The Hidden Henry Cowell: A Hike in Felton's Fall Creek

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Written by Tara Leonard

Travel - Santa Cruz

FELTON (February 2011) -- Although it’s just a 15-minute drive from downtown Santa Cruz, Fall Creek feels like a great escape. While the main section of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has something for everyone – the Roaring Camp steam trains, the famous Redwood Loop trail, campsites, a nature center, picnic areas, and a gift shop – the Fall Creek Unit offers a quieter, wilder experience, with lime kiln ruins thrown in for good measure.
With no services, and therefore very few guests, this is the locals’ Henry Cowell, where I frequently go for long, hilly runs or rigorous family hikes. This is also where Felton resident Debra Collins spent a few cold December nights after a twisted ankle left her unable to walk out of the rugged terrain. So take a lesson from Collins and don’t hike here alone, dress in layers, bring plenty of food and water, and tell someone where you’re going! That way you'll be around to share stories of your exploits at The White Raven Coffee and Tea House, another Felton favorite.
To reach Fall Creek from Santa Cruz, navigate the hairpin turns up Highway 9. In about 7 miles you can’t miss the imposing sign for Henry Cowell State Park on the right. Stop here if you want a trail map for Fall Creek. Otherwise, continue north for another half mile, through the town of Felton, to the stop light at Felton Empire Road. Turn left and drive slowly or you’ll miss the small sign for Fall Creek in a half mile on your right. This whisper of a sign is your first hint of things to come. The second? Don’t be surprised if yours is the only car in the small dirt lot. There's no entrance gate, bathrooms or welcome center. In fact, you have to hike a steep quarter-mile down the Bennett Creek Trail before gaining access to a large trail map. (But don’t worry, the trails are well marked.)
Once there, you’ll see that what Fall Creek does offer are 2,390 acres with about 20 miles of hiking trails straddling a central canyon. In the late 1800s, IXL lime company workers and their families lived in this canyon, processing the large deposits of limestone. Redwoods were logged and made into barrels for storing lime while others fed the three limestone kilns. The Henry Cowell Lime and Cement Company took over the business in 1900, producing much of the lime in the cement used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. But when oil-burning kilns replaced wood-fired ones around 1920, the quarry was shut down. Henry Cowell's sons, Samuel and Harry, later donated the land that would become Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Whether you choose a quick out-and-back trip to the historic lime kilns or an 8-mile loop to the awe-inspiring Big Ben redwood, start by heading left on Fall Creek Trail. It’s named for the delightful creek that rushes and tumbles alongside providing adults with a constant, gurgling backdrop and children with an irresistible place to play. Even in the midst of summer drought, this picturesque stream remains constant, shaded by lush ferns, maples and alder.
But be forewarned – this initially wide, flat path will be the easiest part of your hike. Gradually, the trail narrows and climbs until you are scrambling over slick rocks, ducking under fallen trees, and grabbing tree roots protruding from the hillside to avoid sliding into the water below. During one winter trek, my family encountered two redwoods that had toppled across the trail behind us in the time it took us to reach the kilns and back! Clambering over those unexpected obstacles was the highlight of our day. That’s the great thing about Fall Creek – without the distractions of a more developed park, you focus on the spontaneous delights only nature can provide. When the kids were young, we would barely make it 100 yards up the trail before they were sidetracked by a swimming hole or a redwood stump just crying out to be climbed. On weekend mornings, a friend and I can run the entire Big Ben loop without seeing another person beyond the lime kilns. No shop is needed to experience a gift like that!
After walking about ¾ of a mile on Fall Creek Trail, you’ll cross a wooden bridge and run smack into a hillside where the trail splits. Go left on South Fork Trail and in a strenuous half mile you’ll reach the kilns. I prefer to stay to the right on Fall Creek Trail which loops up and around the kilns, creating an approximately 3-mile roundtrip.
Fall Creek Trail continues to climb, meandering back and forth across the water on increasingly minimal foot bridges for another ¾ of a mile. Watch for areas where the trail has washed out from mountain run-off and if you’re hiking during the winter, plan to get wet and dirty! When you reach the Cape Horn Trail, turn left onto a wider trail that was once a buggy road and you’ll soon descend into the lime kiln area from above. (Those looking for a longer journey can head up, up, up Lost Empire Trail leading to Big Ben, then take the Big Ben trail north and east until it reconnects with Fall Creek Trail. With an elevation gain of about 1,500 feet, this 8-mile loop is no stroll in the park. Give yourself plenty of time and make sure to carry food and water.)
My kids love to explore the crumbling lime kilns, now covered in moss and ivy. Take time to review the historical markers, including a map of the workers’ village, and try to imagine how the area looked, smelled and sounded during the height of lime production.  This is a great place to picnic before heading back down the rocky South Fork Trail to reconnect to Fall Creek Trail. Save some energy for that last thigh-burning climb up Bennett Creek Trail to the parking lot.
After total immersion in Fall Creek, you may not be ready to plunge back into the real world. Delay the inevitable with a stop at The White Raven Coffee and Tea House for a warm drink and a locally made pastry. Known as "the best little pourhouse in Felton" this fun and funky cafe also offers local art, candles, incense and books. Curl up in a comfy chair or relax on the outdoor deck before continuing down Highway 9 to reality. Now that you know about Fall Creek, your next great escape is only a short drive away.