The last blast from the IXL quarry north of Santa Cruz echoed up Fall Creek a century ago. Today, the gurgle of the creek prevails beneath the descendants of the old growth redwoods that fed the quarry’s lime kilns.
The former industrial site survives as the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Ironically, the state park is named for one of the 19th-century entrepreneurs who razed many of the area’s ancient forests for lumber and lime processing. Lime-based mortar and wood trim fashioned with stone and trees from these woods helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.
Henry’s grandson, Samuel “Harry” Cowell, was one of several landowners who donated the acreage that became the state park in 1954. The Fall Creek Unit was added thanks to a 2,335-acre donation by the S.H. Cowell Foundation in 1972. Thank you, Samuel!
With the pesky pandemic in mind, we arrived early at the trail head to avoid the crowd. Even at 8:30 a.m., however, the small parking lot was filling up. The remains of the granite lime kilns are a short hike from the trail head. But we’re suckers for a gurgling creek, so stuck to the Fall Creek Trail all the way to the Barrel Mill Area before looping back to the kilns. Find an AllTrails map of the route we followed here.
We quickly overtook several hikers – masks, please – but the light morning foot traffic evaporated a mile in as the trail branched. We stayed right to follow the creek.
In the quiet of the forest, we rode the trail’s dips, rises and twists past second-growth timber and a fern-covered forest floor, always within pleasant ear shot of the water. We had it all to ourselves.
The woods feel untamed, with numerous trees uprooted by annual winter rains resting askew in the creek.
Some lean heavily against trail-side bluffs and have been notched by the park service to improve head clearance. MontaraManDan still had to duck, but The Geek cleared most of the notches nicely.
The trail is washed out about a quarter mile from the Barrel Mill Area, requiring a bit of a scramble across tree trunks and the narrow edge of the remaining bank to continue forward.
Back in the day, barrel staves were fashioned on the site from lumber supplied by a sawmill upstream. The water-powered stave machine and some other heavy metal equipment remain on the site. Today it’s a shady spot for a rest and a snack in the woods.
The hike back across the tree trunk bridge at the washout and down to the lime kilns is just as pleasant. The trail rises as you step right onto the Cape Horn Trail on the way to the kilns, offering a stunning mid-level view of the rebirth of a forest.
The granite kilns backed up against a bluff are the park unit’s primary attraction, with plenty of rock and heavy metal artifacts strewn about the site for history lovers and dawdlers to enjoy.
These kilns are squat and boxy compared with the silo-like kilns we visited several years back at Limekiln State Park at Big Sur. Interesting, but this is not the summer to be hanging out with a crowd. We didn’t linger.
The increasing trail traffic and sweat bees circling dreamily in rays of sunshine made it clear midday was rapidly approaching. One of the sweat bees punctuated that point by stinging MontaraManDan just below the shoulder. Time to go.
But we just might return to the redwood-shaded path along Fall Creek. Nature isn’t finished here yet.