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
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.