Santa Cruz boasts some of the best hiking trails in the Bay Area. From the coastal cliffs and Pacific views off Highway 1 in the north, to hills and waterfalls in the south, the area offers every kind of terrain. And with sprawling redwood forests just minutes away in nearly every direction, Santa Cruz presents hikers with some of the most breathtaking views anywhere.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Skyline to the Sea Trail
The name "Skyline to the Sea" kind of says it all—and along that aptly named trail's 13-plus miles, vigorous hikers really can find it all. From deep canyons dense with eons-old redwood giants to sun-blasted ridgecrests offering distant Pacific views, and then to the seriously stunning Berry Creek Falls and culminating at one of the North Coast's most impressive beaches, this trail can turn a day into an epic adventure. Hikers frequently leave a car at the outlet at Waddell Creek and hike the trail in a day. To get to Big Basin: From Santa Cruz drive north up Highway 9 to Boulder Creek; turn left at 236 and drive 10 miles to park entrance. To reach Rancho del Oso (the coastal section of the park), drive 16 miles north of Western Drive on Highway 1 and park at Waddell Creek.
Castle Rock State Park
The Skyline Trail parallels Skyline Boulevard along the ridge of the Santa Cruz range, affording cyclists and hikers a classic in-and-out. Its single track rises and falls gently for mile after mile, dropping into the woods and rising again to the vista-rich crest. Along the way, the trail opens into a series of meadows, each more picture-postcard-perfect than the last. To reach Castle Rock: Drive north from Santa Cruz on Highway 9. Turn south at Skyline Boulevard and go 2.5 miles to entrance.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Trail to the Observation Deck
From the parking lot, take the Meadow Trail to the Loop Trail to Pipeline Road. Follow the road along the river through generous redwood hollows and up through redwood hillsides that give way to oak and madrone. Turn left at the Ridge Fire Road and follow it through soft white sand and manzanita to the Observation Deck, which affords spectacular views of the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains (and, on a good day, of the sea). Vary the trip on the way back by taking the Pine Trail to Eagle Creek Trail; this scenic path will reconnect with Pipeline Road and send you back toward the parking lot. To get to Henry Cowell: Head up Highway 9 from Santa Cruz to Felton; once in town, keep an eye out for the brown state parks sign on the right hand side of the road.
Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Five Finger Falls
Five Finger Falls provides a perfect destination for a nice long Nisene Marks day hike. From the parking area just off Soquel Drive in Aptos Village, a series of trails to the left of Aptos Creek Road follow the creek—which is a pretty good destination itself. The trailhead to the falls is just over four miles in, and the walk from there heads up from the redwoods through madrone, oaks and bay laurels. The waterfall is especially powerful in winter and spring (natch) but worth the journey anytime. To get to Nisene Marks: Take the State Park exit off Highway 1 away from the sea; turn right on Soquel Drive; after a mile, turn left on Aptos Creek Road to park entrance.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ridge Trail
The Wilder Ridge Trail leads up from the horse corral, heads toward the sea for a brief bit then curves back inland past a pond where red-winged blackbirds trill among the reeds three seasons a year. After meandering through gorgeous open scrub oak territory, the old fire road winds up (steeply) past spectacular oak trees and a laurel grove to a lookout with a mind-blowing view of the Bay, from Loma Prieta to Carmel. To get to Wilder: Head north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1; approximately one mile north of Western is the brown State Parks sign for Wilder; turn left into the parking lot or park in the informal lot by the side of Highway 1.
Pogonip City Park
From the gate at Golf Club Road, follow the paved blackberry-lined road as it curves around to the old clubhouse, then cross the wide polo field on the Prairie Trail. This trail will drop down into several redwood hollows; follow it (crossing two streams, so beware in winter) to Lookout Trail. Take a right and follow the trail as it leads up the hillside and affords a view of Harvey West Park, the city of Santa Cruz and the sea. Take a right at the first trail you meet; it will continue up the hill and meet with Spring Trail, which parallels the crest of the ridge. Follow this pleasant, shaded road to Brayshaw, which is very steep but will take you past an abandoned swimming pool and back down to the old clubhouse. Follow the road back out to finish this enchanting loop. To get to Pogonip: Head out of Santa Cruz on Highway 9; about a half mile past the intersection with Highway 1, turn left on Golf Club Road. Follow it until it ends, then park, lock the car and start hiking.