Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a very famous tourist stop, complete with a visitor center and promenade through some old growth redwoods. However, there is a whole other unit of Henry Cowell at Fall Creek canyon. that is rugged, primitive, and much less visited. There is a dirt parking lot off Felton-Empire Road, but no facilities at this park. The figure-8 loop I put together is a 12.6 mile run covering almost all the trails in this park with a mix of single track and wider paths. Other than the Fall Creek Trail, the trails are steep with some brutal climbs on rugged trail. With 2,600+ feet of total elevation gain on this run, you have to come wanting the steep hills :) There are two main sections of hill climb, but each climb is broken into two parts. The entire run is in the forest – mostly second-growth redwoods.
The first part of the run is actually donwhill along the Bennett Creek Trail and the Fall Creek Trail to the Ridge trail junction which is the low point of the run at about 370 feet. The hill climbing begins here and it is mostly a reasonable incline of fun single track until you get to a flatter section along the ridge at 850 feet of elevation. After the S-Cape trail junction there is steeper hill that continues along the Truck Trail which seems to have one hill after another for 1.3 miles. The high point on this loop is at the turnoff of the Big Ben Trail at about 1600 feet.
Image from Redwood Hikes, an excellent resource for hikes in redwoods with trail descriptions, maps, and awesome photography of these majestic trees. For this loop, you can combine the descriptions on Redwood Hikes for the Truck Trail and the Big Ben Trail.
The Big Ben Trail along this section is downhill, but too steep to open the stride so 400 feet of the hard earned elevation gain is given away without fun running. However, once you hit the Fall Creek trail the running is great with gradual downhills and twists and turns along Fall Creek, which flows surprisingly strong for the middle of the summer. The deep and lush forested canyon is a great ambiance and the Fall Creek Trail is definitely the highlight of this run.
At the intersection with the Cape Horn trail, the second section of hills commences at an elevation of about 700 feet. The hill climb continues along the Lost Empire Trail with a section that is particularly brutal along a very old logging track that is eroded with plenty of rocks and roots as it goes straight up the hillside. At 1,400 feet, there is a respite from the climbing with about 3/4 of a mile of pleasant running on wide, flat trail with even some slight downhill to Lost Camp. The climbing resumes on single track after Lost Camp, and while the final 500 feet of elevation gain is not as steep as the first part, the damage is already done and it’s a slog! Reaching the Big Ben redwood tree feels good because it is the high point of the entire run at 1,900 feet and from here it is largely downhill for the last 4.4 miles. The Big Ben tree is also a nice medium-sized old growth redwood that is in a very nice setting. From here, the Big Ben trail takes you back down to Fall Creek. This section of the Big Ben trail is graded much better and passes some other old growth trees. Time to open up the stride!
The first part of the Fall Creek trail is repeat, but it’s the highlight so worth it! The final section is also great running along the stream with several crossings and a finish on a wider path where you can open it up even more for the finish!
I personally had a tougher time with Fall Creek Park then other runs in local redwood parks because the trails here are steep and rugged. With 2,600+ feet of elevation gain, the total climbing is also a little more than usual. The miles don’t come easy here, but it’s a beautiful canyon and the downhill sections along the Fall Creek trail are well worth the effort!
Route (~12.8 miles, 2,600+ feet of elevation gain):
- Start – Bennett Creek Trail
- Right (cross bridge) onto the Fall Creek Trail
- Left onto High School Trail (short distance)
- Left onto Ridge Trail
- Straight onto Truck Trail
- Left onto Big Ben Trail
- Left onto Fall Creek Trail
- Right onto Cape Horn Trail
- Right onto Lost Empire Trail
- Right onto Big Ben Trail
- Right onto Fall Creek Trail
- Right onto Bennett Creek Trail – Finish
- Start at Fall Creek Parking Lot – 0:00
- Cape Horn Trail turnoff from Fall Creek Trail (~5.7 miles) – 44:31
- Big Ben Tree at top of Lost Empire Trail (~8.4 miles) – 1:08:20
- Junction with Fall Creek Trail (~9.8 miles) – 1:18:19
- Finish at Fall Creek Parking Lot (~12.8 miles) – 1:38:20
While Henry Cowell State Park is geographically further from Palo Alto than many peninsula parks, the driving is on highways allowing for fast travel if there is no traffic. It takes about 50 minutes driving each way from Palo Alto, which is similar or less then driving times to other redwood state parks, including Big Basin State Park, Butano State Park, and Portola State Park.