Santa Cruz Sandhills: The Henry Cowell Trail Less Traveled


A visit to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park usually means one thing: a walk through the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. This is the Henry Cowell most are familiar with and for obvious reasons. Centuries-old, skyscraping redwoods are hard to miss and quite the draw, especially when hosting out-of-town visitors.

But there’s another side to Henry Cowell that has more in common with the beach than a redwood forest and, in fact, used to be a beach. Sort of.

Only in Santa Cruz

For a truly “only in Santa Cruz” experience, you can’t beat a visit to the Santa Cruz Sandhills. That’s because this naturally-rare ecosystem can only be found right here in our county.

If you’ve never visited the Santa Cruz Sandhills, it’s time to become acquainted with this unique section of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

We often separate the beach from the mountains, but the Santa Cruz Sandhills are proof that the two were once one. It’s mind-boggling to think this area used to be the bottom of the ocean, but 10 million years ago this was the case as evidenced by shark teeth and sand dollars scientists have found here. Feel free to impress your kids with that fun fact.

How To Get There


While you can hike to the Sandhills from the day-use area of Henry Cowell located off Highway 9, the quickest access is through the campground entrance on Graham Hill Road. You don’t have to be a camper to visit, but you will have to pay a $10 day-use fee.

There are two small visitor parking areas. If parking near the amphitheater and trail head is unavailable, backtrack to the parking lot behind the entrance kiosk.

Planning to visit on the weekend? Be sure to stop by the campground’s brand new Sandhills Mobile Visitors Center where you’ll find interactive learning stations for all ages. It’s handicap-accessible and staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who can fill you in on details about the various trails, plants, animals, and geology of the Sandhills. It’s a great start to your Sandhill adventures.

Observation Deck


A relatively short and easy hike with huge pay off is to Henry Cowell’s Observation Deck, the must-see centerpiece of the Santa Cruz Sandhills. At 805 feet above sea level, the Observation Deck offers 360-degree panoramic views of the Monterey Bay and surrounding Santa Cruz Mountain ridgetops. On a clear day you can even see the Boardwalk—just look for the 125’ tall Double Shot tower.

To reach the Observation Deck from the campground entrance, take the marked trailhead next to the amphitheater and follow until it tees off at Powder Mill Fire Road. Turn right and continue until you see a cement fortress in the distance, where Ridge Fire Road and Pine Trail meet.

The path starts out wide and flat and is a mixture of hard-packed forest soil, gravel, and sand. Just past the Observation Deck is where the trail turns into deep beachy sand that may or may not be easier to hike barefoot. Be prepared.

Now you’re ready to explore the Santa Cruz Sandhills, impress your next out-of-town guests, and add another notch to your Santa Cruz Life experiences.

Handy ‘Sandy’ Tips

  • Mobile Visitor Center hours are Saturday/Sunday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Expanded hours starting in June.
  • Leashed dogs are allowed in the campground as well as on Pipeline Road, Graham Hill Trail, and Powder Mill Fire Road.
  • No dogs are allowed on the park’s internal trails, such as those that lead to the Observation Deck.
  • Bring water and wear sunscreen as shade is hard to come by in this redwood-less zone.
  • Keep in mind, the deep sand part can be challenging for hiking and pushing strollers or wheelchairs.
  • Use the campground bathrooms before you start as there are none along the way.
  • Pack a picnic—there are a few tables nearby and on the Observation Deck. Enjoy outdoor dining with a view!
About Christine Candelaria

Christine Candelaria is a local mom of four who enjoys sharing her Santa Cruz adventures. You can follow her #santacruzlife on Instagram at @theaumsmama.

  • Lance Hulsey says:

    Thanks Christine. Getting to the bench is always a milestone. Rewarded with great views when it is not foggy.

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