Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Nice Scene!: The Forest of Nisene Marks is frequented by mountain bikers and hikers who follow a network of trails branching off the course of Aptos Creek.
The Parks Guide
The funding outlook may be bleak, but the news about state parks isn't all bad. The parks in our area—where the California state parks system was born—are gorgeous no matter what's happening in Sacramento, and autumn is the perfect time to get out and explore them. Winter's fine, too, given the right gear. Wet weather gives the redwoods an eerie beauty, waterfalls spout from unexpected places and all the pantywaists stay home, so you've got the place to yourself.
Our guide, written by people who know and love the trails and have even gotten lost on them, can help you decide where to start. Just remember to wear a hat. Keeping warm can be the difference between loving the adventure and wishing it was over.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The name "Skyline to the Sea" kind of says it all—and along that aptly named trail's 13-plus miles, vigorous hikers can find it all. From deep canyons dense with eons-old redwood giants to sun-blasted ridge-crests offering distant Pacific views, and then to a long descent following a genuinely wild creek, past a seriously stunning waterfall and culminating at one of the North Coast's most impressive beaches, this trail can turn a day into an epic.And that's just one trail among hundreds at Big Basin—California's oldest state park, and still one of the best.
Big Trees The fragments of ancient old-growth redwood forest surviving in Big Basin are impossible to miss, and easy to get to—many are located within minutes of park headquarters. Some of the best stand along the Dool Trail and the Meteor Trail, just far enough away from the crowds to allow the famous cathedral effect to work its sacred magic.
Berry Creek Falls is spectacular in winter and spring, when the creek is high and the falls almost thunderous. In summer and fall it's merely gorgeous. From park headquarters near Boulder Creek it's a 10-mile loop, and worth it. Sempervirens Falls, which requires no effort, is comparatively modest, but it's a waterfall and so, of course, lovely.
Although the shadowy redwood groves are the big draw, several of Big Basin's trails lead up to sandy, sunny ridges where the manzanita and madrone are perfectly spaced to allow for high-altitude sunbathing. The Mt. McAbee Overlook is one of many such hot spots.
A Zillion Stars
Big Basin features dozens of the best camping spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sleeping under the redwoods is a rare treat. In addition to the joys of campfire, profound quiet (once the throngs of excited kids have settled down) and Coleman cuisine, a late-night stroll can offer vistas of the night sky that rival the awesome daytime views.
The World's Citizens
The word has gotten out about Big Basin, and nature-tourists flock to the park from all corners of the globe. It can be an unexpected pleasure to run into fellow-travelers who've come from distant lands.
Camping in December
Tent cabins are available year-round at Big Basin. Spartan but warm—each has its own wood-burning stove—they're a novel way to spend a winter weekend.
To get to Big Basin: From Santa Cruz drive north up Highway 9 to Boulder Creek; turn left at 236 and drive 10 miles to park entrance. To reach Rancho del Oso (the coastal section of the park), drive 16 miles north of Western Drive on Highway 1 and park at Waddell Creek. 831.338.8860.
Castle Rock State Park
Castle Rock is nicely located at the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where Highway 9 meets Skyline Boulevard halfway between Boulder Creek and Los Gatos. Thus situated, it allows for unparalleled views (or parallel views?) west to Monterey Bay and east across the Santa Clara Valley toward the Diablo range and San Francisco Bay itself. Besides the pretty sights, it offers rare recreational opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers and rock-climbers.
The Rock for which the park is named is a climber's dream. Long a training ground for serious enthusiasts, it is now beloved by purists for whom bouldering without ropes is a favored pastime. Similar formations, such as Goat Rock, inspire similar affection among the vertical set.
The Old Up and Down
The Skyline Trail parallels Skyline Boulevard along the ridge of the Santa Cruz range, affording bicyclists a classic in-and-out. Its single track rises and falls gently for mile after mile, dropping into the woods and rising again to the vista-rich crest. Along the way, the trail opens into a series of meadows, each more picture-postcard-perfect than the last.
The roads to Castle Rock are pretty enough to serve as an end in themselves, so a trip here can be memorable even if it's nothing more than a Sunday drive. At the end of the road, Sempervirens Point, right on the highway, provides easy access to awe.
Sleeping on Top of the World
At the end of a spectacular hike sits the Castle Rock Trail Camp, where campsites can mean a high point to any day outdoors. Russell Point, which is nearby, affords opportunities for stargazing with the twinkling lights of Monterey off in the distance.
The parking lot at the intersection of Highway 9 and Skyline Boulevard is an everyday party, with motorcyclists, bicyclists of both varieties (mountain and road) and tourists up from the valley in attendance. On most weekends, a vendor sets up shop, offering fresh-from-the-cart hot dogs made tastier by the scenery.
To reach Castle Rock: Drive north from Santa Cruz on Highway 9. Turn south at Skyline Boulevard and go 2.5 miles to entrance. 408.867.2952
Fall Creek State Park
Universally described as the best-kept secret in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Fall Creek is technically part of Henry Cowell Redwoods, although it's located a mile or so farther up Highway 9 and a short jaunt up Felton Empire Road.
Respite From the Mobs
With only a dirt parking lot to mark it, Fall Creek features trails that are often empty—something rare for hikers who prefer solitude.
The Limekiln Ruins offer a glimpse back at California's mining history. The trail in and out features plenty of typically gorgeous stuff, including a host of creekside maples that make the place especially pretty in the fall. (Hey, wait a minute ...)
A lot of the trails in Fall Creek are quite steep. That can make a workout inevitable. From the Limekiln Ruins, a long trail leads to Lost Camp—every step uphill. It's a swift climb from there to Big Ben. Of course the trail out (whew) is all downhill.
To get to Fall Creek: Head up Highway 9 from Santa Cruz to Felton; turn left on Felton Empire. About a mile up, start looking out for the sign on the right. Turn in to the dirt parking lot and park. 831.335.4598
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
On the rich bottomland straddling the San Lorenzo River, Henry Cowell Redwood State Park contains some of the most impressive old-growth redwood trees on the planet, most of which are located on an easily accessible short loop trail. A small yet mind-blowing collection of individual wonders, together they demonstrate the remarkable variety of forms the Sequoia sempervirens can take, given a few thousand years to improvise. By themselves, they are worth a visit, but the small park offers much more. Close enough to Santa Cruz to allow for a spontaneous getaway, Henry Cowell nevertheless contains some hidden gems.
Big Bizarre Trees Swimmin' Holes
Local teenagers and hippies know about the pools of Sycamore Grove, accessible from a turnout on Highway 9, two miles south of Felton, marked by the namesake grove of tall trees with their telltale white bark. Up and down the San Lorenzo throughout Henry Cowell, there are a half-dozen equally swimmable holes, each of which contain the unbeatable summertime combination of hot rocks and cold water. (Be advised: At best, the water quality in the river is questionable, so remember to keep your mouth shut as you dive in.)
Car Camp Heaven
The less-used park entrance on Graham Hill Road leads to a bunch of terrific campsites in the high-and-dry sand hills, a gorgeous landscape of madrone, manzanita and scraggly pines. Several short trails offer easy access to solitude and splendor, and it's a moderate hike down to the redwoods on the river. Generally booked up every summer weekend, it's not impossible to get a site here on weekdays or in the off-season. Closed for winter starting in November.
A Proper Lookout
Along a ridge trail up in the hot sandy part of the park, there's a lookout tower with a concrete deck that provides views out over Monterey Bay and the Pacific, and back to a cool mountain vista. It also has a water fountain for people and horses.
To get to Henry Cowell: Drive north of Santa Cruz up Highway 9. About six miles up, on the outskirts of Felton, is the entrance to Henry Cowell. To reach the campground, take Graham Hill Road out of Santa Cruz toward Felton; once past the summit, look for the sign on the left. 831.335.4598.
Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
One of California's southernmost redwood forests is rebirthing right here along Aptos Creek, as second-growth trees thrive on land that was clearcut some 80 years ago. Proximity to the sea gives Nisene Marks a special flavor—any short, steep hike leads to spectacular views across Monterey Bay. On a typical summer day, morning coastal fog gives way to shade-softened heat; in wintertime, the big trees offer some protection from the rains.
Look Back in Time
Nisene Marks' legacy as a logging camp is evident throughout the park, and not only in the form of huge stumps. The remnants of the Loma Prieta Mill, as well abandoned rip-rap roads and other artifacts, can make for some interesting historical viewing.
Mountain Bike Highway
Unpaved Aptos Creek Road offers a relatively gentle eight-mile uphill ride to the Sand Point Overlook. This knoll 1,400 feet above the bay presents a view out through the forest-carpeted valley and to the water, and south across to the Monterey Peninsula and north to the dark slope of Ben Lomond Mountain. Even better than the visual feast is the eight-mile gentle downhill ride that follows.
Five Finger Falls provides a perfect destination for a nice, long Nisene Marks day hike. From the parking area just off Soquel Drive in Aptos Village, a series of trails to the left of Aptos Creek Road follow the creek—which is a pretty good destination itself. The trailhead to the falls is just over four miles in, and the walk from there heads up from the redwoods through madrone, oaks and bay laurels. The waterfall is especially powerful in winter and spring (natch) but worth the journey anytime.
Scene of Destruction
The epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake lies within the park, accessible via the trail to Five Finger Falls. It's not all that shocking a sight, but still worth seeing, if only for storytelling purposes.
Six miles in on Aptos Creek Road, a smattering of campsites offer some of the wildest sleep-out options in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
To get to Nisene Marks: Take the State Park exit off Highway 1 away from the sea; turn right on Soquel Drive; after a mile, turn left on Aptos Creek Road to park entrance. 831.763.7063.
Although it's not a state park (it's operated by the city of Santa Cruz), Pogonip has the feel of one, with the bonus of being about six minutes from downtown Santa Cruz. Its 640 acres include grassland, redwoods, laurel and oak—and lovely views of town and the bay looking toward Moss Landing. And it's a hikers paradise: bikes and horses aren't allowed.
Late Summer Blackberries
The road leading up from Golf Club Drive is thronged with berry bushes, though you have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat the neighbors to them come late summer.
The dilapidated Pogonip Clubhouse, with its huge graceful palm trees and empty swimming pool, once hosted golfers and polo players. Now it's a spooky, enchanting project for historic preservationists.
The Spring Box Trail, which splits off the Spring Trail, features several gracious redwood groves; in one of these is a small square cement pool where locals set their koi free.
The main meadow is a magnet for black-shouldered kites and redtail hawks that use it to hunt for prey; recently our spies glimpsed a blue parakeet here—though how long it lasted is hard to say.
To get to Pogonip: From Santa Cruz, drive up Highway 9; a half mile past the intersection with Highway 1 is Golf Club Drive; turn left, follow to the gate and park. Alternatively, enter through Harvey West Park or Spring Street on the Westside. 831.420.5270.
UCSC Trail System
UCSC may have a burgeoning science department, fun and quirky professors and a refreshingly laidback attitude, but the main reason many end up applying to this city on a hill is the fact that it's drenched in natural beauty. The real treats are hidden deep in the campus, where a 400-acre network of nature reserves protects an array of unique ecosystems, ranging from seep springs to evergreen forests to sweeping wide-open meadows.
The Seep Zone, which has a trailhead leaving from the back parking lot of College 10, features a number of tree species and a lush layer of undergrowth. Redwoods, firs, oaks and madrones are interspersed with wild azalea and chaparral shrubs formed by water collecting in the light surface soil.
At the top of the North Remote Lot behind Kresge College are entrances to two of the reserves. To the west is the Cave/Wilder Gulch area, where lucky explorers can find medium-size caves occasionally filled with bats and bordered by wetland ferns. The easiest cave to access is found by cutting through the Porter Meadow to the wooded area, then following the trail leading right until what looks like a sewer entrance appears. The trail to the east of North Remote leads to a sliver of redwood-bay forest and parallels the creek bed that winds beneath Kresge's dormitories.
Link to Pogonip
For those on the east end of campus, the Pogonip can be accessed via a trailhead behind the Crown apartments. About half a mile in is a bench with a gorgeous view of the valley landscape below, and all along the trail are chinquapin groves, marsh plant life and dwarf redwoods.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Spectacular Wilder Ranch comprises 7,000 acres of gorgeous, varied terrain and 34 miles of multi-use trails frequented by hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. Cyclists flock to this park for its long and, in some places, steep roads leading from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the sea; everyone else goes for the wildlife and the unparalleled vistas of the mountains and the bay, not to mention a chance to experience oak-studded grasslands, cool redwood-shaded ravines and fragrant laurel groves all in one day.
Chickens, draft horses and the odd goat and cow are to be found in this old dairy's small demonstration farm area, which also features beautiful Victorian houses that are open for weekend tours. Fourth of July and October Harvest festivals are big deals here.
The Wilder Ridge Trail leads up from the horse corral past a pond where red-winged blackbirds trill among the reeds three seasons a year. It winds up (steeply) past spectacular oak trees and a laurel grove to a lookout with a mind-blowing view of the Bay from Loma Prieta to Carmel.
Old Cabin Trail—accessible by taking Engelman's Loop to Wild Boar—leads through a silent, fragrant stand of huge redwood trees.
Coopers' hawks, marsh hawks and redtails rule the skies; downright brazen coyotes run the show on land. Lucky hikers might glimpse one of the bobcats that hangs around the old farm site.
To get to Wilder: Head north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1; approximately one mile north of Western Drive, just beyond an overpass, is the brown State Parks sign for Wilder; turn left into the parking lot or park in the informal lot by the side of Highway 1. Alternatively, head up Empire Grade about five miles past UCSC. Keep an eye out for cars and trucks parked on the left-hand side of the road. The entrance to Gray Whale Ranch (which leads to Wilder via Chinquapin Trail) is about 200 yards farther up Empire Grade. 831.426.0505.
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