Yes, Big Basin was torched. But that doesn’t mean all of our beloved big trees are off limits.

A wide dirt path winds through the Loma Mar redwoods, a hidden gem just past Memorial Park in San Mateo County. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw)

When it comes to getting outside, there are few landscapes that help me get out of my head and feel like I’m escaping the world more than a grove of giant redwoods.

These majestic, sometimes ancient, trees tower as the tallest species in the world, and since they grow only along the Pacific coast, having them in the backyard of the Peninsula feels extra special.

The CZU August Lightning Complex fire, which burned 86,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has shut down well-loved favorites like Big Basin, Butano State Park and Pescadero Creek County Park, among others. But luckily, plenty of areas are still open and offering access to redwoods which are worth seeking out on their own terms.

Here are 10 places in the Santa Cruz Mountains where you can still go to enjoy redwoods in the aftermath of the CZU August Lightning Complex fires this fall. (Via Google Maps)

I asked parks staff at the San Mateo County Parks, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) and State Parks Department for their recommendations and discovered some hidden gems of the Peninsula.

In San Mateo County, three great places to explore local redwoods are at Huddart Park, Sam McDonald Park and at a lesser-known trail in Loma Mar, according to county parks spokesperson Carla Schoof. Within the MROSD system, spokesperson Leigh Ann Gessner suggested the Purisima Creek Redwoods, Bear Creek Redwoods and El Corte de Madera Creek open space preserves. And in the state parks system, Portola Redwoods, Henry Cowell Redwoods, Castle Rock and Wilder Ranch state parks are still open, albeit with some trail closures, according to state parks staff.

“Since the pandemic began, (our open spaces) have been getting a lot of love from the community — which is great,” Gessner said. “We’re really working hard to provide these spaces of respite for the community and keep them safe.”

Ambling streams and towering trees at Purisima Creek. (Images via Yelp)

Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve

Half Moon Bay, CA

Parking: free / no dogs

Purisima Creek Redwoods is a 4,711-acre open space preserve operated by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, offering abundant second-growth redwoods, a creek, shade and ferns to enjoy.

The forest was logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and most of the trees are around 100 years old. However, stumps from much wider trees that were probably about 1,000 years old before they were felled are still visible, according to the space’s website.

Bear Creek Redwoods

Los Gatos, CA

Parking: free // no dogs

Located just south of Los Gatos, this relatively new open space preserve covers about 1,430 acres — including hundreds of acres of redwood forests — and six miles of trails, with more on the way.

It tends to fill up on weekends, Gessner said, so mornings and weekdays work best for a visit.

If you want to learn more about the site’s history, access an interpretive map here. It was once slated to become a golf course and luxury development and remains home to protected species, according to MROSD.

Families participate in a 1-mile nature walk during a Family Nature Day event at Huddart Park in 2019. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

Huddart Park

1100 Kings Mountain Rd, Woodside

Parking: $6 (seniors free, M-F; vets always free with ID) / no dogs

Huddart Park, located in the Woodside hills, offers about 900 acres of lush forest to explore, with plenty of second-growth redwoods to shade the trails.

Schoof recommends the following three trails:

  • Chinquapin Trail (create a 7-mile loop by using Dean and Crystal Springs trails)
  • Chickadee and Redwood Nature trails, which are great for families with young children
  • Skyline Trail, which connects Huddart to Wunderlich park.

Sam McDonald Park

13435 Pescadero Creek Rd, Loma Mar

Parking: $6 (seniors free, M-F; vets always free with ID) // no dogs

During the wildfires this fall, parks staff worked alongside paid and volunteer firefighters to create a fire break along Old Haul Road in Pescadero and keep the fire from spreading to the county’s Sam McDonald and Memorial parks.

Sam McDonald Park, which contains about 400 acres of redwood forest, connects to Pescadero Creek County Park, which sustained fire damage. As a result, all of the trails that connect to that park are closed and marked with signs and barricades. However, visitors may access other areas of the park, Schoof said. She recommends seeking out the Heritage Grove Trail, which offers sights of old growth redwoods just a short hike from the parking lot.

The Loma Mar Redwoods area, owned by San Mateo County Parks, is hidden about a mile past Memorial Park on Pescadero Creek Road. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw)

Loma Mar Redwoods

Loma Mar

Parking: free

These redwoods are somewhat hidden, accessible only via unmarked trails, but are popular with locals. About 170 acres of this forest were added about five years ago to San Mateo County’s Memorial Park, Schoof explains. To reach the small parking area, drive towards Memorial Park but continue past the main park entrance another mile west. The area can also be accessed from Highway 1 on Pescadero Creek Road. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I had the roughly one-mile trail nearly all to myself.

A compelling feature of El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve is a set of tafoni sandstone formations. (Image courtesy of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District)

El Corte de Madera Creek

CA-35 &, Skyline Blvd, Redwood City, CA

Parking: free // no dogs

This open space preserve is less popular with hikers due to its heavy use by mountain bikers, according to open space district spokesperson Leigh Ann Gessner.

In addition to lush, forested trails, the open space offers a few unique features. There is a trail to see tafoni sandstone formations, which are lace-like natural indentations in sandstone boulders, and just across Skyline Boulevard on Cal Water land is the Methuselah tree, a nearly 2,000-year-old behemoth of a redwood.

Portola Redwoods State Park

9000 Portola State Park Rd, La Honda, CA

Parking: $10 // dogs restricted in most areas

Farther toward the coastside and deeper into the Santa Cruz Mountains you’ll hit Portola Redwoods State Park. This area is adjacent to areas that were burned, and as a result, a number of trails in the park are currently shut down, including The Coyote Ridge trail, the Pomponio trail, and the service road beyond Summit Trail. In addition, the Iverson Trail to Tiptoe Falls is currently closed due to Covid-19, and the bridge on the Coyote Ridge trail between Portola State Park Road and Escape Road is damaged and unsafe to cross. The Coyote Ridge trail is closed at the Iverson Trail junction and at Portola State Park Road. Access the latest trail advisories here.

In addition, camping in all state parks is currently shut down due to the pandemic.

There’s much to explore at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, but take note that sections of the park are currently closed. (Images via Yelp)

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

101 N Big Trees Park Rd, Felton, CA

Parking: $10 // dogs restricted in most areas

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is also open, but the adjacent Fall Creek Unit is partially closed. During the wildfires in August and September, the Felton park was used to shelter people who had been evacuated from their homes.

The Buckeye Trail between river crossings is closed, making hiking between Buckeye Trail and Big Rock Hole impassible. In addition, the following trails are closed: Lost Empire, Pine Flat, Sunlit, Tan Oak, Big Ben, Ridge, S-Cape, North Fall Creek (between Cape Horn Trail and Big Ben Trail), according to the State Parks Department. Access the latest trail advisories here and track down some great trail recommendations here.

A popular destination for climbers, Caste Rock State Park also offers an abundance of hiking trails. (Image via Yelp)

Castle Rock State Park

15451 CA-35, Los Gatos, CA

Parking: $10 // no dogs

Castle Rock State Park offers more than 30 miles of trails, including a number of staff-recommended hikes here.

There are a number of trail and facility closures in effect including the Falls Overlook, interpretive shelter, connector trails leading to Castle Rock Trail Camps and the trailhead for Skyline to the Sea Trail, the Castle Rock Trail Camps, the amphitheater at Kirkwood entrance, all picnic tables/benches, Sempervirens Point and the overflow dirt parking lot. Access the latest trail advisories here.

Park staff advise visitors arriving at busy times on weekends and holidays to try alternate, and free, parking areas along Highway 9 south of Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Use the Park Map for more information.

Wilder Ranch State Park

1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA

Parking: $10 // no dogs

This coastside Santa Cruz park offers both ocean and redwood views; the best trails for redwoods are the Old Cabin, Enchanted Loop, Woodcutters, Long Meadow, and Twin Oaks trails, according to parks staff. Access recommended trails here.

And Big Basin?

According to state parks staff, “There is no set date or timeline for the reopening of parks damaged by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire” — including Big Basin and Butano state parks.

The State Parks department is continuing to assess damage from the initial fire and additional damage from seasonal weather, and is balancing several key priorities: offering public recreation, allowing natural resources to recover, protecting people from the safety problems created from fire-damaged infrastructure, trail systems and park lands, according to parks staff.

It’s mushroom season: freshly-sprouted fungus in Portola Redwoods State Park. (Image via Yelp)

A few tips

  • Some parking lots have been filling up on weekends. People should make backup plans if their preferred destination is full, or plan to come back another less busy time — earlier in the day or on a weekday, Gessner said.
  • Destinations that are closer to cities tend to draw more visitors, but those that are more remote tend to have less parking, so both can pose challenges at busy times, she said.
  • While the pandemic continues, the state recognizes that outdoor activity is critical for mental health and physical health, state parks staff said. People should stay local, plan ahead to find out what is open, wear a face covering, practice physical distancing and avoid gatherings with people outside the immediate household. Access more information here.

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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