This loop hike through Memorial County Park starts in a large campground set in an old-growth redwood grove and climbs the rather overenthusiastically named “Mount Ellen”. Along the way there’s a nice variety of scenery; unusually for an area densely blanketed with redwoods, only about a quarter of the loop is in redwood forest, including a fairly impressive (though mostly logged) redwood-filled ravine. There’s also some especially attractive and unusually lush hardwood forest, sunny chaparral with nice views, and some of the area’s typical tanoak/Douglas-Fir woodland. The varied scenery makes this stroll through lush green hills a refreshing getaway.
North of Pescadero Road the park feels quiet and remote, with no traffic noise. The trails are well-designed and maintained and summertime temperatures are refreshingly cool. It’s quite pleasant even though there aren’t any standout destinations or knockout views.
For an all-day outing, try pairing this hike with the Coyote Ridge loop, which spans Portola and Pescadero parks. Together the two hikes provide about 11 miles of hiking with similar yet complementary scenery. A scenic half-hour drive separates the two hikes.
The easiest way to get to the park is the coastal route: Highway One to Pescadero, then a 15-minute drive on Pescadero Road to the Memorial Park entrance. The next easiest route is Woodside and La Honda Road from Palo Alto, which is twisty but wide, well-maintained, and fairly easy to drive. Finally, there’s Alpine Road, which is the most scenic route but is really twisty, narrow, and steep, with some alarming drop-offs. From the South Bay all three routes take the same amount of time, about an hour and fifteen minutes.
Park at the Tan Oak Flat picnic area inside Memorial County Park; there’s a $6 parking fee.
Or you can park for free at the Hoffman Creek Trailhead, and walk back up Wurr Road to the intersection with Pescadero Road, where a short trail leads to Tan Oak Flat; this adds 0.8 miles round-trip to the hike. There used to be a much better route that cut through Wurr Flat and then descended through scenic old-growth redwood uplands to Pescadero Creek, but the creek crossing is no longer maintained and is blocked by a jumble of fallen trees.
Walk back to the entrance kiosk to reach Pescadero Road. The Nature Trail/Mount Ellen Trail trailhead is across the road.
The Nature Trail switchbacks insistently up Mount Ellen for a half-mile at a slightly steep 15% grade. The trail quickly leaves the redwoods behind and enters a mixed-species forest with few small pockets of redwoods. Stay to the right at every intersection.
There’s no view to speak of from the top of tiny Mount Ellen, just a lot of trees. The trail descends slightly and comes to an intersection with the Pomponio Canyon Trail. Continue straight.
After climbing through several more switchbacks, the trail breaks out of the woods and into chaparral. This mile-long stretch of the trail is sometimes overgrown in the winter. Looking back, you can see the little pointed hill that is Mount Ellen; behind it, the conifer-clad Butano Ridge stretches off into the distance. Soon after, the trail begins a gentle descent, then, after passing a bench, becomes a dirt road. Having switched from a south-facing hillside to a north-facing one, the trail leaves the chaparral behind and abruptly enters an exceptionally lush forest with a dense layer of ferns carpeting the steep hillside. The top of the trail is especially scenic and passes an interesting variety of trees.
The trail descends into a dark, redwood-filled ravine. Although most of this area has been heavily logged, a small area near the intersection with the Nature Trail appears to be unlogged, and still has some pretty impressive redwoods.
Cross Pescadero Road and look for a small sign that says “trail”. Take the trail a short distance to Azalea Flat. When the trail ends, turn right onto the campground road and return to Tan Oak Flat.
After finishing the hike, it’s worth taking a short detour to the Legion Flat Picnic Area, which is on the south side of the Tan Oak Flat loop road. This small alluvial flat on the banks of Pescadero Creek has a cluster of about 10 or 20 large redwoods with few signs of logging. If it were in a more natural state it would be one of the Bay Area’s most impressive groves outside of Big Basin. However, although the grove gets very few visitors, like most of Memorial County Park it's rather heavily developed: picnic tables are scattered throughout, several faint roads and trails also wind through the grove, and the groundcover has all been worn away. Wooden railing was added during the 2020 park renovations to keep people out of some areas.
The adjacent Creek Flat Picnic Area is similar, but has smaller redwoods. A short trail, the Nature Trail, loops through the flat but misses the best redwoods.
© 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021 David Baselt