Henry Cowell State Park: 5 Must See Spots

Previously I likened Henry Cowell State Park to the Disneyland of state parks, but in actuality it’s more than just a magical place that sells ice cream bars, it’s the park equivalent of a best friend. The towering redwood trees have silently watched me 40 weeks pregnant frantically waddling along the Redwood Loop, and listened to me vent to my mom friends while we push our overloaded strollers up Pipeline Road. The Eagle Creek Trail has never laughed the countless times I stumble over tree roots on my sweaty trail runs and the river is always there to refresh me on a sweltering day. There are many sides to this park bestie but below our my favorites..

Here are my top 5 favorite spots in Henry Cowell

  1. The Lookout Bench: You can get here by taking Pipeline Road either from the main Visitor Center side of the park or the Graham Hill Road trailhead. I recommend starting from the Visitor Center because there are a few sections from the Graham Hill Road section that are ridiculously steep and the scenery along the river when you walk from the Visitor Center is really picturesque. From the Visitor Center it is about 4 miles round trip. Expect it to take 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours depending on your pace and how good sitting in the sun on the bench at the top feels.

    lookout bench in henry cowell
    On a clear day you can see the Boardwalk from the lookout bench
  2. The Fremont Tree: To be able to sit inside a giant living tree is pretty amazing. To be able to fit you and all your buddies inside a tree is epic. The Fremont Tree is located about halfway along the Redwood Grove loop. (The Redwood loop is about a mile total so it’s approximately a 1/2 mile walk to the Fremont Tree)  You’ll know you are close when you see the bathroom which is located across from the Fremont Tree. There are also some small signs with arrows that you will see when you’re getting close.

    Fremont tree in Henry Cowell State Park
    Have some fun and see how many people you can fit inside the Fremont Tree
  3. The Meadow:  It can be a bit busy during the middle of the day but at sunset it’s absolutely magical. You’re almost guaranteed to see deer and occasionally a coyote. The setting sun casts a golden hue on the grass and it’s hard to believe that you’re only half a mile away from civilization.

    Evening in Henry Cowell
    Early morning or evening is the best time to spot wildlife in the meadow
  4. The River Beaches: On a warm day the stretches of sand along the San Lorenzo River are the epitome of Santa Cruz Mountain fun. Walk along the River Trail between the parking lot and the train trestle and pick a section of sand that appeals to you. One of the most popular river beaches is a stone’s throw from the main parking lot. Simply walk towards Pipeline Road and when you reach the bottom of the short, steep hill, head right on the River Trail. A brown house will be on you right, the beach is just a few steps further on your left.  IMG_6145_2IMG_6359_2IMG_0970
  5. The Observation Deck: This is the most challenging place to reach but the views are well worth the booty burning hike to the top. At the observation deck there is a drinking fountain (it’s a little hidden but look near the stairs and you will find it) as well as a picnic table which makes it a nice place to stretch out your hamstrings and hydrate. There are a few different ways to reach the observation deck, I like to make it a loop by taking the River Trail to Rincon to Ridge to Pine Trail to Eagle Creek trail and then back on Pipeline Road or River Trail. (Don’t worry this isn’t as complicated as it sounds!)  From the parking lot it is a 5 mile loop. Expect this to take about 2- 3 hours depending on your pace and how long you hang out at the top.IMG_0495IMG_0496

Tips/Advice:

  • Bring layers. The temperature varies dramatically throughout the park
  • Head to the Visitor Center at the entrance to the Redwood Loop for trail info/maps.
  • If you’re planning on hanging out at the river on a hot day bring something to float in. You can’t beat floating in a river on a hot July day.
  • Arrive before 11am on sunny weekends, it can be difficult to get a parking spot midday.
  • Pipeline Road is the best option if you’re pushing a stroller.
  • The park is open year-round although winter can be dark and cold amongst the redwoods.
  • Parking in the main lot is $10. There are a few spots along Highway 9 that are free if you want to save some money for a post-hike burrito and add fifteen minutes to your hike.
  • If you’re planning on eating in Henry Cowell it’s best to bring your own food. Aside from a few snacks at the store, food options are limited.
  • If you have children walk over to Roaring Camp and look at the old trains. It’s free and it’s a two minute walk from the Henry Cowell parking lot.

    IMG_0988
    The picnic area is the perfect spot for an outdoorsy brunch with friends

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