By Tom Davids
"Fall Creek Loop"
Henry Cowell State Park
"The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when light comes, the heart of the people is always right." -John Muir
Directions: From the town of Felton (on Highway 9 or from Highway 17 via Mount Hermon Road), go west on Felton-Empire Road for only a few blocks. Parking lot is on your right.
Grade: Strenuous. Elevation gain of 1,500 feet.
Distance: Eight miles (or four miles to the Kilns and Barrel Mill).
Time: Four hours.
Special Conditions: No dogs or bikes allowed on trails. No restrooms or water at trailhead. Watch for poison oak along trail. For park information, call 831-335-4598.
It all started 100 million years ago--so we are told--when heat and pressure transformed layers of fossil remains of small sea animals into limestone. Then molten granite rock intruded into the limestone. And today the canyon that we may hike exhibits both the limestone and the erosion-resistant granite.
Fall Creek is the northern unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, located separate from the main park, but only a few blocks west of the town of Felton. The park has 2,390 acres and about 18 miles of hiking trails. Most of the trails follow old logging and wagon roads and railroad grades. The peacefulness and beauty of Fall Creek as we now experience it belies the industrial complex that prospered in this canyon 100 years ago.
The park map produced by the Santa Cruz Mountains Natural History Association (Bob Munro-history text author) describes the limestone industry that flourished along Fall Creek for 50 years. The IXL Lime Company started operations in the 1870s with three granite-block kilns. In 1900, Henry Cowell purchased the operation. He died in 1903, and his son Samuel took control of the company and built the water-powered barrel mill in 1912. The quarry was closed in 1919 when more efficient gas kilns became available. The barrel operation closed in 1925.
On this hike you will visit the Lime Kilns and the Barrel Mill, plus the Big Ben Tree, a grouping of two huge redwoods at the high point of the hike.
From the parking lot, a few blocks west of Felton on the Felton-Empire Road, start down the Bennett Creek Trail and enter the mixed evergreen forest. The leaves you walk through on the trail are tanbark oak, used for tanning leather in the early days. Other broadleaf trees include live oak, bay, and madrone. After .2 miles of downhill hiking, turn left where the trail splits at Fall Creek. Walk along the stream for the next .6 mile. The tree cover is dense, the creek runs full, and the ground is covered with a carpet of redwood sorrel. This plant, with its clover-like leaf, produces solitary flowers on small stalks that turn white to deep pink with age. The flowers are gone (July), but the bright green cover is dramatic. If you hike this trail soon, you may see the beautiful orange-flowered tiger lily in bloom.
The trail crosses a bridge over the south fork of Fall Creek. On the other side, turn left on the South Fork Trail for .4 mile to the limestone kilns. Hiking in, notice a large pile of quarry tailings mostly covered by vegetation on your right followed by a level area where firewood was stacked and the Coopers Shop stood. Across the creek on your left are three kilns, and 250 feet above and 300 yards west is Blue Cliff, the limestone quarry. Interesting signboards tell about the limestone-refining process. Limestone was blasted (you will see the powder magazine next to the trail) from the cliff and transported down to the kiln on a gravity-operated tram. The limestone was then loaded into the kiln and cooked at 1,700 degrees for three to four days. Heat from the fire removed carbon dioxide from the rock, leaving calcium oxide or lime. The lime was then loaded into barrels and carried to Felton by wagon, then to Santa Cruz by rail, and finally to San Francisco by ship. Lime from the Fall Creek area was used for mortar throughout California, but especially in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. When the kilns were in full production, five to six thousand cords of wood were used annually to fire the kilns--wood cut from the Fall Creek area. At its peak, the quarry produced 50,000 barrels of lime a year. Take some time to climb around the back of the kilns and the nearby site of the gravity tram.
When you leave the Kiln Area, continue on the trail to Fall Creek. Pass by the power magazine and climb along the hillside above the South Fork Fall Creek. Swing around the hill through mixed fir and redwood to the junction with Lost Empire Trail. Turn left, and you face a 1,000-foot climb to Big Ben Tree. Continue straight, and you will hike down to Fall Creek and from there, go upstream one mile to Barrel Mill or downstream to the trailhead.
We chose the "road less traveled" and turned onto Lost Empire Trail. The trail is steep and steady uphill (with short spans of level), but the forest is beautiful and shady with lots of tanbark oak. Halfway to Big Ben Tree, you will pass through Lost Camp (history unknown). Walk over Barrel Mill Creek and continue up. Along the way to Big Ben, notice railroad ties in the trail and a large timber notched for two railroad tracks. Possibly a tram was located in this area to transport firewood to the kilns below.
Big Ben Tree is at an elevation of about 1,900 feet. The name "Big Ben" was derived from Ben Lomond Mountain. Big Ben appears to be two giant virgin redwood trees surrounded by four second-growth redwoods. The trail sign at this junction is misleading. The metal plates are not in the proper position, so don't try to figure it out. If you want to hike to Sunlit Trail or exit to Empire Grade Road, turn left. If you want to follow our lead and hike down to Fall Creek Trail, go straight on the Big Ben Trail. For the next 1.4 miles, the trail descends into the canyon, dropping 600 feet. Cross Fall Creek on a wood plank, then turn right, and proceed along the Fall Creek Trail. Soon the trail splits to the left, and by going uphill on the Big Ben Trail, you can climb to Truck Trail. Go straight ahead on the Creek Trail. Watch for poison oak during the next .6 miles to Barrel Mill. This is the location where water-powered, machinery cut wood for barrels that were carted over to the lime kilns, put together in the cooperage, and filled with lime for shipment to Santa Cruz and San Francisco. This mill operated between 1912 and 1925; in 1913 alone it produced 75,000 barrels. Rusted remnants of old machinery are worth a stop and closer inspection.
Continue along rushing, clear Fall Creek for the next 1.6 miles. There are five creek crossings on plank footbridges. Fall Creek becomes fuller as it picks up water from Barrel Mill Creek and South Fall Creek. At the final junction, turn right and climb 200 feet to the parking lot.
This hike, with its historical interest and fast-flowing stream even in the middle of summer, is one of our favorites. Visit the cool, refreshing canyon for an invigorating getaway this summer.
Your comments and hiking suggestions are always welcome.
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Footnote: Check out the Weekly Walker Web at www.weeklywalker.com.