The Fall Creek unit of Henry Cowell State Park occupies a steep canyon on the side of Ben Lomond Mountain. The park is almost entirely wooded with dense second-growth redwood-dominant forests. The main attraction, though, isn’t the redwoods but the extravagantly lush canyon bottom with its lively creek and abundant redwood sorrel groundcover.
The lower Fall Creek Trail is a popular year-round destination for locals, and the small parking lot often fills up. Horseback riding is allowed throughout the park.
The first half of this hike is a strenuous climb through young second-growth mixed woodland, ending at the Big Ben tree. This is followed by a descent through increasingly lush second-growth redwoods along lively Fall Creek. All the trails are very quiet, althogh sometimes the distant hum of Highway 9 can be heard.
The upper two-thirds of Fall Creek — everything above the Cape Horn Trail — burned in the August 2020 CZU Lightning Fire. In February 2022, Fall Creek became the first redwood park within the fire perimeter to reopen.
The park’s uplands, which used to be rather mundane, now provide a look at the dramatic changes caused by the fire. The dense understory of tanoaks in the burned area has almost completely died, giving the woods a drier, brighter, and much more open appearance. In some hilltop areas that don’t have a lot of redwoods, nearly all the trees have died and the tree canopy is completely gone.
However, many of the redwoods, even ones that are severely blackened to 30 or 40 feet above ground level, are re-sprouting; some look like green pipe cleaners with needles sprouting along the entire length of their trunks. Lots of redwood seedlings have also sprouted. You can see how repeated fires give redwoods an advantage over other trees.
The fire damage gets worse the higher you go, and is most dramatic along the north end of the Lost Empire Trail, north of the Sunlit Trail.
The hike starts on the Fall Creek Trail, which ascends gently alongside the rushing creek. This part of the Fall Creek Trail is the most scenic and popular part of the hike; most visitors only go as far as the limekilns and then turn back. In this area the trail is wide and has only a gentle grade. It runs alongside the large clear creek, under remarkably lush second-growth redwood forest. Redwood sorrel and ferns carpet the ground.
Turn left at the first intersection to climb to the limekiln site, which is interesting if not especially scenic; the woods around the site are less attractive and lush than along Fall Creek.
Continue on the Cape Horn Trail. This trail was used as a fire break that stopped the downhill advance of the 2020 fire; the woods to the left burned, while the woods to the right did not.
Turn left onto the Lost Empire Trail, which climbs steeply along a ridge. The woods become much more open as the trail enters an area that was heavily burned.
The trail levels out, then briefly passes through a lovely glen with a little brook where Lost Camp is located. Lost Camp is a historic site, not a campground.
After Lost Camp, the trail narrows and becomes true singletrack, again climbing steeply along the ridge, and the bright, open forest of tanoak and scattered redwoods is noticably more attractive. The redwoods are small and somewhat sparse in this area, but there aren’t any stumps and the clumps of small redwoods normally found in logged areas aren’t present.
The Big Ben tree is a mid-sized redwood at the intersection of the Big Ben and Lost Empire trails. It’s the largest in a cluster of what appears to be old-growth redwoods. At about 6 feet in diameter it’s one of the largest trees in the park, but by old-growth standards it’s nothing exceptional. People often make the short hike from Empire Grade to see this tree.
(For a 1–2 mile optional side trip, continue on the Lost Empire Trail past the Big Ben Tree to the intersection with the Sunlit Trail, then turn right. Just after the intersection, the trail enters the most heavily fire-damaged part of the park, where the fire burned away the canopy and killed most of the trees, leaving the ground in full sunlight and covered with green shrubs.)
At the Big Ben Tree, turn onto the Big Ben Trail. The trail descends through an especially dense grove of dead tanoaks, with some clusters of redwoods, including a few mid-size old-growth trees. The forest gets denser and the sound of the creek becomes audible as the trail approaches the bottom of the canyon.
The Fall Creek Trail descends through a narrow canyon in the deep shade of lush second-growth redwoods. The scenery improves as the trail descends; especially after the Barrel Mill area, the canyon gets wider and lusher and the creek gets larger. After the Cape Horn Trail intersection the trail crosses the the creek four times on footbridges that often wash out in the winter.
© 2006, 2012, 2014, 2022 David Baselt