Doug's Backpacking and Hiking Pages
Wow, look at the grass stains on my skin. I say, if your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. -- Calvin

 

Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, 2000 June 9-11

I've lived in the San Lorenzo Valley ("SLV", in Santa Cruz County) for nearly twenty years, and have intended that "someday" I would hike or backpack the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. My trail companion on this trip is another guy from Apple's compiler group, who had been working for Apple in Cork, Ireland, for several years, before moving out to the bay area this past January. Turly has plenty of experience hillwalking (yes, it's a single word there) in Ireland, and was interested to see some of the trails in this area. I think I'm about 12 years older and, hmmm, distinctly heavier than he. We're planning a slightly longer trip for later in the summer, so this is sort of a warmup trip, checking out and fine-tuning the gear and hiking styles. I've been working (some) on lightening my backpack load over the past few trips; I still have quite a ways to go, though.

Summary
Started in Saratoga (Sanborn-Skyline Park), up to Castle Rock State Park, and then over to the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail proper, along near highways 9 and 236, over the ridge that is China Grade, and then on down into Big Basin Headquarters (BBHQ), and out to the ocean at Rancho del Oso / Waddell Beach.

Details
Wednesday June 7
We got a nice little late-spring rainstorm on Wednesday, unusual for this area, but nice.

Thursday June 8
Thursday night after work, Stan gave us a ride from Apple over to Saratoga, and my faulty, vague recollection was that the park was just a flattish mile from where the Sanborn Road comes off of Highway 9. So, at about 7 pm, we started from about 900 feet elevation, hiking along that "flattish" mile, which turns out to involve some climbing after all. It wasn't too bad, though. I found some trail schwag right away -- a nice, compact set of Allen wrenches. I carried them all the way home.

We continued our unexpected climb up along the road, then onto the campground's first driveway (closed to cars) to the walk-in campground. We saw about six deer in the large grassy field. There's a sign at the start of the campground warning about raccoons. Someone had scratched out the word "raccoon" and replaced it with "DIRTY THEIVING VARMINTS!" Hiked up along the road that continues (still climbing) along the linear campground. A ranger drove by, so we paid up. No other campers in the whole campground. Everything was somewhat damp from yesterday's rain. I think our camp site was at around 1500 feet or so. One of my biggest concerns about this trip had been the climb that we would face the next day, but the evening's 45-minute ascent had cut off almost a third of it already!

Turly got some practice setting up his new tent. I boiled some water and we choked down a freeze-dried dinner. In my quest to make my setup lighter, it turns out that I had forgotten to bring any silverware. Turly lent me a fork. I got to try out my new Photon light -- a very small, light flashlight that's mostly just a bright LED and a battery. It's maybe an inch in diameter and about a quarter-inch thick. It worked very well, and I'd be confident taking just two of those on a backpacking trip instead of the larger, heavier backup light that I did bring.

The campground is in a narrow canyon with thick mixed forest. The half-moon was high in the sky at dusk, and lit up a couple of clearings nearby, but it was otherwise pretty dark. Nice and quiet, but the ground is extra hard -- neither of us slept all that well.

Friday June 9
It felt damp in the morning; and the tents' rainflies were moderately wet, but seemed to keep everything else dry enough. Friday was going to have been a big uphill, but I was less concerned about that after our climb last night. We hit the trail about 8:00am, and quickly started seeing some poison oak, so I got the chance to point out what they looked like. Saw three newts on the way up the hill. I got one of them to walk through the basket of my ski pole. The trail does some ridgeline climbing and traversing, hits another trail, drops into a stand of redwoods (Todd Creek?) and then hits the Skyline Trail, which is pretty much the top of the climb.

We got up to the ridge shortly after 10:00am, and decided to go ahead and do the Summit Rock loop. First, we crossed Highway 35 to take a look at the views west over the SLV. We got to Summit Rock before 11:00am, and saw the first other people we'd seen on the trail. We spent some time resting and admiring the views, both far and near. It was very clear, and the views extended from north of Mount Diablo, south past Mount Hamilton on the east side and Loma Prieta on the west. Almost all of Silicon Valley is spread out in between. Part of highway 85 is end-on to the rock, so it's very identifiable. Tried to pick out Apple's buildings, but couldn't quite. Saw a couple of Red-tailed Hawks soaring -- well below us. There are a couple of vineyards visible on ridges nearby.

The linear trough of the San Andreas Fault is pretty clear just (about 800 feet) below this rock -- it is why upper Stevens Creek and Sanborn Creek flow where they do. North and northwest, you can see the classic Northern California hillsides (tan dried grass, interspersed with stands of oak, pine and redwood) of Black Mountain / Table Mountain and some closer ridges. A nearby firing range made some racket.

Returning along the other side of the Summit Rock loop led us over across Highway 35 to the main Castle Rock parking lot. It still being early in the day, we decided to do most of the optional bits: we looped past Castle Rock itself, and saw its interesting caves and pockets; no climbers were practicing there. A big fallen tree nearby was completely covered with big red ants. After a bit of confusing trail below the rock, we headed on down to check out the waterfall -- impressive drop, not so impressive water flow despite last week's rainfall.

Took the upper "trail" over to Goat Rock. In several places where the sign says "TRAIL", we begged to differ -- it's more like a bit of an obstacle course. Still, we got to Goat Rock and saw a few climbers attempting to scale it. We hiked up alongside of the rock and then (sans backpacks) climbed up the easy side to the top, sat and took another rest break, with the whole San Lorenzo Valley spread out below, and views across Monterey Bay to the Santa Lucia range, Cypress Point (the westernmost part of Pebble Beach, at the edge of the Monterey Peninsula, about 50 miles away from us), and we could see the ghostly rounded hump of Point Sur, almost 20 miles beyond that.

Goat Rock's cliffs attract a whole bunch of (I think) Cliff Swallows, and they were darting all over. We started seeing some Turkey Vultures as well.

(See http://www.bahiker.com/castlerock.html for some nice Castle Rock area photos and a good description of a shorter hike in the area. If you have Quicktime 4.0, you might want to check out the interactive panorama from Goat Rock, at http://www.virtualparks.org/places/Q17013-detail.html ).

Got to talking with a young climber, he turns out to be a neighbor of a friend of mine.

Rested, we headed over to the "Interpretive Shelter", a pergola with some nicely-done, informative displays about the area's wildlife, history, geology, etc. We then walked down through one of the most amazing widespread stands of mostly-madrone forests I've ever seen -- homogeneous forests of hundreds of madrone trees, instead of the more common stands of one to five or ten that you tend to see among the oaks and redwoods in this area.

We arrived at the Castle Rock campground by 3:00 pm. So much for the "long day of climbing" I had feared. We camped among the manzanita and madrone chapparal/forest sites there. This is a real nice campground -- thirty or more sites, with *maybe* one other party (we heard them but never saw them). Very nicely separated by the thick, unusually tall chaparral. After some picnic-table naps, wanderings, early dinner, attempted phone call, etc., we were in the tents by 7:30, despite the fact that it was still light out.

A ranger came by asking for money; I explained that I had sent in the camping fees along with the reservation fee. No problem. Slept much better this night.

Saturday 10 June
After such an early "lights-out", I was awake before 6:00am, and we made a leisurely start, getting onto the trail before 8:00. This was the longest scheduled day, about 15 miles. We headed down the fire road towards Saratoga Gap, and then onto the nice, narrower Travertine [?Springs?] Trail that traverses across a couple of creeks and the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River, before reaching the Saratoga Gap Toll Road. Some mudslides along that road have made it impassible for autos, but there are some incongruous road signs remaining, some decrepit bridges, and a weird little pond or two. The poison oak was somewhat more prevalent on this leg of the trip, but we managed to avoid it pretty well. Along here we were passed by the first other person we'd seen on the trail; we would continue to see people every once in a while for the rest of the way down to Waterman Gap Trail Camp -- mostly cheerful, friendly day-hikers and unhappy-looking, unfriendly runners.

We took the Toll Road on down to Beekhuis Trail, and climbed that briefly, to its junction with the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail proper. (Our route has allowed us to skip approximately the first three or four miles of the official S-to-the-S route.)

Somewhere along last night or this morning, we saw our first snake -- Turly mentioned that it was the first one he'd ever seen in the wild (thanks to St Patrick!).

This section of trail stays within 150 feet of highway 9, traversing below and south of the highway. As we were moving along and listening to the Saturday traffic start to pick up on 9, we were joking about climbing up to the road and hitch-hiking down to Waterman Gap. So I said "Why don't we just drive?", because we had just come across a fairly new-looking car just below the trail, about 80 feet below the highway. Windshield had a broken/shattered section, but the rest of the car looked fine except for its location. We were exclaiming about it, checking it out to make sure no one was still in it, when a voice from above called down "We've already taken care of it." A couple of Highway Patrolmen were standing on the road, about 80 feet above us.

Hmmm. Cars falling onto you. A backpacking trail hazard I had never even considered! A bit later, there was an old station wagon below the trail; that one's even old enough to have been mentioned in another S-to-the-S trip report, from 1997 (Karl Brandt's TR, at ). There were also a few unidentifiable car fragments, and more poison oak.

It was probably somewhere along this stretch that we started to see evidence of wild pigs -- dug-up, messy troughs next to the trail or a bit farther away. I gather the pigs would be looking for truffles if we were in France :-). (Actually, they're looking for "bulbs and grubs and small animals", according to "The [Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley and Woodside] Almanac". See http://www.calmanac.com/morgue/2000/2000_03_15.pigs1.html for some detail about these pests.)

Got down to Waterman Gap Trail Camp. Saw a grim-looking woman heading out to go running. There's a surprising amount of poison oak growing right there at the Trail Camp. We rested, rehydrated; saw a guy with a cigar, who had stayed there last night and was headed to BBHQ's Jay Camp today, like we are.

We crossed Highway 9 near its junction with Highway 236 at Waterman Gap, and dropped down to the road that goes north from there. By the way, the map shows that road as turning into "Old Haul Road", a public trail that goes along Pescadero Creek, in Portola Redwoods State Park. Up here, though, there's a sign that says

DO NOT ENTER
DO NOT ASK

We crossed 236 and in about a mile joined back up with the Saratoga Toll Road, coming up from the SLV. We soon crossed back over to the north side of 236. We passed a friendly black family out for a day hike, resting in a cool, shady spot. A few downed trees required a couple of detours; fairly soon, they passed us, on their way to BBHQ.

Along this stretch, you keep crossing roads that look like 236, but area really just (even) smaller roads/driveways that come up from 236. But eventually, you really do cross 236, and then maybe a mile later come to a junction with the "Ridge Trail", where our trail climbs back up across 236. Off in the forest somewhere, we heard a really loud "MEEEOOOOWWWWWWW!", sounding as if made by a 400-pound house cat. We never did figure out what was really making that sound. The trail here climbs a bit, and then crosses the ridge at China Grade road, and we took a nice break in the sun. This is right about at the border of Big Basin State Park.

The character of the land here is completely different ... it's surprisingly dry, low chapparal, with wider-open views instead of the thick second-growth redwood forest that we had been in. By contrast, there were very few redwoods on this side of China Grade; mostly pines. There are some interesting sandstone outcroppings here. Instead of the many caves and pockets like the tafoni formations of Castle Rock, these ones were more like large sloping sheets of sandstone, with occasional viewful high spots you can climb out onto. They reminded me of similar granite sheets in the Sierra. (If you want to see one of these close up, Big Basin's most auto-accessible spot like this is called "Slippery Rock", and is above Sempervirens Falls, near BBHQ.)

We were seeing more and more people as we traversed and descended, partly along a very thin ridgeline, with about a 150-foot dropoff on the right. As we dropped deeper into the Opal Creek drainage, the pines gave way to more and more redwoods. We crossed a tributary, and then descended along Opal Creek to arrive at HQ somewhere around 4:00 pm. For me, that's not too bad for a 15 mile day with still too much weight ... both in the pack and on the body. We rested, drank some sodas and beer from the store, then went over to Jay Trail Camp to claim a site and set up our tents.

My wife & son met us at the park headquarters a bit later that afternoon, and they brought beer, pizza, firewood, and dessert. So we had very a fun visit over at one of the picnic areas. Can't beat that for the middle of a backpacking trip! Turly and I kept one beer each, and carried them the rest of the way to Waddell Beach.

Sunday 11 June
Slept real well that night; got moving a bit later than yesterday. We had decided to take the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail itself along here, rather than the hillier-looking and longer Sunset Trail. (That latter option goes past a couple more waterfalls.) The trail from Park HQ climbs a few hundred feet to Middle Ridge Trail, then makes a mostly gradual descent along Kelly Creek and West Waddell Creek. Saw quite a few day hikers along here, and maybe one or two groups of backpackers. This whole stretch is shaded by redwoods.

We got to Berry Creek Falls around noon, dropped the packs, and took the short detour up to its observation deck, and then above the falls a ways. I think this was the first time I'd ever seen the sun shining directly on the waterfall. It was at its best, with lots of water in the creek and dripping from the moss and ferns on either side.

After a brief break, we headed on back to the trail. There's a set of bicycle racks along here, and we shared the wide dirt road with bicyclists for most of the rest of the day. The last four or five miles were fairly uneventful, as the trail is pretty flat and the creek and valley stay pretty similar for most of it. The last half mile or so has hikers climbing up off of the road to a high, canyon-side detour with some nice views of the ranch area and the ocean, before it drops back down to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. We got there at about 4:00, and just barely had time to drink our warmish beers before the Santa Cruz County bus showed up. Got on the bus (route 40) and took it to downtown Santa Cruz, got onto the 35 bus, and rode it home!

All in all, a fun getaway.


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