Sam McDonald County Park is a hidden gem nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains about 3 miles west of the sleepy town of La Honda on Pescadero Road. It is one of three parks that make up the Pescadero Creek Park complex which also includes Memorial and Pescadero Creek parks. Hikers and equestrians can escape the hustle and bustle of urban life and enjoy the quiet solitude of towering redwoods and views from grassy knolls at Sam McDonald Park.
At 850 acres, Sam McDonald is one of the smaller parks in this area, yet it provides connections to miles upon miles of trails in Pescadero Creek County Park, Portola Redwoods State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park and even onto Año Nuevo State Park for the dogged explorer. For road-trippers, Sam McDonald Park is a great stop on the way to the coastal town of Pescadero.
The park includes the following:
- Jack Brook Horse Camp which is divided into three areas designed for small to large groups with horses;
- Ollie Mayer Hikers’ Hut, a tree-sheltered nook perched on a hillside with views to the Pacific Ocean. The cabin can hold up to ten people and is reserved through the Sierra Club;
- The Heritage Grove, a magnificent old-growth redwood forest on Alpine Creek and easily accessible form the small parking lot on Alpine Road;
- Three youth camps: Modoc, Chinook and Choctaw.
Scroll down for more on the man behind the park- Sam McDonald- A Stanford legend and parks hero.
Sam McDonald Park is the perfect place to practice what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku which means taking in the forest atmosphere or “forest bathing”. Half of the park is lush second growth redwood forest interspersed with some old growth, while the western half is meadowland and open ridges.
In the dense forest there is an understory of tanoaks, red alder, bay and hazelnut, with a carpet of ferns, sorrel and trickling streams. During and after the rainy season the park brims with lush mosses and curious mushrooms.
In the winter, you will find solitude and muddy trails; in the spring, look for wildflowers in the park’s high meadows and mixed woodland; in the summer, you can escape the heat and cool off in the shade of the redwoods and look for orchids and in the fall, you can enjoy the big leaf maples.
The man behind the park, Sam McDonald, was a beloved and generous man whose story is worth telling over and over again.
Emanuel B. McDonald (Sam) was born free, the son of former slaves, in Monroe, Louisiana in 1884. Sam’s father was a Methodist minister who decided to move his family to Southern California to try their hand at sugar beet farming. From there, they moved north to Gilroy and after a few years, the family decided to head north to Washington state. As they crossed into Oregon though, the pull of California was too much for Sam and he informed his family that he wanted to stay there.
Sam made his way back to the Santa Clara Valley and eventually found work at Stanford University hauling gravel from San Francisquito Creek to maintain campus roads. He was then hired on as a night watchman to keep an eye on student drinking. In 1908 he was given the job that would be his until he retired- superintendent of athletic buildings and grounds. Sam was responsible for the sports fields, tennis courts, boathouses and tracks and became one of the most popular people on campus. Sam was soon known as an expert in preparing sports fields. One of his greatest contributions was his signature crisscross pattern mowed onto football fields, which most of us are familiar with today.
In 1917, Sam acquired a home site near La Honda and built himself a little retreat called Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa which means ‘little squirrel’. Sam respected the serenity of the forest and took every opportunity available to him to head there to reflect and pray. For many years, this tall African-American man was the only person of color to own property in the redwoods. He would cruise through La Honda in his Ford Model A and was one of the town’s best-liked personalities. He created a reserve on his property which prevented the cutting of trees or the disturbance of animals.
Sam was very generous and would let others use his cabin, like honeymooning Stanford students and Sierra Club hiking groups. His barbeques became the stuff of legend and he would often host big feeds to support students at their athletic events.
Sam was so devoted to youth that he was a regular at the Stanford Convalescent Hospital- especially during the holidays. He would spend hours visiting with the children. When evergreen trees were scarce during World War II, Sam would walk his property in the redwoods to find the perfect tree to bring back to the kids to decorate for the holidays.
Starting in 1920 and held every May was ‘Sam McDonald Day’ at the Convalescent Hospital. This was a day for Stanford students to volunteer their time and paint, garden and visit with the children. The day would close out with a big barbecue fundraiser with Sam as chef.
Sam was well-known, well-liked and well-respected. Former President and Stanford graduate Herbert Hoover and his wife became friends with Sam- the First Lady sought his advice on gardening. Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur dedicated a new thoroughfare on campus as Sam McDonald Road. When Sam retired from Stanford University after 50 years, he broke the record for length of service.
When Sam died in 1957, it was a few weeks before the Big Game, which Sam had not missed in fifty years. At half-time, the Stanford Band grouped into the letters S – A – M and played the Stanford hymn in his honor. His property in the redwoods had grown to 430 acres and he bequeathed it to the Stanford Convalescent Hospital for the enjoyment of children. The hospital decided to sell the land to San Mateo County to be used as a park. Sam McDonald Park has since grown to 850 acres and has youth group campsites to honor Sam’s legacy of supporting and caring for children.
Excerpts from San Mateo County Parks: A Remarkable Story of Extraordinary Places and the People who Built Them, by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett. Copies available for purchase from San Mateo County Parks Foundation.