Monday, April 24, 2017

Portola Redwoods State Park Earth Day hike into past

Don't say you weren't warned.
Stories and photos by Elliott Almond
LA HONDA, California --The original Earth Day unfolded on a lovely spring Thursday. I vividly remember the sunny April day because we had a track-and-field meet in which I was scheduled to run the mile. Our athletic director approached me before the race while clutching a spreadsheet. “You need to finish third for us to win the meet,” he said.
No pressure. I earned the needed points by etching out a third-place finish with a personal-best time. I’ve always attributed the result to the relaxed state I felt having attended a school assembly earlier that afternoon to pay tribute to Earth Day. It featured a real scientist who seemingly appeared straight from central casting with horn-rimmed glasses, flannel shirt and khaki pants.
Instead of fretting over the upcoming race I became spellbound by the presentation in which the young scientist proceeded to cast aspirations on the the planet’s chances of surviving. In 1970, the environmental movement was in an embryonic state leading scientists to try to jolt the public into action. Mostly, citizens ignored these outliers and their dire predictions about melting Arctic ice.
So, now, 47 years later, other than the dutifully entrenched deniers, we must deal with climate change and invent new ways to energize our gadget-dominated lives.
The first Earth Day talk still resonated with me when setting out this past weekend to mark the movement’s 2017 celebration by visiting one of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ most remote and magnificent redwood groves.

Peters Creek grove is a fairytale setting.

 Peters Creek’s tall trees are one of those sparkly little treasures found at the bottom of the chest, hidden behind a mountain of trinkets. The San Francisco Chronicle’s  Tom Stienstra likes to call the place “Bay Area’s Lost World.” The mountain’s third-largest old-growth redwood grove rarely is crowded because it takes a major commitment to reach it.   
Peters Creek is nestled deep in Portola Redwoods State Park, which only can be reached on a twisty drive off Alpine Road. Rangers tell visitors to set aside seven hours to complete the 13.5-mile trek to Peters Creek, which isn't as extensive as the groves at Big Basin and Henry Cowell state parks but equally as beautiful.
From park headquarters, hikers climb 1,000 feet to a ridge before eventually dropping 600 feet into Bear Creek Canyon. The big trees -- some have reached 300 feet in height -- are found at the confluence of Bear and Peters creeks.
One of the big ones right before the creek crossing.
Few trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains compare with the mammoths of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. None of them share the girth of those in the infamous Atlas Grove in Prairie Creek State Park or the Grove of the Titans in Jed Smith State Park. They would have to live in a perpetual rainforest to grow into champion trees.
Yet, the Peters Creek grove offers one of the best redwood experiences south of Montgomery Woods State Reserve in Mendocino County.
Fallen foliage means lots of bushwacking.
The understory is covered in redwood sorrel adding to the fairy tale-like aura of this quiet arena. I met only three other hikers during my journey despite a full parking lot by headquarters. The Portola park offers plenty of easier and family friendly trails. So, most bypass this demoralizing slog that includes two energy-zapping uphill climbs.  
I like to visit in autumn when afternoon light dances off the trees like a chorus line. The wind rustles the yellowish leaves as if the Headless Horseman has rushed past. But those going in fall need a morning start or carry headlamps because the light retreats into the dense forest by late afternoon.
Whereas the autumnal cycle denudes the landscape to its barest form, spring is a time of rebirth in the forest. Along the way, hikers trespass through tanoak ground cover, live oak, manzanita and Douglas fir. A few redwoods mingle with this diverse natural painting as a preview for what is to come.
Squishy mud greets spring hikers.
After such a wet winter, the trail has not been perfectly groomed. Some bushwhacking is required to circumnavigate fallen trees and thick brush. Many segments of the trail were a gooey quagmire leading to an unstable footing.
Then there is the poison oak. It simply cannot be avoided. I used to be immune to the itch-producing plant. Something changed in the past decade. Now, all it takes is one leaf to give me a look and I am afflicted. I took special precautions after having already suffered from the ill effects of poison oak this spring from a hike through Land of the Medicine Buddha. At this writing, I’m not sure what to expect after bathing twice with tecnu scrub wash. I know for sure I tramped through and over fields of poison oak that lined a super model-thin path.
But it was worth it.
The first signs of the creek’s magical kingdom appear as the steep descent passed two notch valleys where redwoods like to live. Suddenly a couple of nice specimens were found although high above Peters Creek. The beasts usually reside near creek beds with plentiful water supplies.
The trail looped along the far side of the creek as the redwoods grew bigger the deeper into the grove I went. Right before the creek crossing a couple of large redwoods stand sentry over the grove. They are to the right, just up from the banks of the creek. Although the park has not identified any of the trees, these appeared to be the grove’s largest. It’s almost impossible to estimate heights by eyeballing the trees. But a good-sized redwood will stand out.
Peters Creek still is running high because of the storms that battered these mountains this winter. I didn’t bother tiptoeing over the slippery rocks in an attempt to ford the creek. The other half of the loop isn’t as spectacular so why bother? Instead, I doubled back through the best part of the grove to soak it in.
I needed the inspiration knowing that a 16.5% grade awaited me on my way out.