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Portola Redwoods State Park

Iverson, Summit, Slate Creek Trails
6 miles round trip; longer and shorter options possible

You could call this tranquil park, perched on the opposite side of the Santa Cruz Mountains from Big Basin Redwoods State Park, “Little Basin Redwoods State Park.” Like its well-known cousin, this park is a natural basin forested with coast redwoods. Portola Redwoods State Park it is, however, its name honoring explorer Don Gaspar de Portolá, who led an expedition in search of Monterey Bay in 1769.

The California landscape has changed immeasurably since Portolá’s time, but places like this park still evoke the feeling of wild California. This wild feeling begins outside the park boundaries as you travel Alpine Road. The view is of wide-open spaces, of uncluttered valleys and ridges topped with nothing more than grass and cows.

The park centers around two creeks—Peters and Pescadero—which meander through a basin. Douglas fir and oaks cloak the ridges while redwoods, accompanied by huckleberry and ferns, cluster in cooler bottomlands.

Most redwoods in the area are second-growth trees; this land, like most in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was logged during the 19th century. However, most of “logging” at Portola was for shingle production; trees needed a very straight grain and were selectively cut. Thus, many large trees escaped the ax and may be seen today inside the park.

The Islam Temple Shrine of San Francisco used the property as a summer retreat for its members from 1924 until 1945, when the state acquired the land. During the 1960s, Portola had an amusement park-feeling. Pescadero Creek was dammed, providing a large fishing and swimming area. One year, 150,000 people poured into the small park. In 1974, the dam was removed and Portola reverted to quieter pursuits—camping, hiking, nature study. Rangers sometime refer to Portola as a “neighborhood park,” meaning thus far only locals have discovered this ideal-for-a-family outing small redwood forest. My favorite day hike is a six mile “walkabout” that utilizes five different trails. Drop in at the park visitor center to view the nature and history exhibits. Interpretive programs are conducted during the summer and on some weekends.

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 280 (Junipero Serra Freeway), about six miles north of San Jose, exit on Saratoga Avenue and head south, joining Highway 9 in the town of Saratoga. Highway 9 ascends west into the mountains to a junction with Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Turn right (northwest) on Skyline and follow it to a junction with Alpine Road and the signed turnoff to Portola Redwoods State Park. Turn onto Alpine Road. After 3.5 miles, turn left on Portola State Park Road and continue 3 more miles to the park. Leave your car at Tan Oak or Madrone picnic areas just across the road from the visitor center.

The hike: Join Sequoia Nature Trail, which begins behind the park visitor center. Tramp through the redwood forest, cross Pescadero Creek, and loop around Louise Austin Wilson Grove, site of the Shell Tree.

Next join Iverson Trail, which meanders along Pescadero Creek. A short side trail leads to diminutive, fern-framed Tip-Toe Falls.

Iverson Trail visits the ruins of Iverson Cabin as it meets a park service road. A right leads to Old Haul Road which in turn leads five miles to San Mateo Memorial County Park. You turn left, cross Pescadero Creek on a bridge, and soon arrive at a signed junction with Summit Trail.

True to its name, Summit Trail ascends some 600 feet in elevation to a rather undistinguished summit. It then dips briefly to a saddle and a signed junction with Slate Creek Trail. It’s another mile east to the park’s trail camp, a pleasant, though waterless, rest stop.

From the saddle, Slate Creek Trail descends a pleasant mile west, then contours south to Old Tree Trail and the park’s campground. Walk through the campground, then join the park road for a brief walk back to the park visitor center.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at