Henry Cowell State Park, near Felton, CA probably evokes images of families having picnics, casual strolls along the San Lorenzo River, crowds of kids clamoring to ride on the Roaring Camp Railroad, and generally lots of loud frolicking and gleeful commotion. By any account, a great public asset, but not really thought of as a place to do some serious hiking. The Fall Creek unit has some fantastic trails, but there’s no trail to connect with trails in the main park. There is however the Santa Cruz public greenbelt system directly adjacent to Cowell, and that provides some possibilities.
Actually if you get started early enough, you will likely be all but alone amongst the few regular trail runners and morning strollers. It’s very quiet. Just pick a nice place to park, and enjoy. The trails within Cowell are pretty and mostly shaded. You could begin on the river trail to hike along the waters edge. Or use the redwood loop to connect through to Rincon Road. I recommend doing that section as a semi-loop. Ricon Road connects with a trail system that although being there for many years, has at some point been re-named the Cowell – Wilder Regional Trail. This involves a nice forest hike up over and over a ridge and back down to the San Lorenzo River. There is no bridge or other constructed means of crossing the river. If you plan to hike this trail it’s best to carry some sandals for wading. Or take your chances the way I did it, by finding some rocks and using trekking poles to keep your balance. Most of the time the river does not allow this, but this time of year it’s possible, if not recommended. If you wanted, this is one of the few places in the Santa Cruz Mountains where you could actually take a swim. There are even a couple of beaches. Once on the other side you have another wooded climb up to the railroad tracks, and across Highway 9.
Once on the other side of the highway you have a choice to ramble on into Pogonip, or to turn up the U-Con trail into UCSC property to check out the trails there, or even to connect clear through to Wilder Ranch State Park, and on out to the coast. This could turn into a 25+ mile ramble if you’re feeling into that, or could be just a nice easy loop around Pogonip and back with time to linger around the river, or the redwoods.
One thing though; the trails within the greenbelt areas on the other side of the highway are mostly multi-use, so in good weather you will see a lot of mountain bikers. On our hike we saw at least 50 throughout the day. No joke! Portions of the trail are single track too, so you need to step to the side of the trail to allow them to pass. Most were very friendly, and thanked us for sharing the trail. I find that if the weather is not sunny, there is always a lot less bikers. They seem to be much more of a fair weather phenomenon, while many hikers are out for whatever the weather has to offer. Click here to see my flickr pix.