June 2024

Hiking Fall Creek at Henry Cowell

It’s dawn and I’m the first to park in the Henry Cowell State Park parking lot up Felton-Empire Grade Road. I had to use my phone alarm to wake up. I hope hiking will get my circadian rhythm in alignment with the sun and moon, but for now my circadian rhythm is in alignment with Netflix and my bladder. My left knee cramps and my phone says its 40 degrees. I thought hell would be warmer.

If you are a beginning or casual hiker, this column may be for you. If I can walk these trails, you can too. I hike every week, but I am not good at it. I have knee issues, I have endurance issues, I have mental issues. That’s why I hike. Does this hiking column have the legs to find an audience? Do I have the legs? At my age I don’t have time not to hike. I plan to open a store called Forever 71. It will sell trekking poles and shoes.

Two years ago, I wanted to get in the best shape of my life. And I wanted to do it quickly (I hope you are enjoying the coming train wreck.) I started running. My first time I was a wheezing mess in two minutes, four months later I was doing thirty minutes at a stretch.

I became a master of how slow you can go and technically still be jogging. I ran like I was playing soccer underwater. One afternoon I did my thirty-minute jog and felt like my feet were not even touching the ground. I stopped listening to my body and sped up. At 44 minutes I heard a pop in my left knee and limped home. I tried to fix it with more exercise but overdid that and hurt both knees. I walked with crutches all winter. I had to rest, and backed off all leg work to let my menisci heal. It took months for the pain to subside. I started working with a physical therapist and began to recover. Toe lifts, squats, lunges… but what really got my legs strong was riding a stationary bike. Rode it all spring. Never got far.

Leonard Cohen says that we are but “a brief elaboration of a tube.” I will take care not to spring a leak. Two years ago, I tried running. Now, I will try walking. Every day I exercise… caution.

I stand at the trail head with my staff, water bottle, with a Go Pro video camera attached to my chest harness and my left knee cramps hard. I’m standing here in the parking lot staring at the trail head feeling the damn knee throb. Am I making this pain happen psychosomatically? Did I come this far just to come this far? I stand on my right leg and stretch my left. The pain backs off and the only thing to do is to take the next step.

I’m hiking alone this morning; it is so still even the trail becomes thoughtful. The morning fog covers this land that was once under water, part of an ancient ocean, uplifted to form the Santa Cruz Mountains about three million years ago. The silt, sand, and mud that had been deposited in that shallow sea compressed into the shale, sandstone, and mudstone that make up the Santa Cruz mountains today. We’re headed to the stone remains of the Limestone Kiln. “Limestone is a sedimentary rock commonly composed of tiny fossils.” (scparks.com)

I’m a mile or so in. It’s seven-thirty and a shaft of light breaks through and mist rises over the trees to clear a path for more sunrays to stream into the forest making more moisture airborne. Spiraling dewdrops swirl upwards, and the sunlight breaks into a million promises.

My left knee is tender descending. Ah, the joy of hiking uphill. But as the heat from the rising sun burns the midst off, the trail burns off the tightness in my leg. By keeping my muscles fired from toes to nose like we learn to do in yoga, my body forms a union of support, and I can take the next step. If you walk in nature up and down hills, your legs will get stronger and you will get a rock-hard derriere.

Long time hikers seem to gravitate towards trekking poles. Poles can give you an upper body workout, even with a single staff. Got a trick left knee? Try the staff in your right hand. Physical therapist Dr. Morgan Fielder says, “If you’re like me, your knees can hurt on the downhills. Trekking poles may help you tackle the downhills with more confidence and reduce the forces on lower body joints.” I need to heed the good doctor and get into poles.

Made it! My heavy legs made it back out. I am in an altered state… this parking lot looks familiar. Think Richard, think. Did I bring my wife’s car or mine? When I find my car, I use my hands to pull my legs up under the wheel like they’re carry-ons. If I do yoga tonight, tomorrow I will move like a dancer. Did my journey answer the question, “Will hiking keep me alive?” Maybe it will keep you alive. Did we come this far just to come this far? It’s all about the next step.

I invite you to join me here youtu.be/1LBhF3vN2GY to take a two-minute time-lapse video of the trail, or by phone.

Special thanks to my contributing editor Julie Flannery. (The Felton Fish Ladder Hike, coming soon.)

By Richard Stockton

If You Go
The day-use area of Fall Creek State Park Trail is in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of downtown Felton on Highway 9. From Highway 17, take the Mt. Hermon Road exit. Follow Mt. Hermon Road until it ends at Graham Hill Road. Or take Graham Hill Road up to Felton Highway 9, go across the intersection and up the Felton-Empire Grade Road for a mile and the Henry Cowell State Park lot is on your right.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: with 20 miles of trails and skyscraping, old growth redwoods that are accessible from the day-use side of the park. There is grassland, river, sandhills as well. You’ll see banana slugs, black-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, and now at the Felton Fish Ladder, steelhead trout and coho salmon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *