It is an evergreen tree with a conic to ovoid-conic crown, very variable in size, with mature trees of under 1 m on some sites, to 50 m 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 long, and produced on rounded (not flattened) shoots. The seed cones are globose to oblong, 12-22 mm 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 colonise the bare ground exposed by the fire. The male cones are 3-5 mm 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 of the coast and below 200 m altitude. Foliage dark green, not rough, with leaf tips not spreading; cones globose.
- Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, coastal, within 10 km of the coast and below 500 m 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.
- Cupressus goveniana var. abramsiana (Cupressus abramsiana) - Santa Cruz Cypress (Endangered)
- Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, in the Santa Cruz Mountains 10-20 km inland and at 300-760 m 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.
- Conifer Specialist Group (1998). Cupressus goveniana. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Listed as Vulnerable (VU C2a v2.3)
- C. Michael Hogan and Michael P. Frankis. 2009. Monterey Cypress: Cupressus macrocarpa, GlobalTwitcher.com ed. N. Stromberg