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The Ultimate Guide to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

The Ultimate Guide to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Featuring 15 miles of hiking and riding trails, the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park boasts trees that are close to being 1,800 years old.


5 min read

June 28, 2023

Nestled within the verdant expanse of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a verdant oasis that might just fill your night visions with shades of emerald. This enchanting park offers over 15 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding, guiding visitors through majestic redwoods, diverse evergreen forests, unique sandhill environments, and stands of striking ponderosa pines. Some of the ancient giants here have witnessed nearly two millennia. Whether you're in pursuit of a stunning dawn vista or a serene weekend camping amidst nature's rugged beauty, this park promises an array of delightful experiences to fulfill your outdoor desires.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park preserves forest and riparian areas in the San Lorenzo River, including a grove of old-growth coast redwoods.

All About The History of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

To understand the significance of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, let’s journey back to 1899 when California’s redwood trees became internationally famous. That year, an English publication hired Andrew P. Hill—an artist, photographer, and author from San Jose—to write a story about the massive beauties of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Hill packed his equipment and set out on a journey to Felton, where he found the perfect subjects for his magazine piece. These magnificent virgin redwoods reached a whopping 300 feet in height, but before Hill could do anything to capture their striking glory, a man by the name of Joseph Welch (the owner of the grove) came and chased him off. 

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Welch refused to let any commercial photographs be taken of his redwoods unless they offered to pay, leaving Hill no choice but to return to San Jose without any visuals to complete his article. The fact that the general public was unable to experience these beauties just didn’t sit right with Hill. His frustrations would soon be answered when a man by the name of Henry Cowell entered the picture.

The 4,623-acre state park was established in 1954, and it includes a non-contiguous extension in the Fall Creek area north of Felton.

Who was Henry Cowell? 

Henry Cowell, known for his reserved nature, played a pivotal role in the development of California's state parks. Departing from Wrentham, Massachusetts in 1849, during the peak of the Gold Rush, Henry and his brother John ventured to California, captivated by its promise and opportunities. While John soon made his way back to Wrentham, Henry stayed behind, establishing a thriving cartage enterprise at the young age of 30. Leveraging the business acumen inherited from his affluent family, Henry's ventures flourished, expanding his holdings from San Luis Obispo all the way to Washington State.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and Samuel 'Harry' Cowell, the last of the Cowell lineage and nearing his nineties, held a deep appreciation for the great outdoors. He was particularly attached to the family's land adjacent to the Welch Grove, a place significant for being out of bounds to Andrew P. Hill previously. In 1952, Harry decided to honor his father, Henry, by acquiring the grove and dedicating it to his memory. Although the land had already been designated to the state, Harry's representatives engaged in extensive discussions with state officials. Their perseverance paid off, and on August 18, 1954, the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was officially inaugurated as a California State Park, marking a significant milestone in the state's conservation efforts.

Up-slope from the redwood forest are transitional tree species like Pacific madrone and a stand of Ponderosa pine, rare at such a low elevation.

When to Go?

At Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the majesty of redwoods can be appreciated year-round. These towering giants are particularly mesmerizing during the misty rains of winter, offering a serene backdrop that's perfect for those seeking solitude and a deep connection with nature. For those who prefer quieter visits, the chillier weather of the winter months tends to deter large crowds, making it an ideal time for introspective explorers. On the other hand, if you're someone who enjoys the company of fellow nature enthusiasts, the park comes alive in the warmer months. Summers offer cool dips in the park's river, spring is alive with bustling wildlife, and autumn presents a spectacular display of fiery foliage, each season offering its own unique charm and array of activities.

Some of the highest and driest ridge slopes in the park support fairly unusual chaparral communities known as "elfin forests."

Tips for Visiting

Henry Cowell State Park might not boast the largest expanse in the region, but it surprises visitors with its diverse array of biking and equestrian trails that offer more than meets the eye. The park is a treasure trove of experiences not commonly highlighted in standard travel guides. To truly enhance your visit, a stop at the Visitor Center is highly recommended. There, friendly docents can provide personalized recommendations for hiking trails, share the latest wildlife sightings, and offer other valuable insights tailored to the day's conditions. For those mindful of terrain, the Visitor Center also features a 3D trail map to help gauge elevation changes along your chosen path.

Operating from dawn till dusk, the park becomes a hub of unique, complimentary activities during the summer evenings. Immerse yourself in the celestial wonders during the weekly Star Strolls to the Observation Deck, or let the rhythms of live jazz enchant you at the Full Moon Madness events, held monthly near the Visitor Center. These experiences add a delightful twist to the park's natural allure, inviting visitors to enjoy its beauty under the stars.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campgrounds

Hiking, fishing (depending on season), seasonal camping (including RV), birdwatching, and several dog-friendly trails await at this state park.

Graham Hill Campground

Tucked away within a serene mixed evergreen forest adjacent to the unique Santa Cruz Sandhills, the Graham Hill Campground offers 107 sites compatible with RVs up to 35 feet in length. Each site is equipped with essential camping amenities including a secure food locker, a picnic table, a fire pit, and a grill, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable stay.

Santa Cruz Ranch RV Resort 

While not situated within the park's boundaries, the Santa Cruz Ranch RV Resort is a splendid option for those looking to stay close to the redwoods. This RV camp, nestled amidst towering trees, provides ample shade and coolness, ideal for those warm summer days. Its proximity to the boardwalk offers easy access to water activities, adding another layer of fun to your camping adventure.

Tent and RV camping with no hook-ups are available several miles from the main entrance to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Smithwoods RV Park

Just a stone's throw from the state park, Smithwoods RV Park positions you at the heart of the local community's vibrant monthly festivals. This RV park is well-appointed with modern conveniences including water, electricity, cable TV, and picnic tables. It's also pet-friendly, so your furry friends can join in on the fun.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Hikes

The park has a more modern visitor center. Next door to the main parking lot is the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Redwood Grove Loop Trail

A favorite among park visitors, the Redwood Grove Loop Trail offers an immersive, mile-long trek through an ancient old-growth forest. The trail runs alongside the Roaring Camp Railroads, where the tranquility of the towering redwoods is occasionally broken by the nostalgic sound of steam trains. The cool, lush environment, adorned with ferns and redwood sorrel, provides a tranquil and verdant backdrop for your hike.

Indian Creek Loop

For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, the Indian Creek Loop awaits just beyond the railroad tracks from the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. This trail offers a mix of environments, from redwood forests to connections with the Roaring Camp train station, and is a great spot for wildlife watching along its varied terrain.

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