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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ruins in the Redwoods: Lime Kilns at Henry Cowell State Park

Scarborough Lumber, Boulder Creek, CA
Photo by JL Aronson
I warned Sonny before heading into the Santa Cruz Mountains that the area had always kind of scared me. I've spent enough time there to know that both darkness and light lurk in those hills. I am also old enough to remember the phrase "Murder Capital of the World" being slung around lightly about Santa Cruz County due to an unfortunate string of serial killers in the mountains in the late 70s and early 80s. Sonny was visiting from New York, a UCSC graduate back in Santa Cruz sixteen years later.
Madeline with Boulder Creek mural
Photo by JL Aronson
We drove about 30 minutes from Santa Cruz on a sunny day, up Highway 9, a curving forested road that leads through the town of Felton, past Henry Cowell State Park and the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, Ben Lomond, Brookdale Lodge, and on to Boulder Creek. Boulder Creek is nestled in the redwood forest, yet the main drag (on Highway 9) is sunny on clear days. The fresh mountain air exhilarated us. Green forest-covered mountains tower over Boulder Creek's wild west-style buildings. Detailed murals on downtown buildings tell of Boulder Creek's lumber industry origins. We visited Boulder Creek Antiques and Art, a rambling indoor/outdoor emporium with housewares, jewelry, signs, and plants on consignment from various vendors and New Leaf Community Market. We poked our heads in Boulder Creek Brewery and Cafe and I made a mental note to return to try their beer and food. Alas, the day's mission was a forest hike, so we reluctantly pushed on.

Boulder Creek Antiques and Art
Photo by Madeline Horn
The Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was our next stop. We hiked through redwoods and Douglas fir along a rushing creek, spotting bright yellow banana slugs and inhaling the scent of permanently moist soil, bark, ferns, and lichen. Although it was in the 70s in the sun that day - no sun reached the floor of the damp dark redwood forest - in fact, it was chilly inside the forest. An androgynous kid in his 20s with long red hair parted down the middle overtook us on the path. We heard him before seeing him, since he was loudly talking on his cell phone on speaker mode. He wore flip flops, shorts and a tank top, a nice beach outfit, but unsuitable for a hike in the damp shady redwoods. The redhead held a pet carrier with two cockatiels in it.

Lime Kilns, Henry Cowell State Park
Photo by JL Aronson
When we reached a clearing, the limekiln ruins emerged like storybook castles from the forest, moss-covered crumbling stone walls with arches leading to the kilns. Built in 1870 to extract lime from the forest, the kilns were used to fire lime to make cement to build San Francisco, and then rebuild it after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Portuguese and Italian men worked the kilns and lived in cottages in the forest. Sonny and I imagined these men with large mustaches working there, producing nearly a third of California's lime supply at this very spot. The surrounding forest was logged to be burned in the kilns and to make barrels to haul the lime, making the current trees second generation redwood.

Lime Kiln Archway
Photo by Madeline Horn
The redheaded cockatiel-whisperer had walked quickly past the lime kilns, completely ignoring them, up onto a trail that hovered above where we stood. His conversation bellowed out into the clearing. Soon, he turned around and approached the lime kilns again, where we still stood, transfixed by their ancient presence. "I shared the fuck out of that post!" he yelled about facebook emphatically to his friend on the other end of the line, then told them about the smartest bird he had ever met in his life, "He flies straight to me!" The two cockatiels still dangled from his hand in their carrier. Freaks freely enter the forest in Felton.

Neither the freak nor the Santa Cruz Mountains scared me that day. There were simply too many lovely discoveries to be made: antique emporiums, breweries, and ruins in the forest. I look forward to exploring more of the mountains in the coming months.

Inside the Lime Kiln
Photo by Madeline Horn

The Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is physically separate from the main area of Henry Cowell (where the visitor center is located). The trail head is on Felton Empire Road. Turn left onto Felton Empire Road from Highway 9 when coming from Santa Cruz. Parking and entrance are free.