Peters Creek Grove

Portola Redwoods State Park.
  |  Gorp.com

Level: Strenuous
Total Distance: 13.0 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 7 hours
Elevation Change: 1,400 feet

Old-growth redwood trees are indisputably majestic. Even when a highway or a paved trail runs right alongside them, or when they are hemmed in by fences and signs, the big trees retain their profound dignity and grace. While gazing at the ancient redwoods, humans can't help but feel humbled.

But seeing a grove of old-growth redwoods that isn't easily accessible makes the experience even more compelling. That's why a trip to the Peters Creek Grove in Portola Redwoods State Park may be the most awe-inspiring hike in the Bay Area. Simply put, the sanctity of this grove will move you.

The trip is long and on the strenuous side, mostly because of the steep descent required to reach the grove. You'll need most of a day to complete the 13-mile round-trip, plus plenty of water and food. Because Portola Redwoods State Park is a long, circuitous drive from just about everywhere, you should get an early morning start from your house if you aren't camping at the park. (Portola's car campground is booked in advance almost every weekend in summer. If you want to camp, be sure to make reservations.) In addition, make sure your car has plenty of gas and that you've packed along plenty to eat and drink. There are no stores or services anywhere near the park.

Those who would rather turn the 13-miler into a backpacking trip can stay at Slate Creek Trail Camp, located halfway along the route. Reservations are necessary here, too, but you shouldn't have a problem obtaining a site. You will need to pack in your own water.

That said, the trip is entirely doable as a day hike for most people. The trail is well graded and the total elevation change is only 1,400 feet. Because most of the route is shaded, it never gets too hot. And when it's all over, you'll likely agree: Visiting the Peters Creek Grove is worth every step.

Start your trip on either Summit Trail or Slate Creek Trail. The ascent on Slate Creek Trail is slightly more gradual; the two trails meet up after a 600-foot gain and about 1.5 miles. From their junction, head north on the continuation of Slate Creek Trail, following a mellower grade through redwoods, Douglas firs, and huckleberries for 1.5 miles to Slate Creek Trail Camp. If it isn't occupied, the camp makes a good rest stop; you're three miles out and almost halfway to the grove. There are six campsites, picnic tables, and a pit toilet.

From the trail junction near the camp, take the north fork on Bear Creek Trail, an old jeep road. (This is the old Page Mill Road.) You'll climb for another mile up a ridge cloaked in a mixed forest of Douglas firs, oaks, and bay laurel. The jeep trail ends and a narrower, steeper footpath leads into high chaparral country. The manzanita and pines are a surprising contrast to the dense forest you've been traveling in. Ascend a bit more along this dry ridge before beginning a one-mile, 750-foot descent into the canyon of Bear Creek and Peters Creek. The forest returns to a mix of bay laurel and Douglas firs as you make your way steeply downhill. (This may seem like it's going to be a nightmare climb out on the way back, but it's not as bad as it looks.)

Where the trail crosses Bear Creek, 5.8 miles from the start, you're about to enter the big trees. Parallel Bear Creek down to its confluence with Peters Creek, then meet up with Peters Creek Loop Trail. Take either fork to circle the grove, following both banks of Peters Creek. The return route simply retraces your steps.

Acquired by the Save-the-Redwoods League, the Peters Creek Grove is filled with ancient redwoods, many of which are more than 12 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. Most are at least 1,000 years old. No one is quite sure why these redwoods weren't logged along with other groves in the area. Probably the canyon was too steep to make it feasible to haul out the lumber. A highlight of the grove is the huge Matriarch of the Forest, the largest redwood at Peters Creek. But what makes this place magical is not any one single tree but the sacred ambiance created by the sum total. Isolated from the civilized world, the Peters Creek Grove is one of the most pristine, unspoiled places in the Bay Area.

Options
Another ambitious trek in Portola Redwoods State Park, perfect for hikers who like to climb, is the Butano Ridge Trail Loop. Follow the park road past the visitors center and campground entrance; it turns into a service road. This road ascends to join Old Haul Road, a dirt logging road, in 0.5 mile. Directly across Old Haul Road is Portola Trail, which you follow uphill for one mile to join Butano Ridge Trail Loop. Turn right here, and consider heading back now if you are losing steam, completing a 3.3-mile loop. If you are feeling strong, climb much more steeply for another mile to Butano Ridge at 2,000 feet in elevation. Now the work is mostly over; you just wander along the ridge-top for two miles, then drop back down to Old Haul Road and turn right to finish out a 9.5-mile loop.

Directions
From the junction of Highways 35 and 9 at Saratoga Gap, drive seven miles north on Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). Turn left (west) on Alpine Road, drive 3.2 miles and turn left on Portola State Park Road. Drive 3.3 miles to park headquarters.

Or, from I-280 in Palo Alto, take the Page Mill Road exit. Turn west and drive 8.9 miles to Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). Cross Highway 35 and continue on Alpine Road as described.

Information and Contact
A $10 day-use fee is charged. Dogs and bikes are not allowed. A park map is available at the visitors center for $2. For more information, contact Portola Redwoods State Park, 9000 Portola State Park Road, Building F, La Honda, CA 94020, 650/948-9098, www.parks.ca.gov or www.santacruzstateparks.org.

From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.


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