Hiker’s Hut Loop

Distance 5.2 mi
Time 3 hrs
Elevation Gain 1200 ft
Season Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Hike Info Hiker Info

The 5.2-mile Hiker’s Hut Loop is a gratifying hike through redwoods and up to a ridgeline with a cabin-like Hiker’s Hut, where you can make reservations to spend the night. Hidden deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Sam McDonald County Park, it is the kind of hike I turn to when I want to have a solid hike that hits all my nature sweet spots: creeks, ancient redwoods, fascinating history, and steep hillsides for a great workout. Although there is plentiful parking at the $6 main parking lot, the quieter, more remote Alpine Road lot is also an option. If you prefer the free Alpine lot, I recommend trying to get there near 8:00 a.m. to grab one of the few parking spaces. Several trails are open to equestrians; however, no dogs are allowed.

The Heritage Grove

Beginning at the Alpine Road lot, pick up the signed connector trail and cross a mossy bridge over Alpine Creek. Stream violets, forget-me-nots, and thimbleberry flutter in the streamside forest. This scene is the stuff of hiker dreams, especially when the creek is flowing well in the rainy season. Alpine Creek is a tributary of San Gregorio Creek, flowing into the ocean at San Gregorio Beach. 

At 350 feet, arrive at Junction 24 and Heritage Grove. The redwoods in this old-growth grove are thought to be upwards of 1500 years old, with some as high as 280 feet tall. Bear right at Junction 24, and take the 0.1-mile spur into the Lower Grove. Springtime trillium and redwood sorrel bloom under the giant redwoods. Benches along the trail face pretty Alpine Creek. When ready, turn around at a modest overlook and retrace your steps back to Junction 24.

Although tagged for logging in 1974, the Heritage Grove was preserved thanks to a local citizen named Grace Ann Radwell. When she learned of the logging, Radwell rallied the community and environmental groups to purchase the land. After raising $80,000, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors chipped in the rest to buy it. The grove was saved and subsequently added to Sam McDonald Park, which had been recently established in 1970. 

Heritage Grove to Towne Ridge

Returning to Junction 24, weave up through the Upper Grove, with more tall, stately redwoods. Then, turn left onto the Heritage Grove Trail at Junction 25. We’ll return to this junction at the end of our hike.

Hiking south toward the Hiker’s Hut, the Heritage Grove Trail gains a moderately steep 450 feet over the next 0.9 miles. Bay trees stretch overhead, and Pacific wrens hop along the forest floor, searching for insects. As you climb toward Towne Ridge, the forest becomes airier and dryer. At the top, an opening in the canopy marks your arrival at Towne Ridge.

Towne Ridge and Hiker’s Hut

Emerge onto Towne Ridge at the 1.4-mile mark, with beautiful grassy meadows and Butano Ridge in the distance. Let’s go see the Hiker’s Hut, and then we’ll come back here, to Junction 30, and continue our loop. 

Turn left at Junction 30 and follow signs for 0.15 miles to the Hiker’s Hut. The hut resembles a large cabin, with a wide wooden deck, benches, and picnic tables. A vista overlooks Butano Ridge to the southwest and an opening in the canopy for stargazing. Day hikers are welcome to rest on the hut’s deck.

We owe the existence of the Hiker’s Hut to Olive “Ollie” Mayer, an environmentalist, engineer, and former president of the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter. Mayer loved to hike, and she was the one who had the idea for the hut. In 1977, she bought a kit from Denmark and hired Danish carpenters to build it. The carpenters and volunteers completed the hut in three weeks, and it opened to hikers in late 1977. Members of the public can make overnight reservations through the Loma Prieta chapter.

Towne Fire Road to Redwoods & Picnic Tables

When ready, retrace your steps to Junction 30 and hike 0.8 miles west on Towne Fire Road to the Jack Brook Horse Camp. Purplish western blue-eyed grass and yellow sun cups grow in the meadows along the trail. Shady Douglas fir and oak forests cover the road at times, alternating with the sunny meadows. 

Zigzag left past the horse camp, and then make a quick right to stay on Towne Fire Road for the next 0.6 miles. The trail soon eases back into the shady redwoods. Beside the trail, a sloping hillside tapers to a creek below. Trillium, sorrel, and sword fern blanket the cool understory. 

At the 3.1-mile mark, carefully cross Pescadero Road to the main parking lot. Please cross carefully, as there is no crosswalk. As you approach the lot, you’ll notice several picnic areas under the redwoods, as well as restrooms. This is a great spot for a rest and snack break.

Sam McDonald

Northwest of the main parking lot, trails lead to Sam McDonald’s former cabin, once used as his weekend retreat. (Hiking to the cabin adds about another 3.0 miles to this loop, see POST’s trail guide for details.) McDonald was a towering figure in Stanford’s history, known for his kindness and generosity towards students, faculty, staff, and children. In the late 1910s, he began acquiring property in La Honda—today’s northwestern corner of Sam McDonald Park—and built his red cabin. The cabin is still standing today, although damaged by storms in the late 1990s. 

Emanuel Bruce “Sam” McDonald was born in 1884 in Monroe, Louisiana, and migrated with his family west to California in 1890. After settling in Mayfield, now part of southern Palo Alto, he found work as a teamster in 1903, hauling gravel to resurface campus roads at Stanford. Within a handful of years, he rose to Superintendent of Athletic Buildings and Grounds, overseeing the maintenance of athletic facilities like tennis courts, fields, and the track. He became a national authority on tracks and pioneered a technique of mowing alternating stripes on athletic fields. 

Sam McDonald and children from the Convalescent Home harvesting from a victory garden in 1945. Stanford Medicine – World War I & II Bench 3 panel 17. Property rights reside with the Stanford Medical History Center at Lane Medical Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA)

McDonald’s amiability and open-heartedness were legendary in the Stanford community. He threw barbecues and loaned funds to students. He told stories and played his concertina for children at the Convalescent Home, now the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital. In an often-cited quote, Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur said, “If I ever had to run against Sam McDonald for the presidency of the University, I would be mightly afraid of the result.” (McDonald 299)

McDonald’s Legacy

In 1941, a road near the athletic fields at Stanford was named Sam McDonald Road in his honor. Today it’s known as Sam McDonald Mall. Additionally, the annual “Con Day,” where students would spruce up the Convalescent Home—rewarded with McDonald’s famous barbecue—was renamed “Sam McDonald Day” in 1950. 

McDonald’s autobiography, Sam McDonald’s Farm, was published in 1954, the same year he retired after over 50 years at Stanford. When he passed away in November 1957, the Stanford marching band spelled out S-A-M and played the Stanford hymn at the Big Game against Cal in his honor. McDonald left his assets to the Convalescent Home and Stanford University. His La Honda land was later sold to San Mateo County, which established Sam McDonald County Park in 1970. 

Heritage Grove Trail and Family Circles

When ready, pick up the trail by the parking lot entrance and kiosk, and hike east toward the Heritage Grove Trail. Cross back over Pescadero Creek Road, continuing east on the Heritage Grove Trail at Junction 14.

Over the next 1.7 miles, traverse the Heritage Grove Trail in an airy Douglas fir and redwood forest. From your vantage point, there is a broad vista of the forest with redwood violet and hound’s tongue at your feet. As you hike eastward, the trail gains moderate elevation and passes several redwood family circles. 

At the 4.9-mile mark, return to Junction 25, and retrace your steps to the Alpine Road parking lot in 0.3 miles. 


  1. Sam McDonald Park
  2. Sam McDonald: Beloved Stanford Friend, Role Model, and Benefactor YouTube Presentation by San Mateo County Park Ranger Katherine Wright
  3. Sam McDonald’s Farm by Sam McDonald
  4. A Legacy of Generosity—Remembering Sam McDonald by Nik Rau
  5. Meet Stanford’s First Black Administrator by Sam Scott


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Accommodations near Hiker’s Hut Loop

Trail Conditions

The loop is mostly shady with a mix of moderately wide dirt trails, a fire road, and narrow single-tracks. The trails are well-signed and easy to follow. The park opens at 8:00 a.m. and closing times vary seasonally. The Alpine Road parking lot is free; the main parking lot off Pescadero Road is $6 per vehicle (cash only). No dogs are allowed.

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Camping Info

Sam McDonald Park offers youth campgrounds, horse camp areas, and sheltered camping at the Hiker's Hut on Towne Ridge. The Loma Prieta Sierra Club manages the Hiker's Hut, available to the public to reserve ($25 per night for Sierra Club Members, $30 for non-members on weekends). The hut currently sleeps 8 on 2” thick mattress pads (bring your sleeping bag). There are bathrooms, but no showers. Campers must pack out all trash.


How to Get There

From I-280, take exit 24 for Sand Hill Road west toward Woodside. Drive 1.8 miles west on Sand Hill Road and turn right onto Portola Road. Drive 0.2 miles and then turn left to stay on Portola Road. Drive 0.6 miles, and then make a sharp left onto Highway 84. Drive 10.2 miles and then turn left onto Pescadero Creek Road. Drive 1.1 miles and then stay straight at a Y-junction onto Alpine Road. The Heritage Grove Trailhead is 1.2 miles down Alpine Road. Five cars fit comfortably in the small lot.

Driving Directions

Use the ModernHiker mobile app to download this map and complete trail description for offline access.

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