Conventional hiking wisdom says that the best way to plan a hike is to try to position your starting point so that you have a mostly downhill return. When you begin, your energy level is higher, but near the end of a hike when you may be more fatigued, downhill is good. Logical enough, but this isn’t always possible. Just ask anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon. Or for that matter ask anyone who’s ever hiked out of Henry Coe headquarters. If you begin on top of a ridge, you have to go downhill to get anywhere else. As the saying goes, “if it seems like it’s uphill in both directions, you must be at Coe”. But still; seasoned ramblers really love the place. Sometimes it’s nice to break away from conventional wisdom, and do a hike that’s a little bit of a challenge.
Portola State Park has a quiet little off-the-beaten-track area called the Peter’s Creek loop. Peter’s Creek is the same creek that runs right past park headquarters and under the road bridge to join Pescadero Creek. The loop trail is down in a little ravine where Bear Creek runs into Peter’s creek. The area is very moist with lots of ground water; perfect for sustaining tall redwoods. The thickly wooded terrain has a dense and very tall canopy making it cool and moist even on a hot day. The waters make a nice background music of murmuring and babbling sounds, and it’s very peaceful and green. One of my favorite locations.
There’s only one trail in or out, but there’s more than one way to get to Bear Creek Trail which will take you there. The most popular hike to Peter’s Creek is from Portola using the Slate Creek trail to Bear Creek Trail. It’s funny how so many of the trails here are named after creeks. There’s a lot of natural water here, so it’s really no wonder that it supports deep forests hosting lots of redwood. The old time loggers have made their mark here, but after long years of modern protection, the recovery is encouraging. The more of these mountain tracts that get protected the better. But I digress. I decided to hike to Peter’s Creek a different way last Sunday. To get some good leg burn in, and to satisfy my green fetish, I thought I would hike there from a trail head in Long Ridge along Skyline. What makes this route green is the fact that I would not have to drive all the way down to Portola at 400 feet, using up extra gas and carbon credits to get back out. The leg burn would come mostly on the way back up to the highway at about 2600 feet. And of course there’s that pesky 1600 foot Doherty Ridge to get over as well.
All the forecasts were for an offshore flow over the weekend. The unavoidable result of that is always much hotter weather in the bay area. But at least for the weekend the off shore flow was a no-show. Otherwise I probably would not have tried this hike. Ward Road Trail has some wicked steep sections up near the top which are mostly exposed, and the section of Hickory Oaks Trail used for this route is completely exposed while rolling up and up and up. At the end of the day this would be tortuous in the heat. But with mild temps, off I went. I paused at a high point along Hickory Oaks Trail to marvel at the vaporous fog furrowed in amongst the tall trees populating the ridges and valleys to the west. A sure sign of air movement ON-shore. The previous day my wife and I got up super early to hike Black Mountain, and be off the trail before noon. But while we were reaching to top we could see north past Russian Ridge where Pacific style semi-liquid fog was rolling over the hills. What weather reports?
I headed down Ward Road using my trekking poles to save my knees on the steep downhill. The lower sections of Ward Road are nicely wooded. There are two points where you make a turn to stay on the trail. The first turn is easy enough to spot. The second turn is where you transition onto the upper part of Slate Creek Trail. The markers are not well placed and hard to spot when heading in this direction, but there is usually a closed gate on the road which clues you in not to go that way. On this particular day it wasn’t closed, and had opened up by gravity into the brush disappearing from view. Not paying attention as much as should have I missed the cutoff. I was maybe half a mile into private property before noticing that I did not recognize the trail anymore, and realized I must be trespassing. Opps! Time to turn back. Lovely property down there. Too bad it’s not part of the park system or open space district. Beautiful redwoods and even some nice views.
Undaunted, I turned back uphill and found the cutoff. I tried to close the gate, but it just swung open again burring itself in the brush like before. It had been left unlocked. I checked the time and decided to continue down to Slate Creek and the trail camp where the Bear Creek Trail starts. At this point you have lost somewhere over 2000 feet of elevation, so what you have to do now is climb up Doherty Ridge. Then hike down some fairly steep sections all the way down to the junction of the two creeks. But it is a pretty hike. For the daring there is a large fallen tree solidly lodged into the hillsides providing a short cut over Bear Creek. This saves not quite half a mile if you choose to use it. The loop trail is in good shape, and the pleasant sense of isolation provided by this location is palpable, even though you are actually only about 2.5 miles as-the-crow-flies from park headquarters. You are however isolated by steep terrain and deep tree cover. Peter’s creek is still flowing enough to serenade wanderers even this late in the year. The area is festooned with lots of ferns, sorrel, mosses, and fungi. A delight for native plant hunters. It’s cool and fragrant, and I could swear the towering trees are whispering to themselves.
Hiking back out is a nice aerobic climb back over the ridge to the trail camp. But if you’re doing the hike from headquarters, the rest of your return is an easy stroll through the forest. If you’re doing the inverse back to skyline, Doherty Ridge was just the warm-up. The trail along Slate Creek is serene and peaceful, but as soon as you cross the creek and head up, you immediately find an unrelenting steep slope. You still have tree cover though. A few sections level out somewhat, but it basically never stops climbing. When you finally hit Ward Road, another very steep section awaits. As you finally approach Long Ridge, and likely with tiring legs, the trail becomes mostly exposed, and the higher you get the farther away the patches of shade are. Buy the time you reach the BART again you will know you had a challenging hike. Oh, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for reducing carbon. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!