Hiking in Santa Cruz, California

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  • Wilder Ranch, Henry Cowell Park, Pogonip Park
  • Natural Bridges - just north of downtown - whales, seals, otters, tidepools, butterflies (includes the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve with 100,000 Monarchs migrating each winter between mid-October and the end of February)
  • Nisene Marks - 6kms north of Aptos (Take the State Park Dr exit of Hwy 1, go east on State Park Dr to Soquel Dr, turn right into Soquel Dr, turn left into Aptos Creek Rd before the train station). - remote campsites ($5 in 2006 but require reservations)
  • New Brighton Beach - Capitola (Take the New Brighton/Park Avenue exit of Hwy 1) - campsites on a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay ($25 in 2006)
  • Butano - near Pescadero beach - campsites ($21 in 2006, the remote campsites are $10 but require reservations)
  • Ano Nuevo - north of Santa Cruz off Hwy 1 - elephant seals (require reservations the best time of the year)
  • Henry Cowell - Felton - old and tall redwood trees
  • Fall Creek - Felton - northern part of Henry Cowell Park
  • Big Basin
The Bay Area is not camper-friendly. Campgrounds are extremely expensive, are hard to book and are run like concentration camps.

Wilder Ranch to Henry Cowell to Pogonip Park

This requires two cars. Drive to Harvey West Park which is at the end of Harvey West Blvd. This is one of the trailheads for the Pogonip Park. Leave one car here (plenty of parking as of 2013).

(Click to enlarge)
Then drive highway 1 north to Wilder Ranch. Park outside. When you see the sign to turn left, you will also see a long parking area off highway 1. You can park here and walk to the Wilder Ranch entrance. The advantage is that you are not constrained by closing time (very early in winter, which is also the best time to do this hike). I recommend that you buy a trail map ($5 in 2013) because it has all the (many) trails of Wilder Ranch and the (many) trails of Henry Cowell and Pogonip Park, so all the trails that you will need for this hike. Hike from the entrance station to the Old Cove trail. This trail turns right (Ohlone Bluff trail) and follows the coast line for a few kms of dramatic views. The best time is winter because spring to fall you may get fog. Winter is the season more likely to have sunny blue skies.

This is about 6 kms but it will take you longer than usual because you will probably stop to take lots of pictures and check out many panoramic viewpoints. After the "Four Mile Beach", the trail moves inland towards an unnamed lake. Make sure to coast the lake to the left (not obvious, but there is a trail). A tunnel takes you under highway 1 and connects to the Baldwin trail. This is a loop so you can go either right or left: both get you to the same point, which the junction with the Enchanted loop. Again this splits in two, but both trails take you to the same point, which is the Eucalyptus loop. If you take the left branches of each of these loops, you simplify your life. At the top of the Eucalyptus loop, turn left into the Chinquapin trail.
That trail crosses Empire Grade (a paved road) and enters the campus of UC Santa Cruz. About 200 meters later look for an unmarked tiny trail on your left. Descend and it should take you to Upper Scenic Dr. This is all private property with many signs posted that say "no trespassing", so ask the first person you meet for permission to hike down this area. Turn right into Toll House Gulch Rd and then Glengarry Rd. This dead ends on highway 9, a rather busy road.

Walk north on it for about 300 meters and you'll get to the Toll House Resort (private property). Take the unmarked paved road to the right that goes to the Cotillion Gardens RV Park. The road is open to the public, the RV Park is private property but they are used to people entering the Henry Cowell Park here. Ask permission, and they will show you the way: you have to locate the swimming pool and walk by it. There's a gate to enter the park. Now you are in Henry Cowell Park. All the trails in this area are unmarked and not even on the map. If you keep walking straight, you will hit the railroad. Walk north on the railroad and you'll reach park headquarters passing over the San Lorenzo River. Walk south on the railroad and you'll be coasting the river south. If you do the former, the railroad bridge will take you to Pipeline Rd, turn right and you can take the Rincon Fire Rd going south that eventually will cross the river. If you the latter, you will never need to cross the river. The latter is faster, the former is more spectacular because it descends into the very steep canyon. The two ways join near a parking lot off hightway 9 where you want to leave the railroad and take the trail. The trail is not well marked. All you can see is a tiny sign on the side of highway 9 pointing to Rincon Trail. This trail crosses the highway and continues to the west.

Shortly after the sign that announces Pogonip Park, ignore the U-Con trail, ignore the Lime Kiln trail, and (immediately after this one) take a left into the Spring trail (if you miss it, you'll have another chance later). This Spring trail goes straight south.

First it intersects the Brayshaw trail and then the Lookout trail. Turn left into the Lookout trail. You will start seeing urban areas. When you get to an unmarked junction, turn right to go south. This dead ends to Harvey West Park, which is where your first car is.
Drive back to Wilder Range.

  • Park to Coast: 1km
  • Ohlone Bluff trail: 6kms
  • Hwy 1 to Enchanted: 2kms
  • Enchanted to Eucalyptus: 1km
  • Eucalyptus to Chinquapin trail: 1.5km
  • To Chinquapin gate: 2kms
  • Gate to Cotillion: 2kms
  • Cotillion to Pogonip: 3.5km
  • Pogonip border to Lookout trail: 4kms
  • Lookout trail to Harvey West trailhead: 1km
Total: 24 kms

Extensions:

  1. You can park the second car just before Natural Bridges Park, check out this park and then walk along the railroad for 2 kms (30 minutes) to Wilder Ranch's Old Cove trail.
  2. From the northern end of Wilder Ranch find a way to get into Fall Creek Unit, technically part of Henry Cowell Park but de facto its own park. The only way is probably to walk 4 or 5 kms on Empire Grade to the Sunlit trailhead. From there go to Big Ben Tree and take the Lost Empire trail south. After a few 180-degrees changes of direction, this trail connects with the Fall Creek trailhead which takes you to a trailhead off Felton Empire Rd. Go left, cross highway 9, pass the Felton Covered Bridge Park and take the Zayante trail going south. This enters Henry Cowell Park and turns into Pipeline Rd which leads to Cable Car Beach.