Memorial Park is a secluded open space in the Santa Cruz Mountains featuring 673 acres and over eight miles of trails nestled in an old-growth redwood forest. Opened in 1924, San Mateo County’s first park has been a family hiking and camping destination for nearly a century.
There are a multitude of picnicking and camping spots, as well as trails along the redwoods, where you can relax and enjoy the serenity of the park. In addition to reservable sites, the park boasts a number of other activities, including a swimming hole in Pescadero Creek, campfire programs, naturalist walks and movies in the park on weekends during the summer. There are also exhibits in the visitor center, which is open daily May through September.
Memorial Park also connects with other parks in the region, including Pescadero Creek and San McDonald, to create a larger park complex with over 8,000 acres of open space to explore. Despite its location deep in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, Memorial Park is less than an hour away from most cities in San Mateo County.
Memorial Park’s trails house a variety of plant and animal life. Many tree and plant species can be seen in the park, including huckleberry, poison oak, ferns, redwood sorrel and horsetail. Animals, including banana slugs, racoons, Steller’s jays, squirrels, woodpeckers and skunks are abundant in the park. Pescadero Creek is a winter home for steelhead trout as they migrate upstream to spawn before moving back to the ocean in the spring.
The Santa Cruz Mountains and Memorial Park are also home to the marbled murrelet, a small species of seabird identified as threatened in California under the Endangered Species Act. These birds spend half of their year near the ocean, but go inland to nest in the limbs of old-growth redwoods from April to September.
Memorial Park owes its existence to a school teacher named Natalie Hanson and County Superintendent of Schools, Roy W. Cloud. In 1923, Cloud visited the one-room Wurr School in Harrison Canyon, located between La Honda and Pescadero. While there, Cloud admired the grand old-growth redwoods and the sylvan forest they inhabited. Hanson alerted Cloud that a lumber canyon had purchased a parcel of this redwood forest and it was slated for destruction. Cloud had been concerned about loss of scenic lands throughout the state and he took the issue to the County Board of Supervisors, encouraging them to purchase the 314-acre parcel and transform it into a park. The area – informally called Camp Eden – was a popular vacation camping spot for the handful of residents who knew of it and it had already been threatened by encroaching sawmills. There were four small mills on what are the present day boundary areas of the park. An appointed committee of notable and influential county residents quickly studied the issue and within weeks recommended it be purchased by the County. The 200-acres of virgin redwoods and 100-acres of madrones and oaks were acquired through negotiations, and in 1924, the park was established.
At the same time, residents were seeking a way to honor and remember the fallen soldiers in World War I. A local commander suggested that the largest trees in the new park be named for county residents who died in the war. Supervisor Thomas L. Hickey proposed that the new park be officially named Memorial Park.
County workers and volunteers from the American Legion speedily readied the park for campsites with basic roads, water and sanitary infrastructure, and by Independence Day, 1924, the park held grand dedication ceremonies and hosted campers at every site. Fifty-two trees in the area called Legion Flat were named for the fifty-two county residents who had died in service of the United States, and reportedly the Boy Scouts placed bronze memorial plaques at each tree. Within a couple of years, the Boy Scouts became the first organized group to make active use of Memorial Park, establishing Camp Pescadero on 11 acres.
Widespread use of the park was slow to develop. However, during the Depression, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) work camp was established at Memorial Park to develop the park and undertake other projects in the county. This federal funding and workforce is what truly developed the infrastructure of Memorial Park. Crews reverted to older hand lumbering and construction techniques aimed at carefully developing the park in a manner sensitive to the forest. By the time the park was turned back to county control in 1937, there were park and maintenance buildings, water and sewer lines, and designated picnic sites and campgrounds.
Rumored to have also been part of the workforce developing Memorial Park during this time were approximately 150 young runaway women, who had left home due to lack of food and the general hard times of the Depression. Substantiating evidence doesn’t exist but it is believed that a “secret” camp was constructed in the park to house these women who provided cooking and laundering support to the workers.
In 2024, the Parks Department will celebrate the centennial of this beloved park. Read more about the extensive upgrades happening to ready Memorial Park for the next century of campers and park users.
Historical reference from “San Mateo County Parks: A Remarkable Story of Extraordinary Places and the People Who Built Them” by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett