Monday, April 25, 2011

Hikers Hut & Heritage Grove, Sam McDonald County Park

Heritage Grove

Old Growth Redwood Groves are very uncommon in the Santa Cruz mountains. Most of the trees were cut down to feed a developing San Francisco’s need for timber. Those that remain like in Muir Woods and Big Basin are crowded and lack the prestine almost primeval feel of the north coast redwoods. With one exception. Tucked back between Alpine Road and Hwy 84 through La Honda sits little Sam McDonald County Park and the Heritage Grove tucked in the canyon of Alpine Creek.

Hike Summary

Difficulty - Moderate
Length - 4.4 Miles
Crowds - Few to None
Fees - $5.00 Parking Fee
Best Season(s) - Any Season
Get Directions

Though the grove can be accessed most directly from the Heritage Grove trail head and requires only a .3 mile hike from there a larger 4.4 mile loop explores much more of the park including the famous Sierra Club Hikers Hut. In fact perhaps the best way to enjoy the Heritage grove isn’t in it, but looking down upon it from the Heritage Grove trail which traverses the ridge above it.

Sam McDonald Redwood Trail
Redwoods Along the Ridge Loop

The trail begins at the Park Entrance parking lot which itself is quite beautiful and studded with healthy second growth redwoods. I met up with my high school friend Andrew, visiting from New York for a few days and in dire need of some redwood hiking. The first quarter mile or so up the Big Tree Trail climbs steeply and switchbacks up the ridge through a nice mixed redwood forest, which although nice is fairly unremarkable and eventually joins the Ridge Loop Trail to continue up the hill.

Near the Jack Brook Horse camp we veered off and joined the Towne Fire Road crossing some beautiful meadows on the grassy summit of the ridge. We spotted a coyote hunting off the trail (unfortunately my longest lens was a 50mm so I couldn’t get a nice photo of it) for mice. The brief detour on to the Brook Trail provides some nice variation. We made sure to keep the left to avoid descending the ridge along Towne Creek.

Jay Brook Horse Camp
Fence outside the Jay Brook Horse Camp.

Sam McDonald Coyote
Coyote on the prowl near Jay Horse Camp.

Mixed Pine Forest
Mixed Pine Forest along the Brook Trail.

After a half mile or so on the Brook Loop we again made a left to rejoin the Towne Fire Road briefly. We followed the signage to the Sierra Club hikers hut for a brief detour. After visiting the Hikers Hut (which isn’t anything special unless you are staying there) we joined the Heritage Grove Trail as it descended rapidly down the ridge through a mixed forest which becomes more and more dense with towering redwoods as it continues down hill.

Towne Fire Road
Hiking the Towne Fire Road

Sierra Club Hikers Hut
The Sierra Club Hikers Hut

After a few switchbacks through a mossy forest we entered the Heritage Grove. Even though it is very close to Alpine Road, even on weekends this area sees very little traffic. We found the trailhead there empty and the grove quiet.

The damp forest floor was covered in ferns and the clover-like Redwood Sorrell. Small tributaries of Alpine Creek cut through the forest floor and filled the air with the sound of tiny bubbling waterfalls. The ground was wet and filled the air with the smell of a damp forest. We spent some time strolling through the grove and discovering its many treasures before eventually heading back up the way we came. This time keeping right on to the Heritage Grove trail back towards the park entrance.

Mossy Forest
Moss covered tree in the mixed forest below the Hikers Hut.

Damp Redwood Log
A decaying log on the damp forest floor.

Heritage Redwood Grove.

The trail climbs up briefly and then levels off while paralleling the creek. The trail is lined with second growth redwoods but sits above the towering Old Growth of the Heritage Grove. These views down into the forest offer a unique way to experience the grove. Even though the hill had us hiking above the base of these trees we were still well below the first branches of the giants.

Heritage Grove
Looking down on the Heritage Grove

Eventually the trail returns to a mixed forest. We crossed Pescadero Creek Road and hiked the last few hundred feet back to the car, our boots covered in mud (and pants too). After bagging up our boots we hit the road, back over the hill towards home.


  1. Did this hike a year ago with Sweetie and friends. So excited to hit the trail, be with friends who like to hike, that I FORGOT MY CAMERA! Ugh! Nice post - nice blog! Keep it up!

  2. Thanks Greg, it was actually pretty tough taking photographs at least under the dark canopy of the old growth redwoods in the Memorial Day. A lot of these look okay online but I'd never be able to print.

    Besides which, a camera is not required to enjoy the hike :) In fact most of the time it just gets in the way (at least for me).