A cool hike for summer
Memorial County Park
San Mateo County

Neil Wiley

It was the hottest day of July, and my planned hike of Henry Coe Park did not look appealing. Hiking books and online hikers warned that this park features long, hard treks along old ranch roads with little shade. Not the best idea for a summer day. So I opted for plan B San Mateo Countyís Memorial Park. I'm glad I did.

To begin with, the ride up my favorite road, Skyline Boulevard, got things off to a good start. My little Solstice purred as we rode up and down hills and around smooth curves made for sports cars. The top was down, blowing the wind through what was left of my hair. The early morning sun was bright, but not too hot. It was perfect.

When I reached Highway 84 in Woodside, I turned left toward the ocean. I considered a second breakfast at Aliceís Restaurant, but thought I better reach my trailhead before it got too hot. I neednít have worried. As we coasted down 13 miles of downhill roads into dark forest, it got cooler and cooler. The road was surprising smooth, but the breeze was surprisingly chilly. I turned the heater on, and then set the temperature higher and higher. Where was my jacket? Safely at home. Who needs a jacket when you expect ninety-degree temperatures?

By the time I turned left on Pescadero Road, I was downright cold. Perhaps it was a precipitous drop in temperature, or maybe the dark forest or the wisps of fog that slipped through the trees.

After passing several other parks, I turned left at the well-signed entrance to Memorial Park. Although smaller and less well-known than the adjacent Pescadero Creek and Sam McDonald county parks, Memorial Park has lots to offer. Much of its 499 acres are devoted to group and family activities. Four picnic areas accommodate groups from 50 to 225. Two group camps accommodate up to 75 people each. An amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 300 provides for interpretive and naturalist presentations, but it is also suitable for weddings, especially for those who have Druid tendencies. Most of the facilities were built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. They look old but are well maintained.

Although the park is relatively small, it offers 156 campsites with easy access. Water, showers, and firewood are available. For those less prepared for roughing it, a store, open from Memorial Day through September, provides camping supplies, groceries, wood, ice, ice cream, soft drinks, and other welcome items of civilization.

Whether camping or visiting for the day, be sure to stop by the parkís interpretive center. Itís amazing how many natural and historic exhibits, pictures, maps, and hands-on touchy-feely things are displayed in one small room. During the summer, you can attend regular campfire and naturalist programs. Also, a wading pool in Pescadero Creek is a great way to enjoy an old-time, natural experience.


At the best of times, Memorial Park offers only eight miles of trails, but the three-mile long Pomponio Trail was impassable to all but the most foolhardy due to a large overgrowth of poison oak. The park ranger said that it would be opened "soon," but be sure to check before giving it a try.

Even without this trail, Memorial Park has something to offer the hiker. The Mt. Ellen Summit Trail and the Mt. Ellen Nature Trail form a loop of less than two miles, but I found a lot to see and photograph. Even better on a summer day, the entire hike is in deep shade. (Before you begin, stop by the entrance kiosk to pick up a copy of the Mt. Ellen Nature Trail Guide.) The trailhead is across Pescadero Road from the park entrance.

The hike begins in redwood forest, complete with ferns and sorrel. At the first trail intersection, I turned right to climb a series of easy switchbacks through giant redwoods and firs to the 680-foot summit of Mount Ellen. It isnít Everest, but there was still a sense of achievement when I reached the madrone- and bay-covered ridge. I continued on the loop down another series of switchbacks back to the nature trail. On the way, I saw a nervous buck and doe, a colorful banana slug, jays, squirrels, quail, and other assorted forest denizens.

My Nature Trail Guide interpretative information and illustrations linked to small signposts from A to Z. It was a good way to learn more about the redwood forest plants and animals. I recommend it, especially if you are hiking with young naturalists.

Memorial Park is neither unique nor awe-inspiring. The facilities and trails are old and well-worn. Other parks are more impressive. Still, shady, cool forests, quiet, narrow trails, and natural beauty make this a pleasant way to spend a day. Campers can also use it as a base for exploring nearby Pescadero Creek and Sam McDonald parks.


The fifty-mile trip to Memorial Park takes about ninety minutes via Skyline (Highway 35), Highway 84, and Pescadero Road. If you want a different route home, continue on Pescadero Road to Highway 1, and down the coast to Santa Cruz. The park entry fee per car for day use is $5.00. Seniors can enter free of charge. Horses are not allowed. Bicycles and motorized vehicles are allowed only on paved roadways and in established parking areas.

The Mt. Ellen Nature Trail Guide was written by Carol Kemnitz, park and museum naturalist, and is published by the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Division.



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