From Sky to Sea

Berry Creek Falls, nearly 80 feet tall, can be found about 23

The John Muir Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail. The Appalachian
Trail. These famous mega-mile hiking trails inspire the spirit of
adventure in many of us. But they require weeks or months of time,
a high level of fitness and careful logistical planning, all of
which puts such an adventure beyond most of us with the usual
responsibilities.
 
The John Muir Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail. The Appalachian Trail. These famous mega-mile hiking trails inspire the spirit of adventure in many of us. But they require weeks or months of time, a high level of fitness and careful logistical planning, all of which puts such an adventure beyond most of us with the usual responsibilities. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a through-hiking trail closer to home that was within the reach of us long-weekend warriors? 

The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail provides just such an opportunity. Beginning at Castle Rock State Park above Saratoga, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail travels 31 miles from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains through Big Basin State Park to Waddell Beach on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz. There is a lot to recommend this on mini-adventure:

• Virtually the entire walk is downhill.

• It can be done in three or four days.

• The weather is predictable and mild unlike alpine environments.

• There are no worries about altitude sickness.

• The trail passes through beautiful and varied environments.

Here is a trail for the casual or novice backpacker, that parent-child backpack trip you’ve been meaning to do, or just an interesting backcountry outing close to home.

Day 1 – A Wild Encounter

I had been aware of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail for years, but had never walked it. I decided to walk the trail this year in late spring, hoping for summer-like weather and spring-like flower displays. On a Thursday, my wife dropped me off at the intersection of Skyline Boulevard and Highway 9 on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga.

As she drove off, I shouldered my pack, turned toward the trail and entered a tunnel of Coast Live Oak, Tanoak, Douglas fir and Bay trees.

The first part of the trail closely follows the road connecting Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin State Park.  Except for the sound of an occasional passing car, the nearness of the road is never intrusive since it is nearly always out of sight. 

In fact, on that first day, I saw no other people and enjoyed a fine sense of solitude. The trail descends gradually, twisting with the folds and creases of the hills. The forest is thick and there are only occasional (but impressive) views down into the watersheds of the San Lorenzo and Pescadero Rivers.

I always expect unusual wild experiences to take place in more exotic places, never giving any credit to my own backyard. I have seen bobcats in the past, but it always happens in an instant – as quickly as you see one, it is gone. This time, I was walking along the trail when a large Coast Live Oak came into view. I looked toward the top of a hefty limb and saw a bobcat lying down, either resting or waiting for passing prey. As if surprised and embarrassed, we stared at each other for some time before the bobcat looked down the branch measuring his opportunity for escape.

Finally, he carefully walked down the limb, glancing my way after every few steps to check my location until he reached the trail. Once there, he disappeared quickly with an impressive display of speed.

How many times do we walk past opportunities like this without ever noticing, looking instead at our shoe-tops or talking with a companion? I was lucky I happened to look. Encounters like this are much more likely when you walk alone.

Crimson Columbine, Red Larkspur, Wild Roses, Chinese Houses and many other wildflowers decorated the way to Waterman Trail Camp, my first day’s destination.  The six and a half miles was a perfect warm-up for what lay ahead. I had a reservation for one of the six designated campsites at Waterman Gap, but I was the only person there that evening.

Day 2 – Into the Redwoods

The next morning I was reminded of an old camping rule: Don’t sleep under trees in foggy weather. Knowing it wouldn’t rain, I had not brought a tent. I awoke in a shroud of fog that the trees had collected and dropped in a virtual rain. Fortunately, I had put a garbage bag over my pack, but my ground cloth and sleeping bag were good and wet.

Breakfast. Dry out wet equipment. Fill the water bottle. Start walking toward today’s destination; Big Basin State Park headquarters 10 miles away. The beginning of this day’s walk looked like the first, following the route of the road through a thick forest. On this morning though, the cold wind blowing through the fog-drenched trees hit me like a driving winter rain.

As I approached Big Basin, Coast Redwoods became the predominant tree in the forest. All along the trail were massive moss-covered stumps of the old-growth redwoods that were logged in the early 1900s. These stumps were ringed with shoots that sprouted from buds at the base of the trees after they were cut. Those shoots are now impressive second-growth trees in their own right.

Five miles into the day’s journey I reached Boulder Creek, the first stream I saw.  Moments later, after crossing China Grade Road, I stepped onto a south facing slope and emerged for the first time into bright sunshine and open scenery. Knobcone pines, ceanothus, manzanita, sticky monkeyflower and other plants typical of a chaparral environment briefly replaced the dense, wet redwood forest.

A mile later I dropped back into the redwood forest and down to Opal Creek that carves the path to Big Basin State Park headquarters three more miles downstream. The portion of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail in Big Basin State Park is enchanting and the highlight of the trip, and it began here along Opal Creek. The aspect of the forest brightened with the colorful redwood bark, the cheerful stream and the slightly more open canopy. Gardens of ferns, thimbleberry and amazing 15-foot-high wild azalea bushes covered with beautiful white and yellow blossoms decorated the creek along the way.

Hand-in-hand with the beauty of the headquarters area at Big Basin State Park came lots of visitors and car campers. But there is no pretense of a wilderness experience on this trip. And who can argue with a hot dog, ice cream and a soda after a long hike? Backpacking purism be damned!

Jay Trail Camp has eight numbered campsites near headquarters that are set apart from the day-use areas and car-camping sites. Water, flush toilets and even showers (25 cents for two minutes) are available there.

An afternoon relaxing and strolling around headquarters was a pleasant break from the fully laden hiking of the morning. I was particularly impressed with the many blossom-choked wild azalea bushes and the Mother of the Forest, at 329 feet tall, the largest redwood tree in the park.

Day 3 – The Falls and the Beach

My final day dawned clear and dry making for a more pleasant start than the day before. The walk to Waddell Beach is more than 10 miles and began with the only sustained climb of the entire trail. The 500 foot, one mile climb up Middle Ridge is nicely graded for a pleasant walk through more big old-growth redwoods. On the far side of the ridge, the trail meets Kelly Creek and the beginning of the Waddell Creek drainage I followed to the coast. Wildflowers don’t occur in wild displays here, but are regular companions along the trail. Redwood Sorrel, Clintonia, Bleeding Hearts and many more brighten this part of the trail. 

Berry Creek Falls revealed itself in a striking way. I turned a corner and it was suddenly there in full view up the canyon and through the trees. Not just a plunging column of water, Berry Creek Falls is divided into lacy rivulets giving it a delicate quality. I lingered for a snack and some pictures and left reluctantly.

I was surprised when a mile below Berry Creek Falls the trail turned into a broad fire road busy with day hikers and cyclists coming up from Waddell Beach. It was Saturday now, and I wasn’t alone any more. But sharing the trail with weekend visitors didn’t detract from the final seven miles of this trip. With each step the valley widened and Waddell Creek grew.

This creek is a classic coastal inland waterway inhabited by a vast variety of mammals, fishes and birds, including the rare marbled murrelet. A brief walk through this drainage wasn’t enough. I must come here again.

The canyon widened into a broad valley. The scent of the ocean was in the quickening wind. The sound of the waves mixed with the noise of passing cars.  I soon arrived at Waddell Beach and was glad to drop my pack for the final time. 

This was a memorable trip with all of the attractions one would expect at a much more exotic place. It is another example of the realization we have all had in the past: Some of the best spots to visit are in your own backyard.

Interested? Some Hints

This is a great hike for anyone with even a modest appetite for adventure. Two maps published by the Sempervirens Fund cover the entire Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail as well as all of the trails in Castle Rock State Park, Big Basin State Park and several neighboring state parks. I bought the maps at REI for $6.95 each. Most of the information you need to know about the trail and state park regulations and facilities are on the back of these maps. Reservations are required and a fee is charged for the trail camps. Reservations can be made and questions answered at (831) 338-8861.

For anyone who is unsure of their ability to do this trail, I would encourage you to do it, but I would suggest adding another day. Days two and three at 10-plus miles per day take their toll. There are other trail camps in Big Basin that make it possible to add a day to the trip. In addition, once you enter Big Basin, there are many alternative routes you can choose that will ultimately take you to Waddell Beach.

If this trip still seems too ambitious, I suggest a Big Basin-to-the-Sea trip. A two-day, one-night trip from Big Basin headquarters to Waddell Beach by any number of routes would be beautiful.

There are a lot of ways to slice it, but any way you choose is a winner. 

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