Monday, February 23, 2015

Toddler Adventure: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (Felton)

Running ahead on the Redwood Grove Loop
Today we visited Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, and I'm delighted to report that it makes a perfect toddler nature adventure! The location is convenient, access is easy, there are several toddler-friendly trails (either for toddlers walking, or for strollers), and the San Lorenzo River runs through the park, providing a great spot for splashing on a sandy beach. The park is even located adjacent to Roaring Camp Railroad, allowing for a fun combo trip, or at the very least a brief foray to watch the steam trains come into the station. This was one of the best outdoor activities we've undertaken recently, and I'm excited to recommend it to you.

Location. Henry Cowell is located on Highway 9 in Felton, close to Santa Cruz. The easiest way to get there is to take Highway 17 over the hill, then exit at Mount Hermon Road. Turn right on Mt. Hermon, then follow it until it ends at Graham Hill Road (the Covered Bridge and a playground will be in front of you where it dead ends -- next visit, I plan to check them out). Turn right onto Graham Hill, then turn left at the next stoplight onto Highway 9. Pass through downtown Felton, and the park entrance is less than a mile ahead on your left. The entrance is well marked.

The location is much more convenient to us, coming from San Jose, than several other spots with beautiful redwoods. Toddler X has had some car sickness issues traveling on the very windy roads to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Portola Redwoods State Park, but fortunately he has no problem going over Highway 17, and that's the windiest part of the drive to Henry Cowell -- everything else is straight and easy. As long as you take beach traffic into consideration (we got on the road by 9 a.m., and were headed back before 2 p.m., so no traffic either direction on a lovely, sunny day), you can make the drive there from central San Jose in a little over 30 minutes.

Henry Cowell's location is also convenient because of what's located nearby. On your way in, you pass through Scotts Valley, with plenty of shops and restaurants where you can stock up for a picnic in the park. (We stopped at the Coffee Cat on the way out, and I highly recommend it! Amazing array of coffee drinks and tasty foods. It's on the lefthand side of Mount Hermon as you drive in, between the Safeway and the CVS.)

Yummy food to cap off a great day among the redwoods!
You're also a short distance from Santa Cruz, if you decide to combine your park visit with a beach trip, and the park literally adjoins Roaring Camp Railroads, so you could enjoy a hike and a steam train ride on one trip. 

Parking. Parking inside the park costs $10, payable at the Ranger Station kiosk as you enter. The entrance road dead-ends into the main parking lot near the Visitor Center, and that's where you want to park, as that's where the Redwood Grove Loop starts and access to Roaring Camp, the Visitor Center and the River Trail is most convenient.

As you arrive at the park from Highway 9, you will see lots of cars parking along the road outside the park entrance. For your first visit, I recommend that you pay the $10 to park inside, as it will put you in the most convenient location for exploring (particularly the can't miss, toddler-friendly Redwood Grove Loop) and will allow you to get your bearings. In the future, though, we may try to park along Highway 9 if there's space available, and take the River Trail into the park.

What is there to do inside the park?

Obviously, the big draw at any park with "Redwoods" in its name is going to be the massive trees. Like Big Basin, Henry Cowell has a great, short, well-marked and easily accessible trail to view some of the park's beauties -- the Redwood Grove Loop Trail.

This .8 mile trail is perfect for families with toddlers -- it's a flat, hard-packed dirt trail than any stroller could manage, and it's short enough that most toddlers will just be able to walk/run it on their own. For us, numbered markers always provide a perfect means to keep Toddler X moving on this type of trail (same at Uvas, Big Basin, etc.), and today was no exception -- whenever we got a bit antsy with his toddler's pace (which might involve spending ten minutes poking a stick through the fence), we'd just declare, "Oh, I think I see number 4!" or "Race you to number 7!" and we'd be off again.

Tree #3 is a great spot for hide and seek!
The path is wide and has log fences on both sides, so you can give your toddler a bit of leeway -- no need to worry about him or her plunging off a cliff or disappearing into the woods. The trees provide a ton of shade (to the point that it was a bit chilly this morning), and they're just downright majestic. There are benches at several spots along the trail, and picnic tables and restrooms at its midpoint.

A lovely place for a mid-loop picnic
The tree at marker #3 is particularly fun to run through/around, as is the super tall tree in the picture below (the second tallest in the park at 275 feet, we heard a guide tell a group, but only because the top 75 feet fell off a number of years ago). Overall, it's just a great nature walk for families.

A 300 foot tree, a 3 foot toodler.
After we visited the Redwood Grove, we briefly checked out the Visitor Center. I think I would have enjoyed the center a lot more without Toddler X, who has the attention span of a squirrel -- he would be interested in pushing the buttons on one exhibit for about three seconds before running over to turn the wheel on the next one. Several of the exhibits were toddler-friendly, and there was a fun stamp project with animal footprints, but you probably won't spend too much time in there if your little one is as active as ours.

Next, we walked across the parking lot to Roaring Camp Railroads to check that out -- a ride on their steam trains is on my to-do list for 2015, and today's quick scope-out visit made me excited for a longer one later this year. The cafe and store were open and the trains were running -- if you have a train-loving toddler, it's worth walking over just to spend some time watching (and listening to) the big, loud steam engines.

Follow the arrow to the right for a wonderful
beach and a delightful trail along the river.
We then grabbed our stroller from the car, and set out for a longer walk. Given Toddler X's penchant for creek splashing, the River Trail sounded promising, so we grabbed an extra set of clothes and headed in that direction. You can access the River Trail off the road just behind the Visitor Center, just a short distance from the parking lot. You can turn left or right along the trail, and we opted for right, which the Visitor Center employee recommended as better for a stroller. 

The River Trail is great. Though it is significantly narrower and less maintained than the Redwood Grove Loop, any rugged-ish stroller would be fine on it -- the BOB was perfect. While the Redwood Grove Loop is highly shaded, the River Trail is a very pleasant mix of sun and shade, with the San Lorenzo River flowing alongside as you walk.

The trail is narrower than the Redwood Grove Loop, there are some sharp drops down to the riverbank, and I saw lots of poison oak along the sides of the trail, so unless your toddler is very calm and disciplined in staying on paths, you'll probably want to use the stroller -- we certainly did.

The one stroller challenge on this side of the path.
About 50 yards from the point where you enter the trail from the road, you'll come across the one stroller challenge -- a gate designed to prevent horses, I guess, from using the trail ends up making it very difficult for strollers to get by. We just lifted the stroller over with Toddler X in it, but you can also go down and around the gate instead, though the ground is slightly uneven. I do think the trail past that point is worth the small amount of effort needed to get through the challenge. A stroller less wide than a BOB might not have any trouble at all.

The trail follows the river, then merges with the Meadow Trail. We continued following alongside the river on that trail until we came to the entrance road, which was about 3/4 mile from where we got on the trail at the Visitor Center (so 1.5 miles round-trip). It was an easy, pretty walk. The path passes many picnic table areas, as well as a set of bathrooms -- you're never out too far in the wilderness.

On the way back, we stopped at the best part of the whole park (at least, in Toddler X's opinion): the perfect soft sandy beach on the banks of the San Lorenzo River. It's actually located just below the aforementioned difficult gate, and it is a wonderful spot for toddlers to throw things in the lazily moving river or get toes wet along the edge.

Brrr...the day is warm, but the water is COLD!
It's worth noting that the river is actually rather deep through here -- it looks like it might go to four or five feet just a couple of feet off shore -- so don't let your toddler wander too far or you may be jumping in to retrieve him or her (and the water is freezing!). There is a slightly shallower area on the far side of the large log that splits the beach. There's even a rope swing that Toddler X loved!

Best of all, from this beach, you're only about 50 yards from the parking lot, so no matter how wet your toddler gets, the car is only a short distance away.


While there are still many miles of hiking trails for us to explore at Henry Cowell, I think we've seen enough to know that it is a great nature adventure for toddler families. If you have any other tips about hiking trails, camping or anything else at Henry Cowell, I'd love to hear them.

Happy toddling!

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