Six years ago Brian and I took the kids on a weekend camping trip in Santa Cruz. We camped at New Brighton State Beach, explored Capitola, and spent a day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. One of the coolest things we did that weekend was ride the Beach Train from the Boardwalk to Roaring Camp and back, and while at Roaring Camp, we walked over to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to show Natalie and Carter the giant redwoods.
The next year, we did another Santa Cruz weekend camping trip, this time with my whole family. We also went back to Roaring Camp and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park — but we drove there and rode the mountain train!
I have such fond memories of those two camping trips, but my kids were little and they barely remember it. So while we were in Santa Clara this summer to see Dead & Company play two concerts at Shoreline Amphitheater, we decided to spend one of the days heading back into the Santa Cruz Mountains and it was so fun.
Below are photos of Natalie and Carter standing in front of the same tree at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in 2012 and 2018.
The Redwood Grove Loop Trail
Our favorite thing to do at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is walk the Redwood Grove Loop Trail, a 0.8 mile, flat, easy, loop trail through a majestic 40 acre old-growth redwood grove. The trail begins at the Visitor Center and a small box at the trailhead holds interpretive guides containing information that corresponds with numbered markers along the trail.
On this walk, through what was originally known as the Santa Cruz County Big Trees Park, you’ll see:
- A redwood family circle, where trees grew in a circle around a parent tree that is no longer there.
- The Giant: A coast redwood that is 1,500 years old, over 17 feet wide, and 270 feet tall — almost as high as a 25-story building.
- The Frémont Tree: Named for John C. Frémont who camped in this burnt-out, hollow redwood tree in 1846 while surveying the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Make sure you duck inside! It is much larger than you think and your whole family will be able to fit!
- Banana Slugs: Under the low-growing, clover-like plant called redwood sorrel, you’ll probably spot many bright yellow banana slugs! Carter was our banana slug spotter during our walk and we ended up finding almost 30!
- The Phantom Of The Forest: Albino redwoods are very rare, but one of these white redwoods can be found along the trail… just don’t look for a white tree. The albino redwood shares a root system with a green-leafed tree, which is why it is so hard to spot!
This short but breathtaking trail is perfect for families.
The trail is wide, your kids will love hunting for banana slugs and playing inside the Frémont Tree, and who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky like we were and spot some deer in the forest. This grove of ancient coast redwood trees is the park’s most popular attraction, so just be prepared for crowds — especially if visiting on the weekend.
About Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Covering 4,650 acres of open land and redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers visitors opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, swimming, fishing, and camping.
The park’s lush redwood forest, with groves of old-growth redwoods and second-growth redwoods, flank the San Lorenzo River, while California bay trees, tanoaks, and hazelnuts adapt to the shade beneath the redwoods. In the Fall Creek Unit, a few miles north of the main park, trails traverse a fern lined river canyon and remnants of a successful lime processing industry.
How The State Park Came To Be
Joseph Welch owned the 40 acre old-growth redwood grove and the land surrounding it since 1867 and had built a comfortable and popular resort amidst the redwoods. By the turn of the century, it was complete with train station, hotel, dining hall, cabins, and dance pavilion. Dignitaries from all over the world came to marvel at the trees and in 1888, John C. Frémont visited a tree named in his honor. Three years later President Benjamin Harrison walked through the grove, and a picturesque group of redwoods was named after him. Welch’s Big Trees Resort was on the itinerary of practically every touring visitor to the general San Francisco area.
Around the same time, Henry Cowell arrived in the Santa Cruz area in 1865 after establishing a successful drayage company in San Francisco. In Santa Cruz, he entered the limestone quarrying and processing business, acquiring thousands of acres of land and ultimately gaining control of two lime-producing companies. The Cowell family’s ranches and lime operations prospered, and eventually the Cowell name was on the title of 6,500 acres of Santa Cruz County land. The holdings included over 1,600 acres of forest and river frontage adjacent to Welch’s Big Trees Resort.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Welch family began to look for a buyer for the resort and surrounding property. Welch’s son and the County worked toward a purchase that would make the grove a county park and preserve the beautiful redwoods. In 1930 Santa Cruz County paid $75,000 for 120 acres, which included the incomparable 40-acre Big Tree Grove. For the next 24 years, the County managed the area and it continued to be a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
By 1950, there was only one member of the Cowell family left — Samuel “Harry” Cowell who was nearly ninety years old. In 1952, he decided to give the property near the Big Tree Grove to the State for a park in memory of his father Henry Cowell. He wanted Santa Cruz County to turn over ownership of the ancient redwood grove to the State at the same time so that it could all be managed together.
Cowell’s representatives met with State and County officials, and negotiations were successful. On August 18, 1954, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was formally dedicated as a new unit in California’s State Park System.
Know Before You Go
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park day use area is located at 101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton, California 95018 in Santa Cruz County.
- The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The Mountain Parks Foundation Nature Store is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.
- Download the park brochure and the Redwood Grove Loop Trail Guide that corresponds with the numbered markers along the trail.
- If you don’t want to print or carry the Redwood Grove Loop Trail Guide, an audio tour version is available to download. Also, on Saturdays at 11:00 am, guided tours are given of the Redwood Grove Loop Trail.
- The Fall Creek Unit is open for day use only and includes almost twenty miles of connecting trails. Parking and trailheads are marked on Felton Empire Road off Highway 9.
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has 107 campsites in a shady pine and oak forest. The campground entrance is located off Graham Hill Road in Scotts Valley and reservations are highly recommended.
- There is a vehicle day-use fee of $10.00/vehicle for the Fall Creek Unit area and the campground.
- Bicycles are allowed on Pipeline Road, Rincon Fire Road, Ridge Fire Road, and Powder Mill Fire Road. Bicycles are not allowed in Fall Creek Unit.
- Want to go swimming? The Garden Of Eden is a popular swimming hole along the San Lorenzo River within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. There are no restrooms and you must pack out what you pack in.
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers 30 miles of trails for hiking.
- Dogs are allowed in the picnic areas and campsites and on the Meadow Trail, Pipeline Road, Graham Hill Trail, and Powder Mill Fire Road. Dogs are not allowed in the Fall Creek Unit. Dogs are not permitted on the old-growth Redwood Grove Loop Trail. Dogs may not be left unattended and must be on a leash no longer than six feet.