NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

Santa Cruz Mountains Itinerary

Henry Cowell Redwoods State ParkAs usual the trip starts in San Francisco. If you are coming from elsewhere just get to the city of Saratoga in the south bay, either from Int. 280 or Hwy. 101. If using Int. 280 take the Saratoga Road exit to Saratoga and the junction with Hwy. 9. Take that southwest toward Boulder Creek. But just outside Saratoga watch for the Hwy. 236 junction and take that road south toward Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Photo above: Trail at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Tent Cabin- Big Basin Redwoods State ParkOnce past Saratoga the fun begins. First up is Castle Rock State Park, but its not for everyone.  No roads enter or traverse the park so its for day-hikers or backpackers only. One choice is to hike all or some of a 38 mile Skyline-to-the-Sea trail thru the park into the adjacent Big Basin Redwoods State Park and down to the Pacific Ocean. There are eight back-country campgrounds along the way. Permits are required and limited to ensure a pleasant back-country experience. Or just hike some of the trails locally. Then its on to the aforementioned Big Basin Redwoods State Park, a more traditional choice. It is California's first state park, established in 1902. Here its camping or hiking amongst the coast redwoods within its 18,000 acre boundaries and 80 miles of trail. There are very few internal roads in the park, with Hwy. 236 being the lone exception. So this is a hikers park as well. But stationary campers can enjoy a nice campground nestled in the redwoods, or you can rent a tent-cabin in a special section if you've got a family or your tent sprang a leak. The cabins have woodstoves, a table and a couple of raised bed frames with pads. There are many day hikes in the park, including a few to waterfalls. One can be driven to, tiny but pretty Sempervirens Falls. The park boasts a Visitor Center and small museum/ nature center. If you brought the dog, there's one fairly long trail that you can hike with the entire family, North Escape Road. Since the park is close to a fairly significant population center, including Santa Cruz, San Jose and the Silicon Valley, reservations are recommended on weekends at any time and all days in high season.

Mural- Boulder CreekLeaving Big Basin you'll soon find yourself in the village of Boulder Creek. This is the kind of place we might call funky; which is not a bad thing. Its got a small downtown with some old storefronts, antique stores and a nice mural. A  mellow spot to fill up on what you've consumed to now. Then its Ben Lomond, an even smaller place. Nearby is Loch Lomond Reservoir, offering a spot to picnic and fish from a rowboat; no gas motors allowed. The access road should prevent anything longer than a pick-up truck from making the attempt and there's really no reason to unless you live here. There's a modest picnic area and small boats can be rented if you want to paddle around for awhile. But now things get exciting again. The town of Felton is a bustling place, with some small town features but Safeway's and Rite Aids too. So if you need serious provisions this is your place. And for the camper a nice option awaits, and its one of our favorites: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Its practically in the village of Felton but once inside you'd never know it. The campground and day-use areas are separate, with separate entrances. For a redwood park the campground is unique; there are many sites in the open, where you can see and feel the sun. That makes it special if its cold or damp. The redwood trails are nice too, and if you have kids there's a special reason to linger: the Roaring Camp Railroad. They can board a narrow gauge railroad train housed in a re-created logging village and ride thru a redwood forest in style. All aboard. The park is more dog-friendly than most, with a few trails available. Alcohol is prohibited in the park, a legacy from past students at UC Santa Cruz.

Once you are done here its on to Santa Cruz. Our Highway 1 South Road Trip covers many of the sights here. Possibilities include another state park, Forest of Nisene Marks, on the outskirts of Aptos. Check our link but for us its not a compelling story. And the access road gets narrow after about 1/2 mile so don't visit with a trailer or large RV. South of Santa Cruz camping options include Sunset State Beach, with nice campgrounds perched on ground above and separated from the beach, and Manresa State Beach if your abode is a tent. Seacliff State Beach has a parking lot campground right on a very nice beach, and nearby New Brighton State Beach has traditional sites on a bluff overlooking its beach. Although Seacliff and New Brighton State Beaches adjoin each other, the former is much the nicer choice as a beach but not the better place to camp; you can camp at one and hang out at the other. In downtown Santa Cruz is Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, with some history but none of the charm of, say, the Carmel Mission.

Swanton Berry FarmTime to head home now, and complete the loop; head north on Hwy. 1. Wilder Ranch State Park awaits on the left, with walks among some historic ranch buildings; there is no camping and dogs are not allowed past the entrance station. Further along watch for Swanton Road and get ready to exit to the right into the Swanton Berry Farm. This is a diversion. If strawberries are in season pick some, or let them pick them for you. There are a number of berry-centric goodies to choose from, all edible. But do not fail to buy some scones for tomorrow's breakfast (they are the best around) and some jam; the Strawberry-Rhubarb highly recommended. Payment is by cash on the honor system, a nice touch.

Onward, prepare to hike at Ano Nuevo State Park, home to lounging pinnipeds and a nice Visitor Center. The Northern Elephant Seal is the star attraction but Stellar sea lions enjoy a layover here too. At certain times trail permits are limited so you'll need to take your chances as this is a breeding and molting area. See our write-up on the park. Nearby Pigeon Point Lighthouse is pretty and hosts a hostel. Between here and Half Moon Bay there are numerous state beaches to wander. The village of Princeton has a picturesque harbor and some intimate lodging on a nice stretch of coast, and just to the north Pt. Montara Lighthouse has another hostel. Between here and San Francisco there's a stretch of land recently acquired by the government (Milagra Ridge and Mori Point) and made a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area but its been left undeveloped for your hiking pleasure. Now its time to rest up for your next adventure. Happy trails.

Boulder CreekRoaring Camp RailroadBoulder Creek

Left & Right: Boulder Creek. Center: Roaring Camp Railroad, Felton.

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