Observation Deck Hike

Read on if you like: hiking, old-growth redwoods, Santa Cruz sandhills, Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, moderate hikes, ocean views.

Redwood Grove Loop to Pipeline Road to Ridge Fire Road to Pine Trail to Eagle Trail to Pipeline Road
4 miles RT; 2 hours; moderate (550 ft elev. gain)

A hike to the Observation Deck at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a must for anyone who can do it. It's not a long climb, but a steep portion of the trail, followed by deep sand at the top, make for a pretty decent workout. Those who do make their way to the 805-foot vantage point are rewarded with views of Monterey Bay on one side and a spectacular phalanx of Santa Cruz Mountain ridges and valleys on the other, while on all sides of the observation perch itself extends rare Santa Cruz sandhills habitat, with its stately ponderosa pines, gnarled silverleaf manzanita and bush lupine.

Start at the parking area by the visitor's center and head toward the Redwood Grove Loop. (Since you're here, you may as well ogle some old-growth redwoods, right?) Take either leg of the loop; at the far end, where the two legs meet up, a short trail will take you down to paved Pipeline Road. You might be tempted to drop down and take the prettier dirt path (River Trail), which appears to parallel Pipeline Road, but don't do it. It diverges more than you'd think and you'll wind up in an altogether different part of the park*.

Stay on Pipeline Road, passing towering redwoods in the bottomlands and younger redwoods as you gain altitude. The road gets pretty steep and curves to the right, then pops you up on a plateau. Turn left onto Ridge Fire Road, leaving the redwood forest behind. Thick white sand—a remnant of ocean floor, complete with fossils—makes for slow going (and very hot hiking in summertime, made worse by the lack of shade), but it's less than half a mile from this point. And the Observation Deck has that most marvelous of features, a water fountain (with a special drinking dish for horses). Climb the stairs and you'll get smashing views in every direction, plus often a cooling breeze.

Coming back, take the Pine Trail, which skirts the Henry Cowell campground as it descends through more sandhills habitat. At a poorly marked intersection approximately .25 miles from the observation deck, take the lefthand option. This is Eagle Trail, and it will take you through a picturesque redwood-lined descent. Wild azaleas on the hillside make this route especially pretty in spring and summer. At Pipeline Trail turn right and follow it back to the parking area.

* Glaring exception to this little rule: If you want to make the hike more challenging, reverse the direction of the loop. And definitely get on River Trail after leaving Redwood Grove Loop. Follow River Trail until it meets up with Eagle Trail, just as the river bends away. Follow Eagle Trail across Pipeline Road and up to Pine Trail; turn right on Pine Trail and it will lead you to the Observation Deck. Take Ridge Fire Road and Pipeline Road back to the main park area.

Back to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.