I’ve recently learned of a new blog, “Post Car Adventuring,” which is reminding me to post some of my own suggestions for car-free camping convenient to San Francisco Bay Area bicyclists. The Santa Cruz area has a host of options for bicycling and camping.
Henry Cowell State Park Bicycle Camping
I almost don’t want to mention this because I want to keep it a secret — very few people seem to know about the bicycle camping area at Henry Cowell State Park near Santa Cruz. This campground featuring hiking trails that wind through majestic coast redwood trees is only three miles from my front door.
From Thursday through the weekends, the car camping spots are almost always filled to capacity. Car campers pay $25 per night in addition to the $6 entry fee, while bicycle campers only pay $3 per night to stay. Every time I’ve gone, the bicycle camping area has always been open. Important note: The Henry Cowell Campground is not open in the winter.
Biking from Santa Cruz
From my home it’s a fairly quick bike ride to the Henry Cowell campground. From Santa Cruz, you can ride your bike up Graham Hill Road to the campground entrance. Graham Hill Road is fairly narrow, so if you don’t like traffic another option is to ride along the Roaring Camp railroad tracks to the Henry Cowell Park visitor center, then use park trails to get to the camping area. Bikes are permitted only on certain trails so consult the park map.
Bus from Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Metro route #35 runs from the Metro Center on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz up through Scotts Valley and Felton. From Felton Faire (the Safeway parking lot), turn left on Graham Hill Road, then turn right into the Roaring Camp Railroad parking lot. At the end of the parking lot, cut all the way right until you’re immediately alongside the tracks. Continue south along the tracks, pass the employee parking area, and you’ll reach Roaring Camp’s picnic area. Henry Cowell State Park is accessible through the fence to the right. Follow Pipeline Road (the paved trail) and turn left on Ridge Fire Road (a steep and sandy uphill) or Powder Mill Fire Road (still sandy, but not quite as steep). Follow signs to get to the campground.
Bus #31 from the downtown Metro Center runs during the week and stops very near the campground entrance on Graham Hill Road.
From the Bay Area – Bike
State Route 17 (aka Highway 17) is technically county expressway between Los Gatos and Scotts Valley; bicycles are legal but not recommended. Instead, take the Los Gatos Creek Trail and make your way to Lexington Reservoir. Get on Alma Bridge Road and go south toward the Santa Cruz Mountains. Just before Alma Bridge Road intersects with Highway 17, there’s a dirt social trail adjacent to the northbound side of the highway. Follow this dirt path until you can get on Old Santa Cruz Highway. You’ll cross over the San Andreas Fault immediately after the CDF fire station.
Old Santa Cruz Highway winds up the Santa Cruz Mountains. Watch for a right turn to Mountain Charlie Road — a sign indicates this road is for local traffic only. Turn right on Mountain Charlie — this is an extremely steep and narrow grade. Turn right on Summit Road, cross over Highway 17, then turn left from Summit onto the other side of Mountain Charlie Road. Again, this is a steep and narrow grade, except now you’re going downhill — CONTROL YOUR SPEED AND STAY TO THE RIGHT!
Eventually, Mountain Charlie ends at Glenwood Drive. Turn right on Glenwood and follow it into Scotts Valley. Turn onto Scotts Valley Drive and cycle through town on the bike laned street. Cross Mount Hermon Road and follow Whispering Pines Drive around to Lockwood Lane, where you turn left, then left again onto Graham Hill Road. From there it’s about a half mile to the campground entrance. Los Gatos to Henry Cowell is about 20 miles, and you’ll climb to an elevation of about 1900 feet at the Santa Cruz Mountains summit.
From the Bay Area – Public transportation
Take any of myriad options to get to San Jose Diridon Station. Caltrain, ACE Train, Amtrak, VTA Light Rail and numerous VTA buses all stop at San Jose Diridon. From the East Bay you can either take BART around to Millbrae and hop on Caltrain; or go down to Fremont BART, take AC Transit bus #217 to the Great Mall Light Rail Station, connect to VTA light rail to either Tasman or Convention Center, transfer to the Winchester Light Rail line and get off at Diridon Station. Bikes are allowed on all of these transit systems, though there are some restrictions on BART.
From Diridon Station, the Highway 17 Express Bus makes numerous runs daily from San Jose to Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz. Ride the bus either to Scotts Valley and bike the rest of the way to the campground from there, or take the bus into Santa Cruz and follow the “Bus from Santa Cruz” directions above. Note that the bike racks on the Highway 17 buses and all Santa Cruz Metro buses are often fully utilized, so be prepared to wait for the next bus. Fare from San Jose to Santa Cruz is $4.
Don’t forget to visit “Post Car Adventuring for more car free adventuring inspiration.
Next up: The time I attempted to ride my bike up to the Long’s Peak Trailhead for a two day backpacking trip to the summit of a Colorado 14er.