Deep Forest Hike Near Santa Cruz
The Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is certainly of more interest to hikers than the more tourist-friendly main unit. There is no sightseer railway, visitors center or gigantic parking lot. Fall Creek Unit is 2,930 acres of steep, forest clad terrain centered around Fall Creek, a tributary of the San Lorenzo River. This little slice of the Santa Cruz Mountains only minutes from the city of Santa Cruz really does feel wild.
The hike starts out easy enough as the Bennett Creek Trail heads north and downhill out of the parking lot through the only chaparral you'll see on this hike. The trail is dusty, crowded, and soon forgotten as your route goes left onto the Fall Creek Trail. The going is easy as you travel through a riparian gallery forest of bigleaf maple, sycamore and a few introduced eucalyptus. This goes on for about 1/2 mile until you reach the junction with the South Fork Trail.
The hike gets a lot more difficult at this point for the next 3 miles. The South Fork Trail immediately heads steeply uphill to the left, and doesn't relent until you reach the old lime kiln operation. There was a pretty substantial lime operation here from about 1870 until 1925, and its basic infrastructure is still intact. The South Fork Trail ends at actual lime kilns which are huge structures that had limestone piled on top of burning wood. The fires underneath the lime would burn for days on end, and the surrounding redwood forest was the primary fuel. You can climb on top of the 30-feet-high kilns, and there is also a trail behind it as it blends into the hillside.
Henry Cowell purchased this operation in 1900 for commercial reasons, and his son donated it to the state for a park in 1972.
Take the Cape Horn Trail from the kilns to a confusing junction, and from there head back uphill on the Lost Empire Trail. Cape Horn travels past the Powder Magazine marker. You will expend most of your energy going up the Lost Empire Trail, but it's worth it. This trail winds ever upward through a dense forest of redwood and Douglas fir until it crosses Barrel Mill Creek about 1.5 mile up from the junction. The trail switches back to the north on a final, relentless climb to the Big Ben Tree. The lower portions of Lost Empire are 75-25 redwoods-everything else, but the top is closer to 30-70.
Big Ben is a large redwood tree, but by no means remarkable. This is the high point of the hike, and the rest of your trip consists of 1.5 steep miles down the Big Ben Trail to the Fall Creek Trail. Take the Fall Creek Trail downhill to the south through some surprisingly steep stretches to the Bennett Creek Trail and the trailhead.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.