The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is a classic Bay Area backpack trip. Any journey that goes from hilltops cloaked with Douglas firs through forests of old growth redwoods, past an 80-foot waterfall to the Pacific Ocean has a lot to recommend it.
But this three-day, 31-mile journey boasts much more. New backpackers in particular will appreciate that virtually the entire trip is downhill. It is at low elevation, so you will not face unpredictable mountain weather or the often debilitating effects of altitude sickness. Finally, you will never be far from help if things go wrong.
No, it is not a wilderness experience, but your eyes will be busy.
The trailhead is at Castle Rock State Park above Saratoga, where Highway 9 intersects Skyline Boulevard. From here, the trail drops into the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River as it begins its journey to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The trail twists and turns within a right-of-way that follows Highway 9 and Highway 236 on the way to Big Basin State Park. While the nearness of the road might seem intrusive, on the weekday I traveled through, the light traffic didn’t mar the sense of solitude. In fact, it was along this stretch of trail that I had a wonderful wildlife encounter. I stopped to admire a particularly large and elegant coast live oak. High above, reclining restfully on a massive branch was a bobcat.
Six-and-a-half miles from the trailhead, I spent the night at one of the six designated campsites at Waterman Trail Camp. Reservations are required, but I was alone on my weeknight visit.
The next morning, seven miles down the trail, I entered Big Basin State Park. The 3-mile walk along Opal Creek to park headquarters is a cheerful lift from the darker forests above. Ferns, thimbleberry and beautiful azaleas decorate the creek’s path beneath old growth redwoods.
I spent Night 2 in one of the numbered camp sites at Jay Trail Camp amid the hubbub of a busy park headquarters. But there is plenty to see and do there. In spring, look for scads of beautiful white blossoms shrouding azalea bushes along the creek, or walk the half-mile Redwood Loop Trail and pay your respects to ancient redwoods 329-feet tall and 17 feet in diameter.
Day 3 begins with the only climb of the trip – a nicely graded 500-foot rise up and over Middle Ridge. From the top of Middle Ridge, it is a beautiful 10-mile ramble through redwood forests, past Berry Creek Falls and finally along Waddell Creek, a beautiful inland waterway, to Waddell Beach.
While I chose to hike from Big Basin headquarters to Waddell Beach in one day, a better option might be to stay another night at Sunset Trail Camp. The scenic highlights of this trip are definitely at Big Basin, and a night at Sunset Camp extends that portion of the trip and takes you down Berry Creek Falls Trail, a lovely succession of cascades and pools.
Camping on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is only permitted in designated trail camps that require fees and reservations. You will need two maps of the route available at REI or through the Mountain Parks Foundation (831) 335-3174. Skyline-to-the-Sea information is available at www.bigbasin.org/backpacking.html. Make reservations at (831) 338-8861.
If you would like to learn to backpack, but don’t know where to start, join me on March 6 for a single evening class that will teach you all you need to know. Enroll online at www.gavilance.com (click “Courses,” then under “Leisure,” click “Outdoors”) or call (408) 852-2801.