Pandemic. Wildfires. Political drama. It’s been a challenging year. We finally got back on the trail last month and found respite with a hike through the coast redwoods at Sam McDonald Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains – open space with a history.
Looking to break out of our funk after canceling family Christmas plans and locking down as the novel coronavirus ran amuck after Thanksgiving, we wanted something easy, close to home and magical.
The 867-acres San Mateo County Park near La Honda, CA, probably doesn’t qualify as magical. Compare with with Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, for instance. But the 4.2 mile Heritage Grove/Towne Fire Road loop at Sam McDonald Park was lovely and a great diversion from Christmas jig-saw puzzles.
Sam McDonald was a fixture at Stanford University for the first half of the 20th century. Descended from slaves and born in Louisiana, he settled in California in 1903 and rose from teamster to superintendent of athletic grounds and buildings in a career that spanned 51 years. The park website also notes that he was beloved for planting gardens and hosting barbecues for youngsters treated at the Stanford Convalescent Home for Underprivileged Children, a precursor to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. In 2018, Mr. McDonald was inducted into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame.
Entranced by the beauty of the nearby mountains, Mr. McDonald began buying up property at the site that now bears his name in 1917, purchasing a two-room cabin and neighboring land along Alpine Creek. His acquisition had grown to more than 400 acres by the time of his death in 1957. He willed the land for use as a park to Stanford, which subsequently sold it to San Mateo County. The park was dedicated in 1970 and more than doubled in size when neighboring acreage was purchased from Kendall B. Towne in 1976.
The parking lot at the park’s main entrance off of Pescadero Creek Road was nearly deserted when we arrived just after lunch on a Thursday. In fact, we passed only six masked hikers and a ranger in a maintenance truck during our visit – perfect for a socially distant afternoon trek. We joined the trail just across the road from parking and immediately found ourselves immersed in the Heritage Grove on a trail that dipped and weaved through the stately sempervirens.
The Heritage Grove is billed as “old growth,” and we saw a handful of big trees that would qualify. But most of the trees along our route looked like secondary growth after commercial clearing that was common to the region a century or more ago. Unfortunately, the Big Tree Trail, which runs through the heart of the grove, was closed. We’re guessing that’s where the county hides the old growth trees. It didn’t matter (much). The trail was as still and peaceful as it was lovely. A real tonic.
The trail steepens as the grove thins, rising out of the shady canyon into sunshine. The redwood giants and fern undergrowth eventually give way to gnarled coastal live oaks and the toxic mix of blackberry and poison oak ground cover common to lightly forested trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. MontaraManDan and The Geek agreed that the mile-long walk before the trail begins ascending would be perfect for the grandchildren once the pandemic lifts.
The trail loops back on the Towne Fire Road, bisecting a long, mowed meadow that was sporting a sheen of green grass from the first winter rains. The fire road dives back into the redwoods for the final stretch of the hike, reminding us of why we decided to visit.
Our thanks to Mr. McDonald for protecting this beautiful piece of land and for sharing it with future generations.