Sam McDonald County Park


Home to horse camps, a unique Sierra Club hiker's hut and the Heritage Grove of old-growth redwoods.

Sam McDonald County Park is an often neglected swath of woodland tucked away near the legendary Santa Cruz Mountains community of La Honda, and bisected by Pescadero Road. Steep slopes sustain multiple ecosystems, with trails moving from redwood lowlands—mixed with huckleberries, Douglas firs and big leaf maples—through moss-covered oaky uplands to a high meadow at the southern border. Deer, quail, and spring wildflowers complement the expansive view from the grassy ridgeline while steelhead salmon swim down below in Alpine Creek between banks patrolled by banana slugs and newts. Welcome to your very own wonderland.

Named for the land’s prior owner, well-loved Stanford employee Sam Emanuel McDonald, the 850-acre park is an excellent spot for short to half-day hikes and serves as the semi-official gateway to the larger Pescadero Creek County Park, providing a jumping-off point for full-day or weeklong expeditions.

Youthful, equestrian, or cozy camping experiences are provided by super-specialized facilities. Three hike-in youth camps, situated in the northwest corner of the park, are available to kids groups (e.g. scouts or schools) from mid-May to mid-October. Likewise three equestrian-friendly campsites, the Jack Brook Horse Camps, are available early-May to mid-November.

But the coolest park perk is the Sierra Club Hiker’s Hut. A cute wooden A-frame with a spacious deck, the Hut is tucked in the trees just east of the park’s high meadow. It boasts a wood stove, partial kitchen, limited running water, electricity, and a snazzy outhouse for around $20 to $30 per adult/night. Sierra Club Members get discounts! Check the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter’s website or call 650-390-8411 ex393 for details.

Sam McDonald also encompasses the somewhat autonomous Heritage Grove Park, a 37-acre stand of old-growth redwood survivors championed by local citizens and the San Mateo Board of Supervisors way back in 1974. Strategically placed park benches strongly suggest long moments of leisurely admiration for these living monuments. Heritage Grove can be accessed directly via a small dirt lot along Alpine Road, just over one mile east of Alpine’s intersection with Pescadero Road.

Be sure to swing by Sam McDonald’s main entrance first to grab a map and use the restroom. Memorial Park’s Visitor Center is the official headquarters for the Pescadero Creek Park Complex, but Sam McDonald does house a small ranger station offering maps, restrooms, and the chance to support the parks with a $6 parking fee. Overnight adventures into Pescadero Creek County Park require a $10 backcountry permit and parking fee (available at Memorial Park).

Bikes are allowed on the Towne Fire Road. Horses can enjoy the Towne Fire Road, Ridge Loop Trail, and Youth Camp Fire Road. The park opens at 8am and closes at sunset.

A GREAT PLACE TO enjoy roadside access to a charming mountainside park packed with monumentally big trees, explore the Santa Cruz Mountains on horseback before settling down for the night, stay awhile with 49 of your closest youthful friends, or hike to a hut.

NOT NECESSARILY THE PLACE TO get lost miles from a roadway, collect anything other than pictures (no hunting, fishing, or firewood collecting allowed), smoke, or walk your dog; no pets (other than horses) allowed.

YOUR MOM WOULD TELL YOU not to lick the newts (they’re poisonous), wear layers to ward of the chill, and to avoid leaving large groups of children on their own for any length of time.

IF YOU’RE LUCKY YOU’LL spot a bobcat hunting in the high meadow come dawn or dusk.

—Clark Tate

Directions to Sam McDonald County Park: The official address (9500 Pescadero Creek Road, Loma Mar, CA 94021) is for the Pescadero Creek Park Complex’s Ranger Station at Memorial Park. The actual parking lot from Sam McDonald is either A) 1.6 miles south of Highway 84 on Pescadero Road, B) 11 miles northeast on Pescadero Road from Highway 1, or C) 0.5 miles south on Pescadero Road from its intersection with Alpine Road, (this intersection is 7.9 miles southwest of Skyline Boulevard). Alternatively, park at Heritage Grove about 1 mile east of the intersection of Pescadero and Alpine Roads along Pescadero Road.

Find Sam McDonald County Park on Google Maps. Learn more at the official Sam McDonald County Park website.

Big Tree Trail
1.2 miles RT; 300 feet of climbing; moderate
A short but steep hikers-only roadside trail looping through some of the park's most impressive trees.

Heritage Grove Trail
5.2 miles RT; 630 ft of climbing; easy to moderate
A hikers-only walk through an old-growth redwood grove culminating in a high ridgeline view. Connects to Brook Trail Loop in Pescadero Creek County Park.