A Magical Santa Cruz Mountains Winter Hike at Fall Creek

The Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers a little-known opportunity to experience the wondrous power of flowing water.

By Bridget Lyons

Jan. 23, 2024—When you live in an area that averages 260 sunny days per year, it’s easy to spend those rare not-so-sunny days holed up inside. And yet, as anyone who’s lived in the vicinity of the Santa Cruz Mountains for a while will tell you: Rainy days in our local forests are magical.

I was reminded of this just last Saturday, when I dragged myself away from my fireplace, put on some Gore-Tex, and drove up to the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to hike what I thought was a familiar loop. Since it has one of the best steep climbs around, I’d run this particular combination of trails numerous times last spring when I was training for a trip to the Alps. One morning a week, I parked at the free lot on Felton Empire Road, headed up the Fall Creek Trail to the Big Ben Trail and its namesake Big Ben Tree, ate a snack, then ran back down the Lost Empire Trail to the car. I spent time in the redwoods, I got eight miles and 1,750 feet of elevation under my belt, and I was back at my desk before noon. Mission accomplished.

But that was during the dry season. Hiking during the rainy season has an altogether different feel about it, resulting in a very different experience of this trail.

Something about the low cloud ceiling causes me to shift my focus. When the trail is extra-spongy, the roots are slippery, and the ferns are dappled with droplets of water, I find myself slowing down and looking for the forest’s smaller gifts. And they are everywhere along the Fall Creek Trail.

I was only about ten steps into my hike on Saturday when I saw my first mushroom, shiny and wet, its red cap popping out from a backdrop of fallen leaves. I got down on my knees to run my finger along its slimy surface and check out its gills. In the process, I found several of its compatriots and took note of enough details to later identify them as winter russulas.

Just a quarter mile later, I was walking alongside Fall Creek, where I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the flow of its water, smooth and sheet-like, over a downed and debarked log. As the trail continued upstream, I stopped to admire the twists and turns of a redwood stump’s exposed root system, marvel at the way three downed trees perfectly bridged the creek bed, and stick my nose down into a carpet of dewy clover. I’d paused for all of these little wonders before I even got to the South Fork Trail junction, a spot only about a mile into the hike.

At that junction, I stayed right to remain on the Fall Creek Trail. While this loop can be done in either direction, I prefer to follow a water source upstream, watching its volume get smaller and its gradient get steeper along the way. That’s easy to do on this trail, since it crisscrosses the creek multiple times over the course of the next two miles—sometimes with the assistance of plank bridges or logs, and sometimes via quick little hops or low-consequence boot splashes.

Steampunk History

About three miles into the hike, a smattering of rusted wheels, drive shafts, and assorted metal objects on the west side of the trail marks the Barrel Mill area. Between 1874 and 1919, the Fall Creek Unit was the site of a busy lime mining operation. The lime, which was produced by burning limestone in kilns and used to make mortar and plaster, was shipped in barrels. Those barrels were built from the area’s redwood trees, milled at this site and assembled at a cooperage downstream.

After checking out the steampunk side attraction, I found a secluded spot off-trail to relieve myself. Just as I crouched down, I had to smile. Even in this position, I was seeing micro-miracles on the ground. Right in front of me were the tiniest mushrooms I had ever seen. They were so delicate, with their translucent caps and monofilament stipes, I was hesitant to touch them for fear of causing destruction with my clumsy fingertip. I settled for a couple of close-up photos instead. Then, as I stood up, I caught glimpses of two other unusual fungi: a giant polypore, or shelf fungus, and a patch of pendulous icicle fungus dangling from a rotten douglas fir. I saw all of this simply because I stepped off the trail to go to the bathroom—a great reminder of the magic of shifting perspectives.

Back on the trail, I started heading up the climb that’s so often been the goal of my trips to the Fall Creek Unit. Well-built steps make it a sustainable hill, but if you’re not in the mood for it, turning around in this spot allows you to stay in the drainage and enjoy following the water back downhill—arguably the more scenic option.

Big Ben Tree

If you do choose to do the loop, the Big Ben Trail veers off to your left about 3.5 miles from the parking lot, leaving the drainage and meandering up through mostly second-growth redwoods, many of which were burned in the 2020 CZU fires. The Big Ben Trail leads to the Big Ben Tree, an old-growth redwood that sits sentry-like at the junction of the Lost Empire Trail. From there, follow the Lost Empire Trail down past Lost Camp and then to the junction with the Cape Horn Trail. At that junction, you can either go left to drop back into the Fall Creek drainage or right to visit the lime kiln site, which includes remnants of the kilns themselves, as well as of a powder magazine, a water trough, and a tramway. From the site, the short South Fork Trail leads you back to the Fall Creek Trail and out to the parking lot.

No Santa Cruz Mountains adventure would be complete without a banana slug sighting, and I managed to squeeze one in at the last minute, after I’d turned back onto the lower, more frequently traveled part of the Fall Creek Trail. When I stopped to snap a photo of the guy, I spotted something even more exciting just beyond him: a coral fungus, a variety I’d just recently learned about.

As I strolled slowly back to my car, I realized that any doubt I had about the power of the rainy-day-hike-mindset had been washed away in Fall Creek’s flow.

Note: The Felton Empire parking lot fills up quickly on weekends, so plan to get there early or schedule your excursion on a weekday. And, if you’re looking for a treat after your hike, I recommend a cup of Larry’s Famous Chai at the White Raven in Felton or a plate of eggs and potatoes from the Wild Roots hot bar!