A lovely stream, fallen trees and old limekilns
Fall Creek
Neil Wiley

Tom Taber, author of The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book and the area’s number one hiker, says that Fall Creek is one of his favorite places. Although other parks boast taller trees, higher waterfalls or better views, Fall Creek has a special charm. Perhaps it is the Fall Creek Trail that follows a shaded, bubbling creek through the park. Perhaps it is the century-old limekilns, their gray granite blocks slowly succumbing to blankets of green ferns. Or perhaps it is the hundreds of fallen trees, pulled down by wind, erosion and water. They tell you of nature’s power and the inevitability of death. Yet these trees form the compost for a new generation of plants. And it feels right, real and natural—a perfect antidote for the stresses and artificiality of civilization.

Then again, a walk is sometimes just a walk. With more than twenty miles of trails over 2,390 acres, you can choose your distance and difficulty. Take a short, relatively level stroll up to the limekilns and back (2.4 miles). Or hike via Fall Creek and Kiln Trails over a loop that takes you beyond the limekilns to the Ridge Trail and back down to parking (3.6 miles). Want a challenge? Tackle longer loops that take you further northwest up the canyon (8.6 miles or more).

Although the limekilns are a favorite destination, the walk along the creek to get there is the highlight of the hike. The moist, shaded creekside environment supports lush riparian vegetation. Fifteen species of ferns are here, including sword, chain and five-finger ferns. You can also see elk clover, coltsfoot, water hemlock, trillium, redwood sorrel, wild ginger and horsetail.

The limekilns offer photo opportunities and a bit of Santa Cruz history. They were built in the 1870s by the IXL Lime Company. Later, the locally famous Henry Cowell bought them. Limestone was blasted from the nearby 150-foot high quarry, then heated in the large kilns. Over 5,000 cords of wood were burned each year. During a peak year, the quarry and kilns supplied more than 50,000 barrels of lime. They produced much of the lime used for mortar in rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

To continue your explorations, take the Cape Horn Trail past the powder magazine back to the Fall Creek Trail. You can head back southeast, then turn left up the steep but relatively short S-Cape Trail to the Ridge Trail, right down to High School Trail, across the bridge, then left on Bennett Creek Trail to the main park entrance. Although the little waterfalls along Fall Creek Trail are nice to hear, climbing to the Ridge Trail brings you to a quieter world, where all you hear is the crunch of your boots and an occasional caw from a crow.

If you are ambitious, take Fall Creek Trail or Truck Trail further northwest, then use Big Ben Trail to connect with other trails. Warning: These routes feature steep, switchbacks and hiking 8.6 miles or more.

Although horse folks can’t use the creek side trails, they can ride Ridge Trail, Truck Trail, Big Ben Trail and Empire Trail. These trails are narrow and steep in places, so your horse should be sure-footed. No dogs or bicycles are allowed.

Fall Creek is only 17 miles from the Summit/Highway 17 intersection. Drive down Highway 17 to Mount Hermon Road. Take Mount Hermon Road through Scotts Valley to Felton. Drive straight across Highway 9 on Felton Empire Road. Watch for the park entrance sign on the right. Parking is free.

Before your trip, I recommend buying a map at the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, located just south of Felton. It could save some unintended hiking.

Enjoy your walk.


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