It is an evergreen tree with a conic to ovoid-conic crown, very variable in size, with mature trees of under 1 m (3 ft 3 in) on some sites, to 50 m (160 ft) tall in ideal conditions. The foliage grows in dense sprays, dark green to somewhat yellow-green in color. The leaves are scale-like, 2–5 mm (0.08–0.20 in) long, and produced on rounded (not flattened) shoots. The seed cones are globose to oblong, 11–22 mm (0.43–0.87 in) long, with 6 to 10 scales, green at first, maturing brown or gray-brown about 20–24 months after pollination. The cones remain closed for many years, only opening after the parent tree is killed in a wildfire, thereby allowing the seeds to colonize the bare ground exposed by the fire. The male cones are 3–5 mm (0.12–0.20 in) long, and release pollen in February/March; typically, cones of C. goveniana are smaller than those of C. macrocarpa.
There are two or three varieties, treated as distinct species by some botanists:
- Cupressus goveniana var. goveniana – Gowen cypress (vulnerable)
- Monterey County, strictly coastal, within 3 km (1.9 mi) of the coast and below 200 m (660 ft) altitude. Foliage dark green, not rough, with leaf tips not spreading; cones globose.
- Mendocino and Sonoma counties, coastal, within 10 km (6.2 mi) of the coast and below 500 m (1,600 ft) altitude. Doubtfully distinguishable from var. goveniana, with very similar foliage and cones. More modern taxonomic thinking classifies Mendocino Cypress as a separate species Cupressus pigmaea, and not a variety of C. goveniana.
- Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, in the Santa Cruz Mountains 10–20 km (6.2–12 mi) inland and at 300–760 m (980–2,490 ft) altitude. More distinct, and could well be a valid species, with yellow–green foliage slightly rough-textured from the acute and slightly spreading leaf tips; cones often oval. It also shows similarities to Cupressus sargentii.