Hard to reach, easy to like
Mount Madonna County Park

Neil Wiley

You can choose from several routes to reach Mount Madonna Park. They all involve driving a long way over winding roads. But if the drive becomes part of the adventure, you’ll find it a great way to spend a day, especially if you like hiking or horseback riding through changing landscapes of redwoods, oaks, chaparral and big meadows. Or enjoy seeing or photographing historical ruins. Or feeding rare white deer. Or picnicking. Or even camping for a few days.

Surrounding the 1897-foot southernmost high point of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Madonna Park’s 3,219 acres offer a pleasant compromise between civilization (paved roads and well developed facilities) and rustic simplicity (quiet leaf-covered trails and subtle signage). Facilities include an amphitheater, large pavilion, three horse trailer staging areas, restrooms and showers, public telephone, an archery range, a small interpretive center, deer pens (complete with fifty or so deer), 117 camping sites (with 29 RV partial hook-ups) and many picnicking areas. (In fact, I’ve never seen another park in our area with so many picnic tables. Perhaps this is where they go to mate.)

Speaking of mating, the deer are the descendants of a pair of white fallow deer, Dama dama, donated by William Randolph Hearst in the thirties. Since they are non-natives, they are kept in large pens, so that they don’t compete with local black tailed deer. When I visited the park, the deer were kept in three pens—one for males (stags), one for females (does) and one for others (?). Perhaps this third group consists of those who won’t conform to recognized deer society.

If you continue east past the deer pens, it’s only a short walk to the ruins of the Henry Miller home. Henry Miller (Heinrich Alfred Kreiser) emigrated from Germany in 1850 with six dollars in his pocket. He first worked as a butcher, then began buying land in 1858. He must have done a good job. In a matter of years, he controlled 14.5 million acres of land in California, Oregon and Nevada. A million head of cattle and 100,000 sheep grazed his land. When he died in 1916, his assets were valued at more than 50 million dollars.

Mr. Miller and his family began camping at Mount Madonna in 1879. They “roughed it” in brightly colored, fully furnished and carpeted tents. From the mid-1890’s to 1901, he built four houses at Mount Madonna. First, he built a two-story redwood cabin, then houses for each of his two children. In 1901, he built his grandest structure—an elaborate home with seven bedrooms and baths, a living room with a veranda on three sides and a 3,600 square foot ballroom. Some say that the Italian woodcutters employed by Miller gave the place its name: “Madonna.” Others credit a visiting poet, Hiram Wentworth.

Not much remains of this mountain palace—a few stone walls, a foundation and stairs that lead nowhere. But these remnants spark the imagination. What was it like to live in this mysterious mansion, far from the valley and other people?

How imposing was the grand entrance to this giant estate? Why did this great project fall into disrepair? Is it simply a sad but telling monument to the passage of time?

For children, the old ruins are a fun place to play. Adults may find its mysteries a bit disquieting but more fascinating.

The children also may enjoy fishing in their own pond, exclusively reserved for ages five through twelve. Or perhaps they might prefer the archery range. (William Tell reenactments are not allowed.)

Most visitors, however, come to Mount Madonna to hike the trails—20 miles hiking, 13 miles also open to horses. Dogs are permitted, on leash.

The narrow footpaths are especially appealing. Covered in most areas with a heavy cushion of leaves and needles, the paths are soft and subtle. Although you occasionally lose the trail, you can’t walk too far without meeting another trail, finding the small marker and reorienting yourself.

I divide the park into three areas. The visitor center area along Pole Line Road offers most of the facilities and many short trails through Banks Canyon with elevation gains to 420 feet. The upper park area has longer trails and a more “wilderness” experience. Elevation gains are a relatively easy 300 feet. The lower park area includes Blackhawk Canyon and little Sprig Lake. Elevation gains as great as 1100 feet make round trip hikes of this area relatively strenuous.

For my first hike, I chose to hike around the visitor center area. I walked from the visitor center west past the amphitheater and pavilion, then downhill until I found the marker for the Rock Springs Trail, a nice, shady path for hikers only. I turned right at Redwood Trail, crossed Pole Line Road, then on downhill through a pleasant redwood forest. At Bayview Trail, I turned left, following the trail uphill. When I found the back side of a marker saying horse trail, I took that trail up a sharp hill that took me to Pole Line Road. Across the road, I found the Rock Springs Trail that took me to a marker for a trail back to the visitor center. Then I had my peanut butter lunch at the big pavilion.

There was plenty of room. If you like solitude, visit the park on a cool weekday. During my tour of the park and on my hike, I never saw another visitor.

To get to Mount Madonna Park, I drove the long but easy route down San Jose-Soquel Road, then left on Highway 1, and left again on Highway 152 East through Watsonville and up to the summit. I turned left on Pole Line Road, just past the Madonna Inn. (Variations of this route involve cutting over via Airport/Holohan to avoid Watsonville traffic.)

Coming home, I continued through the park on Pole Line Road to Summit Road past Uvas Canyon to take pictures of the “Croy Fire” area. I don’t recommend this route. The road is rough, slow and private.

An alternative way back, which I’ll try some time, is going out the west entrance of the park on Pole Line Road, turning left on Mount Madonna Road, then right on Casserly, right on Green Valley Road. right on Pioneers Road, left on Varni, right to Corralitos until it becomes Eureka Canyon Road, then Highland, then Summit. (I have no idea whether this will work.) Let me know if you have a better route.

I plan on returning to Mount Madonna Park many times, at least until I hike all the trails, and figure out who those deer are in the third pen. Keep walking!

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