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. 

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