Santa Cruz MountainsSan Francisco Bay Area Skyline Blvd

Each year thousands of campers pitch a tent in the Santa Cruz Mountain located just south of San Francisco to enjoy the wilderness. However, only so much can be enjoyed from a campsite. The more hardy adventures choose rough it with nothing but the packs on their backs and conquer the multiple day Skyline to Sea Trail.

This trail runs through two of the Bay Area's top hiking destinations--Castle Rock and Big Basin Redwoods state parks--which creates one of the region's top hiking experiences in its three-day, 30-plus-mile trek through the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. From scenic ocean vistas to towering redwood trees there is something for beach bums, woodsmen and indeed everyone to enjoy.

Quick Stats:

Trail Length: 29 miles City/State: Los Gatos, California Bikes Allowed: No
Elevation: 0 Feet (lowest)
2,600 Feet (highest)
County: Santa Cruz Dogs Allowed: No

 

Getting There: The Skyline to Sea Trail officially starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 35 (Saratoga Gap), however there is no parking for hikers here and this first bit of the trail traces along the highway, it's pretty boring stuff. For those that need a place to park and want to start their hike in wilderness instead of trying not to get hit by speeding cars, it best to head to the Castle Rock State Park headquarters just a few miles south just off Highway 35.

The Hike: From the Castle Rock parking lot, hikers can begin heading towards the actual trail by following the Saratoga Gap Trail for about a half-mile. Visitors will traverse serene wilderness and cross a small spring creek before they have to turn left to continue onwards. The creek is a good place to stop for water, but hikers should remember that all water from streams in the park must be purified. Giardia is a hiker's least welcomed friend. The trail then begins to get a bit rocky as it traces a very scenic ridge where they are treated to impressive views of the park area. The footing can be a bit tricky here, so hikers should choose their steps carefully. However, before long, they will hit the trail camp where hikers can rest or press on. Soon after the trail camp, hikers will turn at the Travertine Springs trailhead and continue on. Right now, the trail is running parallel to the Skyline to Sea trail, so hikers concerned about missing some of the wilderness shouldn't worry, it's the same wilderness, but from a different angle. However, this doesn't mean that hikers should cut across either, eventually the two trails intersect each other and visitors are finally on the Skyline to Sea trail for real.

West Waddell CreekGnissah

The next few miles after finally on the trail is fairly straight forward, no more turning or searching for trail markers. However, that doesn't mean it is easy. Many who hike the Skyline to Sea trail fool themselves into thinking that the hike will be mostly downhill, like the name sort of suggests. However, this is a mountainous area, so it is filled with ups and downs like all mountain trails. This portion of the hike displays that pretty early. The trail can get a bit steep with exposed roots so hikers should take as much time as they need.

After a few more miles of hiking, visitors come across the Waterman Trail Camp. Even if hikers are still feeling fresh, it is best to set up camp for the night here. There is a 10-mile stretch between this camp and the next and hikers definitely don't want to try it in the dark.

As the second day of hiking begins, it's time for visitors to conquer the big 10-mile stretch that leads into Big Basin State Park, so slower hikers should get an early start. As visitors continue through the rolling forest, they will begin to see the trees getting taller and older, with a few redwoods smattered in between the other species. Unfortunately, the wilderness is a bit ruined when the trail has visitors walking along a highway for a few miles. Thankfully, it eventually crosses over the highway and dives right into the ancient redwood forests of Big Basin State Park. Hikers should soak in the history of being in California's very first state park and being surrounded by trees that are older than most people. As hikers near the Big Basin park headquarters, the trees get progressively older and taller. Since hikers are near the stopping point for the day, be sure to make a side trip to the Maddock Cabin. It was here where early homesteaders carved a living from these ancient woods. Sadly, the cabin has long degraded, but the foundation remains as well as a sign recounting the Maddock family's wood-dwelling lifestyle.

Skyline to sea trailGnissah

Jay Camp is where hikers will be setting up for their second night on the trail; it is located just past the Big Basin park headquarters. The park HQ is a good place to rest up before making camp. On the weekends a market is open that sells snacks and soft drinks, but hikers can use their coin-operated showers anytime to wash up.

Ah, day 3, the big push all the way to the sea. From Jay Camp, it is still another 13 miles to the ocean but there are also a number of optional side trips along this leg of the hike that visitors can enjoy if they have the time or the energy. Just past Jay Camp is the first and the most recommended side trip down the Redwood Trail. Sure, there are redwoods everywhere around hikers, but this short one-mile trail takes hikers to the Mother and Father of the Forest, the two largest and oldest redwoods in Big Basin.

Once back on the Skyline to Sea trail, the majority of the hike is under the protective canopy of ancient redwoods. This is truly where the Skyline to Sea trail really begins to shine. This stretch of trail is arguably among the nicest stretches of trail in California. A major plus for weary hikers is that is it mostly downhill with very few uphill bits. When hikers begin to hear roaring water, they are getting close to Berry Creek Falls. There are several points on the trail where they can spot the falls in between the trees in the distance. There is a three-mile side trail that takes hikers to up close and personal views of both Berry Creek Falls and Silver Falls on the Golden Cascade.

For those that choose to skip the side trip to those beautiful falls, the redwoods begin to get smaller and eventually fade away to coastal scrub. Eventually, the faint roar of the ocean will grow stronger and stronger until the trail clears out at Waddell Beach, the final destination of the trail. Here visitors can climb the surrounding hills and look out over the ocean or just head out for a bit of beach fun. Alternatively, Waddell Beach along Highway 1 can be the other starting point of the trail. However, it is much more difficult, since while most of the previous trail was downhill, this reverse version is primarily uphill.

Tips: There are a few tips necessary for this trail as the parks have some particular rules for those hiking and camping in the Castle Rock / Big Basin area.

As mentioned previously, all water taken from the park needs to be purified, even if it is fast running; it is not safe to drink straight. Some campsites and park headquarters have potable water though.

There is no fire allowed in the park. No campfires are allowed in campsites, but camp stoves are alright. There is also no smoking allowed at any point within the park. Redwood trees are extremely susceptible to fire, so these precautions are necessary.

During the summer months the nights won't be too chilly without a campfire, so a tent may not be needed unless rain is expected. The trip down the trail can get very tiring with a heavy pack, so thoughtful packing is a must.

Planning your hike in between camp areas is essential. The park does not allow wilderness camping, so if hikers don't think they can make it to the next camp area, it best to just stay put. Campers should also call ahead to make camping reservations so that they can knock the fees out for camping in Castle Rock and Big Basin beforehand. Callers should state that they are going to hike the Skyline to Sea trail and park officials should be pretty accommodating for setting up registration for both parks.

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