second loop. Heading uphill along the second loop, I came to the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree. Here, a wide tunnel had been carved through the base of what once must have been a truly gargantuan sequoia: however, Dead Giant was already deceased when European-American settlers began construction of Big Oak Flat Road. This tunnel was carved through the base as a draw for nineteenth century tourists, who for some reason found traveling through a tree to be a more enlightening experience than simply wondering at these arboreal titans, though the number of times I was asked “How much farther to the tunnel tree?” on my hike back by unprepared hikers tacking a slippery, snowy trail in tennis shoes suggested that things haven’t really changed.

Dead Giant Tunnel Tree
After passing through the tunnel in Dead Giant, the loop trail passed between two final medium-sized sequoias, before the loop ended as the trail rejoined the road trace next to Big Red, now 1.7 miles into the hike. After admiring this massive giant for a final time, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. While I had Tuolumne Grove to myself for most of the morning (I had started my hike at 9:30 AM), by the time I was heading back uphill at 11 AM there were far more visitors on their way down to the grove.

Medium size sequoias with Big Red rising behind
There are some notable aspects of Tuolumne Grove- namely, the massive Big Red tree- but while pretty, this grove of giant sequoias is ultimately one of the sparsest and smallest groves in the entire Sierra Nevada. If you have limited time in Yosemite, skip Tuolumne Grove and head to either of the park’s two other groves. Hikers who are fortunate to visit more frequently will find the grove to be an enjoyable but relatively less impressive destination.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Peters Creek Grove

Redwoods of Peters Creek Grove
11.5 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Portola Redwoods State Park entrance fee required

The lush redwoods of Peters Creek Grove, hidden in a remote corner of Portola Redwoods State Park, are an absolute jewel of the San Francisco Peninsula in California's San Francisco Bay Area. As we await the reopening of Big Basin State Park following 2020's destructive CZU Lightning Complex Fire, Peters Creek Grove is arguably the most scenic redwood grove open to the public south of the Golden Gate. The catch is that the hike out to Peters Creek Grove is quite long and can be a bit tedious, with a trail passes through brushy patches of poison oak- but this grove is a beautiful and worthy destination. Although the hike starts from near Peters Creek, the trail is unable to follow the creek directly to the grove because there is private land along the creek; thus, a circuitous route is necessary, with nice redwoods at the start along the Slate Creek Trail and the small but stunning Peters Creek Grove at the end of the hike.

I visited Portola Redwoods State Park on a slightly cloudy late April day when the less sunny weather seemed perfect for exploring a redwood grove. Portola Redwoods State Park is southwest of Palo Alto; to reach the grove, I left I-280 at exit 280 for Page Mill Road and then followed Page Mill Road to the southwest into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Page Mill Road is extremely windy and a bit narrow as it climbs from Palo Alto up to Skyline Boulevard; Page Mill Road is also extremely popular with bicyclists on weekends, so drive slowly and be safe. Page Mill Road turned into Alpine Road shortly before reaching Skyline Boulevard. At the junction with Skyline, I continued straight on Alpine Road, passing the trailhead parking for Mindego Hill and then winding downhill through grassy hills on a narrowing Alpine Road. After 3.5 miles from the junction with Alpine Road, I came to the turnoff for Portola Redwoods State Park on the left side of the road: I turned left here and followed this steep road another 3.5 miles downhill into Portola Redwoods State Park. Passing the visitor center, I turned right at a junction immediately after crossing a bridge over Peters Creek. There was plentiful roadside parking right after that turn; I parked here and found the Slate Creek/Old Tree Trailhead nearby.

I headed up the Slate Creek/Old Tree Trail, which branched just about 50 meters from the trailhead, with the Slate Creek Trail heading to the left and uphill. At this junction, I took the Slate Creek Trail, which began a steady climb up the forested mountainside. The trail passed through a mix of old growth redwood forest, second growth redwoods, and tanoaks on its gradual but steady ascent up to the ridge. At a half mile, I passed an intersection with a trail that led down to a campground; after this, ascended steadily uphill and passed through some pretty old growth forest. The trees here were not particularly large or impressive and the ground cover was a bit sparse, but the forest was still pleasant and enjoyable.

Redwoods on the Slate Creek Trail
Old growth redwoods
At 1.3 miles into the hike, after 500 feet of uphill, the Slate Creek Trail arrived atop the ridge where it intersected with the Summit Trail. I took the left fork here to stay on the Slate Creek Trail, which turned north and began contouring along the side of the forested hill. The next mile and a half was the easiest stretch of the hike, with a nearly level trail as I followed the Slate Creek Trail through second-growth redwood forest along the ridge to Slate Creek Trail Camp. 

Redwoods along the ridge on the Slate Creek Trail
I arrived at Slate Creek Trail Camp at 2.7 miles into the hike in the middle of a nice second-growth redwood forest. Here, the Slate Creek Trail ended, intersecting with the Slate Creek Road and the Bear Creek Trail. The Slate Creek Road led downhill to the site of Page Mill: in the late nineteenth century, William Page- a European American settler in the area- founded a mill by Slate Creek to turn redwoods into shingles. These shingles were then hauled over the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and down to the Embarcadero in Palo Alto via a road that is today known as Page Mill Road, a key corridor that today runs past Stanford University and the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard and Tesla.

Despite the local history here, I skipped the detour on Slate Creek Road to the Page Mill site: instead, I followed the Bear Creek Trail, which headed north out of the Slate Creek Trail Camp. The trail began ascending gently here as it passed through more second-growth redwood forest. The scenery improved as the trail entered a narrow, moister gulch: redwood sorrel grew profusely here, coating the slopes of the gulch like a carpet. There were a few fairly large redwoods along the trail here that must still be old growth. During my late April visit, much of the redwood sorrel was blooming, featuring small but pretty pink flowers.

Trail through redwood sorrel carpet
Blooming redwood sorrel
The trail ascended steadily through the gulch until the terrain began to flatten out; here, redwood forest was replaced by drier tanoak woodland. A rusting, long-abandoned car to the right of the trail was an oddity: how did it get there? Soon, the hike peaked in elevation at 4 miles in atop a small plateau. The flatter trail here was not quite as nice as it sounded: the tanoak canopy allowed in enough light here that the understory was quite dense, leading to some brushy stretches of trail where vegetation, including some poison oak, was overhanging into the trail corridor.

At 4.2 miles, the flatter stretch of trail ended as the Bear Creek Trail began a steep descent down a ridge towards Peters Creek Grove. The initial descent was particularly steep as the trail plunged down the ridge with no switchbacks. At points, the woods opened up towards the south here and revealed limited views over the Pescadero Creek watershed. Redwoods dotted the nearby ridges, but Butano Ridge, the most distant of the ridges visible from here, was a tragic sight: its slopes were dotted with the burnt skeletons of redwoods, lost in the summer of 2020 during the hellish conflagration that was the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. While I was too far away to see fine detail on the ridge and it was clear that some redwoods on Butano Ridge had survived, overall it was clear that tree mortality had been extremely high in the fire. The CZU Lightning Complex had, at both the time of my hike and at the time of writing, forced a complete and indefinite closure of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California's first state park and the Peninsula's most celebrated redwood grove. Until Big Basin reopens, Peters Creek Grove will be the best place to see old growth redwoods on the Peninsula.

Butano Ridge and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire scars
After a few partial views, the trail descended away from the ridge, ending the views. The descent mellowed out somewhat as the trail utilized some switchbacks for the descent; eventually, the trail reentered a redwood forest as it began to approach Peters Creek. The final part of the descent was quite pretty, with increasingly lush vegetation along the trail, including lots of ferns and redwood sorrel. Redwoods became increasingly impressive in size as we approached the bottom of the valley. The trail was also somewhat more difficult to navigate here: fallen trees blocked the trail at times and it was occasionally quite difficult to navigate around them.

At five miles from the trailhead, the Bear Creek Trail entered the extraordinarily lush environs of Bear Creek itself. Here, redwoods soared hundreds of feet above while the understory was overflowing with the greenery of sorrel and ferns. This was an exceedingly scenic stretch of the hike; the trail passed through this beautiful gulch, then crossed the creek and descended along the other side of the gulch down to meet the Peters Creek Loop Trail at just over 5.2 miles.

Redwoods along Bear Creek
Lush sorrel and redwoods along Bear Creek
The junction with the Peters Creek Loop Trail was at the heart of this beautiful redwood grove. From here, I hiked a one-mile loop that straddled both sides of Peters Creek to experience the best of this redwood grove. I chose to hike the loop clockwise, taking the left fork at the junction and then returning later on the trail heading right.

The trees are of course the highlight of this grove, but the understory vegetation at Peters Creek Grove turn this cathedral of great trees into a vegetal eden. During my spring visit, many wildflowers bloomed on the forest floor here, most notably trillium, a flower that I have rarely seen in the Bay Area.

Spring flowers in Peters Creek Grove
Trillium in Peters Creek Grove
I started out the loop by wandering south along the east bank of Peters Creek. The trail crossed a small wooden bridge over Bear Creek as it passed a few trees with particularly impressive girths. The grove was small overall- the valley of Peters Creek is quite narrow so the alluvial flat between the slopes on either side of the creek is only wide enough for a few redwoods at any point. However, the grove's incredible lushness and the quality of the trees and understory here made up for its limited scope.

Peters Creek Grove
The redwoods in the grove soared far above the creek; these coast redwoods are the tallest species of tree on Earth today, after all. While the redwoods in the northern part of the state- particularly those in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Redwood National Park- have been found to reach or exceed 370 feet in height, the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains reach more contained heights, due to the lower precipitation and more limited moisture availability here. Trees in Big Basin State Park are known to reach 325 feet in height; the tallest old growth redwood in Peters Creek Grove is around 300 feet. However, the differences in height between trees over 200 feet tall is rarely appreciable from the ground level.

Soaring redwoods of Peters Creek Grove
A quarter mile into the Peters Creek Loop Trail and 5.5 miles into the hike, the trail crossed Peters Creek. There was no bridge here: rock hopping was easy during my hike due to low water in the creek but this could be a tricky spot to navigate in high water. After crossing the stream, the trail climbed through the old growth redwood forest to join a road trace; I turned right upon reaching the road trace to continue along the loop.

Redwoods along Peters Creek
The Peters Creek Loop Trail followed this road trace, which was once Old Page Mill Road, over the next half mile. This was the least scenic part of the loop: the road trace followed the mountainside above Peters Creek and was somewhat removed from the creek itself, taking me out of the densest redwoods of the grove. However, the views of the soaring trunks of the redwoods that originated in the valley below was impressive in its own way.

Old growth redwoods
After traveling a half mile up the Peters Creek valley, the loop trail left the road trace and dropped back down to Peters Creek, returning to the shadow of the towering redwoods. The trail began to loop back towards the Bear Creek Trail junction and crossed Peters Creek again, this time again by rockhopping. Some particularly impressive trees rose just after the creek crossing, with diameters easily exceeding ten feet. This was one of the more magical spots of the grove.

Peters Creek and the redwood grove
Massive trees in Peters Creek Grove
A final quarter mile of hiking along Peters Creek itself brought me back to the junction with the Bear Creek Trail. This last leg of the Peters Creek Loop was exceedingly scenic, with the trail passing by the base of large redwoods that grew right on the banks of the creek. Upon reaching the Bear Creek Trail at six and a quarter miles, I turned left and followed the Bear Creek Trail out of the grove and back uphill. The 800-foot ascent from Peters Creek back to the ridge was the most strenuous stretch of the hike; the rest of the return trip was smooth sailing.

Trail along Peters Creek through the grove
This hike is far less crowded than the well known old-growth groves in the Bay Area; it sees just a fraction of the traffic of Henry Cowell Redwoods or Muir Woods. The long hike necessary to reach it makes Peters Creek Grove a good deal quieter than the main visitor groves at Portola Redwoods, as well. However, the grove is well known enough and a good enough hike near a large metropolitan area that you shouldn't expect solitude here: I saw about about 20 hikers during the hour that I spent in Peters Creek Grove itself and I saw at least 20 other hikers on the trail on my way to and from the grove. Still, I highly recommend this hike as Peters Creek Grove is a magical and beautiful place, a lush arboreal glen that is the perfect escape from the bustle of the Bay Area.