Pescadero Creek Park

At Pescadero Creek County Park, king of a remote four-park complex in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you'll find redwood hikes, backpacking camps and enough trail for days-long excursions.

Hanging between Skyline Boulevard and the sea, amid the rolling and plunging western slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains, are the storybook-worthy wildlands of the Pescadero Creek Park Complex. The complex, owned and operated by San Mateo County, is a jigsaw of four interlocking parcels operated by San Mateo County: Pescadero Creek County Park, Sam McDonald County Park and Heritage Grove, and Memorial Park. The resulting open space covers a combined 8,020 acres and provides outing options ranging from car camping and curbside picnic benches to three-day backpacking adventures. Longer treks are also possible since several trails link to a chain of neighboring parks and open space preserves (e.g. Portola Redwoods, Big Basin Redwoods and Long Ridge).

All of that connectivity ups the backyard expedition ante exponentially. It’s pretty good for the local flora and fauna too. The Sempervirens Fund is planning to formalize this happy circumstance by cobbling together a slew of existing parks into a 195-square mile preserve known as the Great Park. Pescadero Creek County Park crowns the middle of the proposed project’s northern border, between San Gregorio State Beach and Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve. Read more about the Great Park.

But while they’re better together, each of the four parks has a distinct flair. Pescadero is a veritable wilderness, Memorial Park is a car camper’s paradise, and Sam McDonald and Heritage Grove parks harbor excellent day hikes, gawkable old-growth redwoods and access points to Pescadero.

Memorial Park Ranger Station (650.879.0238) serves as a common headquarters. Read on for details about the largest of the four preserves, Pescadero Creek County Park, and click on the links above for more information about the other three.

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Pescadero Creek County Park

Whereas Memorial Park and Sam McDonald are the charismatic greeters of the complex—featuring a defined Ranger Station, picnic sites, campgrounds and a horse camp—Pescadero Creek County Park proper is the gritty behind-the-scenes secret, and it’s awesome. Sprawling over 6500 acres, Pescadero Creek Park is the biggest, and possibly wildest, of the open spaces in San Mateo County.

Aside from initial trail work, largely completed by the Boy Scouts at Camp Pomponio before it closed in the late ‘60s, and primitive camp construction, the park hasn’t changed much since it was acquired by San Mateo County from the Santa Cruz Lumber Company in the early 1970s. Past plans to beef up infrastructure were shot down by environmentalists opposing plans to cut additional lumber to fund improvements and by surrounding residents concerned about an influx of traffic. So the tract is largely undeveloped, and underappreciated; you’re likely to have the cool forests floors to yourself.

The park is composed of one long portion of the Pescadero Creek Valley, home to spawning steelhead and silver salmon, and potential habitat for the beloved and beleaguered coho. Hikers and equestrians drop down from Sam McDonald County Park, Pomponio Road, or in along Pescadero Creek from Memorial County Park or Portola Redwoods State Park to enjoy 26 miles of trails and days of backpacking, hiking, horseback riding and (limited) mountain biking.

Be sure to download San Mateo County’s detailed Pescadero Creek Park Complex trail map. Seriously. It is shockingly easy to get lost in a park with such a preponderance of trail signs. Reconsidering their placement and clarity could help. In any case, bring that map.

As far as mountain majesties go, there isn’t much lacking here. There’s a ridgetop meadow with long views frequented by black-tail deer and quail. Post-rainstorm mushroom, newt and banana slug explosions are common. Long walks beneath stately redwoods (find the biggest on Tarwater Trail Loop), endangered Santa Cruz cypress (Butano Ridge) and oak woodlands lead to wonders like old dairy farms, natural oil slicks (Tarwater Trail), magical creek-carved mini-canyons (Brook Trail) and, count ‘em, two primitive campsites.

While horses are welcome, some trails are off-limits in winter, so call ahead to find out more. Mountain bikes are only allowed on Old Haul Road (5.7 miles) and Town Fire Road (5 miles).

Many Pescadero Creek trails also link to adjacent open spaces. The Upper Coyote Ridge Trail, setting out south out of the Tarwater Trailhead parking, heads over to Portola Redwoods State Park. The southeast corner of the Butano Ridge Trail Loop intersects the Basin Trail on its way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, allowing intrepid travelers access to the sea.

Hike-in camping is available at the seasonal Shaw Flat and Tarwater Trail Camps. Permits ($10 a night with parking) are available at the Memorial Park Ranger Station (650.879.0238), as is winter closure and fire restriction information. Vault toilets are provided but water is not. Horse camps are available at neighboring Sam McDonald County Park.

The parks open at 8am; closing times vary seasonally. Pick up a map and pay the $6 day-use/parking fee at the Memorial Park Ranger Station or at the Sam McDonald pay station.

COME HERE IF YOU WANT TO: get lost for a few days. Unfortunately the "lost" may be more literal than you’d like. The trail signs are mostly reliable, but you’ll have to pay attention.

DON'T PLAN ON: walking the dogs, hunting, fishing, smoking, or enjoying a campfire outside of allowable dates (call Memorial Park Ranger Station for days), because that would be illegal.

USE THAT BIG BRAIN AND: wear layers and bring a rain jacket to outsmart unpredictable weather, bring plenty of water and snacks, and—if you’re staying the night—bring a critter-proof container to keep the raccoons out of your supplies.

—L. Clark Tate

9500 Pescadero Creek Rd, Loma Mar, CA. 650.879.0238. Learn more at the official Pescadero Creek County Park website.

Directions to Pescadero Creek Park Complex: From the intersection of Hwy 35/Skyline Boulevard and Alpine Road, drive 3.9 miles southwest on Alpine Road to its intersection with Pomponio Road. Then choose: 1) take Pomponio Road to the Tarwater Trailhead; 2) continue 4 miles down Alpine Road and turn left onto Pescadero Road, then drive 0.5 miles to Sam McDonald County Park; or 3) continue 4 miles down Alpine Road and turn left onto Pescadero Road and drive 4.8 miles to Memorial Park.

Brook Trail Loop
8.2 miles RT; 1300 ft climbing; moderate to strenuous
A moderate to strenuous half-day hike featuring long valley views, skyscraping redwoods, and a delightful mini-gorge complete with a waterfall built to scale.

Tarwater Trail
4.7 miles RT; 700 ft of climbing; moderate
A nearly 5-mile hike featuring gas and oil deposits, a dairy farm and one of the largest redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.