We Found a Train, Then We Might Have Gotten Lost

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June 2018 Hiking

Particulars

The tale

Henry Cowell State Park is unique not for its features, but for its neighbor. Roaring Camp is a railroad depot and faux-Old-West town that carries passengers up nearby Bear Mountain. On the way, it passes through giant redwood groves while a conductor keeps a running commentary.

The jaunt took me further south than usual. Felton, north of Santa Cruz and just west of Scotts Valley, was an easy drive on Sunday morning — even though my car nav was set to avoid highways for traversing San Jose. Oops.

Steam among redwoods

The seven of us took the frontmost car. I counted three open-air cars and two covered — which, to my mind, defeats the purpose. Half of the experience was craning my neck to gawk at the trees.

The benches were packed with people. This is a family-friendly experience, though for some children, the novelty wore off quickly.

As we chugged away from the depot, the conductor told us that the Dixiana, Roaring Camp’s principle Shay steam train, was originally from Virginia, and moved to California in 1963. It burns oil, not coal, and has been doing so for 106 years.

He also claimed that we were ascending the steepest grade track in all of North America: 8% (though later I heard it was 10%, and the steepest in the western half of North America).

Which trail?

After lunch, three of us — including the two kids — headed home. The rest of us wandered to the state park, mere minutes from the depot. We picked up a few paper maps from the visitor center, plotted our route carefully, and proceeded to get lost.

For me, Henry Cowell SP’s highlight was the grove loop. A wide, level path wound among giant redwoods reminiscent of Big Basin and Muir Woods. At one point we saw a family flying a drone. Turns out they’re mostly legalbut not here.

Leaving the loop, we followed a trail along a creek that lead to a road which took us to the visitor center. None of us could agree on how that happened, but on our second go-round we ended up on a paved trail that eventually lead to a distant view of Monterey Bay.

Going home was harder than leaving. Fine weather meant beach-lovers and surfers made their weekly migration back to the valley from Santa Cruz, clogging the four-lane highway 17 after 4pm. The trip was worth it.

Views

Token general store and tourists.
Token general store and tourists.
Heading to the forest.
Heading to the forest.
Steam train among redwoods.
Steam train among redwoods.
Rounding a bend in the woods.
Rounding a bend in the woods.
Blowing off excess pressure.
Blowing off excess pressure.
Roasting marshmallows at Roaring Camp.
Roasting marshmallows at Roaring Camp.
Ben and a redwood at Henry Cowell State Park.
Ben and a redwood at Henry Cowell State Park.
Overlook view of Monterey Bay.
Overlook view of Monterey Bay.
TCS crew and Dixiana.
TCS crew and Dixiana.

For next time

  • Roaring Camp charges $10 for parking in addition to the train ticket, food, and souvenirs. The state park also charges $10 per car, but if you park at one location, you can walk to the other in five minutes.
  • My pulled pork sandwich at Roaring Camp was hot, but lackluster. Bringing your own lunch is less expensive than buying theirs.
  • Trail signage in the park doesn’t cover every side trail. Pay attention to existing markers.
  • Being hungry after the hike, I almost stopped at Habanero’s Bar & Grill in Scotts Valley, but decided to try to beat traffic (which didn’t work). Might be worth a look next time.