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San Lorenzo Valley

You can definitely see 30-story redwoods. Bigfoot? Well . . .

Roaring Camp Railroad engine Dixieana
Photo caption
The 42-ton, 1912 Dixiana chugs along at five miles an hour.

Extraordinarily beautiful and a little eccentric, the San Lorenzo Valley is one of those magical pockets of California that people regularly zip right past without realizing what they're missing. Tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountains just a few miles west of busy Highway 17, the area awaits the unsuspecting wanderer: A pair of glorious state redwood parks 17 miles apart bookend a handful of funky little towns strung along the meandering San Lorenzo River. As surprises go, it's a pretty great one.

The story of the San Lorenzo Valley, from its primeval past to its environmentally protected present, is the tale of the coast redwood—Sequoia sempervirens, the tallest tree on earth. These towering behemoths, many reaching almost 400 feet, thrive in a cool strip of land from southern Oregon to Big Sur and can live for more than 2,000 years. Most of California's oldest trees have been cut down, but a few venerable groves have survived here.

Story has it that in 1846, U.S. Army surveyor John Fremont camped inside a hollowed-out sequoia at the southern end of the valley. In subsequent decades Fremont's Tree became a tourist attraction, and while the forests around it were razed in the 1870s and '80s, the site was preserved as part of Welch's Big Trees Grove, a commercial resort.

In 1899, San Jose artist Andrew Hill began lobbying for the creation of a public redwoods park. In 1902 his efforts paid off: 3,800 acres of sequoias near the logging town of Boulder Creek—north of Welch's—became Big Basin, California's oldest state park. Fifty years later, the state acquired Welch's Big Trees and incorporated it into the new Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to the south.

Check out the local scene at Don Quixote's Mexican restaurant, a venue for Cajun, Celtic folk, and soul music. 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton, (831) 335- 2800,

Both are wonderful spots to visit. Big Basin is larger and threaded with dozens of trails, including the level half-mile Redwood Loop winding past the 329-foot Mother of the Forest, the park's tallest tree. At Henry Cowell you can still see Fremont's Tree, just a short walk from the visitor center. Or you can ride a shiny old steam engine to Bear Mountain through stands of 1,100-year-old sequoias. Run by Roaring Camp Railroads, the 1½-hour excursion is narrated by a folksy guide who will share redwood country lore.

While it would be unthinkable to miss the sequoias, it would also be a mistake to bypass the area's charming, oddball towns. An essential stop in Boulder Creek is the San Lorenzo Valley Museum, housed in a former church built in 1906 from vertical-grain heart redwood. The exhibits include a collection of antique tools once used to harvest that lumber, from a rugged crosscut saw to a straight-edged froe designed to neatly split shingles.

At the museum you can pick up a copy of Historic Homes of Boulder Creek and take a self-guided tour of the downtown. Be sure to look into Scopazzi's, built as a boardinghouse for loggers in 1912, later converted to a speakeasy, and now reinvented as an Italian restaurant.

Taste of Bavaria
For hearty eats, head to the Tyrolean Inn and try their stews, strudel, and spaetzle. 9600 Hwy. 9, Ben Lomond, 336-5188,

Scopazzi's has a colorful past and a handsome dining room dominated by a mounted elk's head, but for atmosphere it's hard to beat the cozy Tyrolean Inn farther along Highway 9 in the village of Ben Lomond. Decorated with cuckoo clocks and serious about schnitzel, it thrives in this tiny community.

In Felton, the valley's southernmost and sunniest town, you'll find the tallest covered bridge in the nation, built extra large (of redwood) in 1893 to accommodate wagonloads of timber (also redwood). It always comes back to redwood around here: At nearby Short's Studio, you can shop for elegant bowls, boxes, and statues chiseled from redwood burl.

Felton also boasts the quirkiest attraction in a valley full of quirk: the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, which has newspaper reports, scholarly literature, and an enormous model of Sasquatch. Museum owner Michael Rugg displays a large map of the area dotted with pins showing where Bigfoot has been seen since the 1870s. Rugg believes that Bigfoot may be a less evolved species of human—maybe a Homo erectus—who is hiding out in the sequoias. You'll have to make up your own mind about that, but if there's a place such a creature might feel at home, this valley of ancient trees would be it.

Photography by Gabriela Hasbun

This article was first published in March 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.