What: Trail hiking through the Santa Cruz Mountains
Where: Palo Alto to Santa Cruz, California
When: November 24-26, 2010 (3 days)
Distance: about 65 miles
Highlights: Redwood forests, easy access via public transit, a few new trails
Information about using public transit to access trailheads in the Bay Area.
California State Parks has information and maps for Castle Rock and Big Basin State Parks.
The Midpeninsula Open Space District has useful maps.
Two National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps cover the entire hike: Big Basin, Santa Cruz; and Skyline Boulevard.
Why we went
Local backpacking opportunities are one of the benefits of living in the Bay Area. We have taken a couple of different loop hikes from Palo Alto to the coast and back and we have walked the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. We like maps and have a large collection of them. Studying the maps, we realized that we could create another local route that makes use of public transit to reach the start and end points.
We have a tradition of taking a three or four day backpacking trip near home over the Thanksgiving weekend. November is in our rainy season, and we only go if the weather forecast is good. The forecast was for clear cool weather, so we took advantage of a break in the rain and walked to Santa Cruz.
By Bay Area standards it was cold, with temperatures in the 20s at night, and the last day of the hike was a record low for many nearby towns. But the skies were blue and the air was clear and it was great to be out walking. The Farallon Islands were clearly visible 60 miles away! Most of this hike is in second growth Doug Fir and Redwood forests, with occasional grassy clearings that provided fine views of the bay and the ocean. There are a few stands of old growth redwoods in Big Basin State Park. I love public transit backpacking.
This was a nice easy walk on our home turf. For me, it is satisfying to leave the car at home and still be able to take a long hike. I also enjoy piecing together this kind of route as it reinforces just how much public land we have in an urban area with over 7 million residents. This wasn’t the most fabulous hike I have ever taken, but it is much better to be out than not.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The following adjacent parks form a nearly continuous trail corridor between Palo Alto and Santa Cruz:
- City of Palo Alto Arastradero Preserve
- City of Palo Alto Foothills Park
- Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Preserves: Los Trancos; Monte Bello; Skyline Ridge; Long Ridge
- Castle Rock State Park including portions of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail
- Big Basin State Park
- The Fall Creek and Redwoods Units of Henry Cowell State Park
- City of Santa Cruz Greenbelt Pogonip Preserve
- City of Santa Cruz Harvey West Municipal Park
Over fifty miles are on trails in public parks. About eleven miles of the route are on town streets and quiet rural roads:
- We took a local bus from home to the corner of Arastradero and Deer Creek Roads in Palo Alto, the closest we could get to the trailhead by public transit. From there it was a 1.75 mile walk on rural town streets to Arastradero.
- Six miles are on county roads, mostly on the Empire Grade Road and then a short piece of Felton Empire Road. Empire Grade Road has very little traffic and we have mapped an alternate that takes you off the last piece and onto even lesser used Alba Road. Sometime in the future, the yet to be opened San Vicente Redwoods property may provide a trail link eliminating almost all of the walking on Empire Grade Road. A consortium of environmental groups purchased the 8,500-acre property for habitat preservation and eventual public recreation.
- Upon reaching Santa Cruz we walked to the pier instead of going straight to the bus station, and therefore walked 3 miles on Santa Cruz town streets. After stopping at the Pacific Ocean, we walked back to the transit station and grabbed a bus to the San Jose CalTrain station and then took the train home.
There are a number of alternate routes between the Los Trancos OSP parking lot and Saratoga Gap, where Highway 9 crosses Skyline Boulevard. We dropped down and walked through Steven’s Creek Canyon, but you could also stay on the ridge and walk south on trails parallel to Skyline Boulevard.
We recommend taking the Sawyer’s Toll Road Trail instead of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail south of Castle Rock. Skyline-to-the-Sea closely parallels noisy Highway 9. The Toll Road Trail is further from the highway and below it, so most of the traffic is inaudible. Also, very few people use the Toll Road Trail.
Big Basin also has a network of trails and our route is only one of many that could be pieced together in the park.
In 2019, we made a few improvements to our original route. These are included in a separate folder in the Caltopo map. These improvements move some of the road-walking to less busy streets in the Palo Alto foothills, along Empire Grade Road, and in the Felton area. We have also changed the route in Santa Cruz to follow the fine riverfront bike path down to the sea.
Water is usually available at the Cal Fire Summit Station just prior to crossing Highway 9. The trail passes directly below this station, but there is no trail connection and access requires a short steep scramble.
We had to wade one stream at the southern end of Henry Cowell State Park Redwoods Unit. When we were there the water was about knee deep and flowing quite slowly.
It is probably possible to hike this route staying in legal designated campsites, but we like to hike all day and stop when the sun sets, and designated campsites were not in locations that worked for our itinerary; therefore we stealth camped.
Palo Alto Foothills Park is closed to non-residents with vehicles, however anybody is permitted to walk into and through the park on foot from Arastradero Preserve or Los Trancos OSP.
Thank you Amy & James for all the effort you put into documenting these adventures. The possibility of backpacking from Palo Alto to Santa Cruz would never have occurred to me until reading about it here. I just completed this hike last weekend and as promised will try to share some insights and experiences.
The biggest bummer was that flight complications left me with less than two days, which is too short for this hike. I would have postponed but my 12yo daughter and I are hiking it together in a few weeks’ time and I wanted to scout it out beforehand. If you’re somewhat new to backpacking, studying maps and websites doesn’t really give you the confidence to take your child hiking in the mountains for a few days.
I figured there were plenty of bailout points if anything went wrong, so I took an uber to the trail before dawn Saturday at started walking. My legs felt good and I managed to do about 40 miles before darkness. I passed Little Basin campground just after dinner which would have been a great place to camp, but the sign said “reservations only” and there was nobody near the entrance. The sun was starting to go down and I didn’t want to risk the long access road without knowing if I could stay the night, so I decided to keep going and find a spot further along. The trail led back into the woods and by the time I found a flat spot to camp, the mosquitoes were everywhere. It’s really unpleasant setting up camp in a mad rush after a long day, and I was glad I didn’t have to look after a 12yo in that mayhem. Fortunately I was tired and fell asleep pretty fast.
I hit the trail at dawn Sunday and was on track to reach Santa Cruz by early afternoon, but the smell of cooked food in Felton did me in and I stayed way too long. Probably should have ended the trip there but I had another hour to spare and walked a few miles through Henry Cowell. At the next road crossing I took an Uber to Scotts Valley and caught the bus to San Jose.
In terms of scenery, highlights for me were Arastradero and Fall Creek with honorable mention going to Skyline. Arastradero at dawn is spectacular with its intense aromas and misty views. Fall Creek was gorgeous as well and it was a shame having to rush it. The creek crossings are so inviting and hanging out with my feet in cool streams would have been awesome. Skyline was the dark horse – it shadows a busy road for several miles and I wasn’t expecting much, but it’s a really nice single track and you barely notice the cars just below.
Other parts of this hike weren’t so great. Toll Road Trail is an uninspiring, bug-infested walk down fire roads and Empire Grade is a paved road where the shoulder eventually disappears so it’s like Frogger when traffic gets going. Empire did have its charms earlier in the morning though, with farmhouses and roosters crowing and all that.
In terms of terrain there are no real tricky spots (fast moving rivers or one-log water crossings) but there’s almost no flat terrain either and it does get steep at times.
Also I suspect this hike is closer to 65 or even 70 miles. I studied the maps carefully beforehand and wrote out detailed trail switches with distances in between. The mileage tracked pretty closely until Fall Creek, which surprisingly took an extra hour or more. I didn’t have time to figure out why but my pace was 4-6 mph the whole way (it’s all downhill and I ran the steeper parts) so the extra distance was significant.
Map-wise, your advice to download the GPX data to Gaia was spot-on. Gaia is excellent in the woods but a couple of caveats worth mentioning:
1) Gaia consumes a lot of battery so plan accordingly. There are two phone-charging opportunities (also with water taps): a fire station at about 15 miles and a fire station/correctional center mid-way along Empire Grade. Unless you brought a big portable charger, I recommend hanging out at that first station until your battery is full. My old Pixel XL on half battery and a little Jackery portable were not nearly enough. I woke up the second day with 2% (it was 15 or 20% when I went to bed but the cool night air must have drained it) and a dead portable. I had to guess at several trail junctions and once again was glad my daughter wasn’t with me.
2) If you have an Android phone, uploading GPX data to Gaia is pretty goofy. Their app and website look nothing alike, and you can’t upload GPX through the app (even their customer service rep admitted he couldn’t get it to work). You have to upload it through their website and then the trail sections will magically appear (in no particular order) in the “Saved” icon of the app. The whole process made me skeptical, but on the trail where it matters Gaia was superb.
The biggest surprise overall was how few people I ran into. I was expecting crowds on such a nice weekend but only met two couples along Skyline and maybe a few small groups in Fall Creek. I was the sole backpacker and all the locals I met had no idea you could hike from PA to SC. This really is an undiscovered gem and a credit to you guys for putting it together. Again thanks very much for all you do here. This was a great trip and I’m really looking forward to more of them.
All the best,
Craig, Thanks for your detailed report, we really appreciate the info. Concerning Gaia and the phone, we use it on the iPhone, not Android, and don’t know what difference that might make.
1. We don’t use the Gaia website at all because it is far less useful than CalTopo.com for preparing data, and the way it syncs to the device is frustrating for us because we never feel like we have control over what is happening. That said, it is super easy to import a gpx file into Gaia on the iPhone – just open the gpx file in any other app (email attachment, Dropbox, etc) and then “Open in another app”.
2. Gaia only consumes battery if you record your track. We use about 50% of the iPhone battery when recording a track on a ten hour hike. Not sure how an Android behaves. If we are not recording a track, but simply checking locations on occasion, then the battery drain using Gaia on an iPhone is trivial. The BIGGEST drain by far is having cell service turned on, particularly when it can’t find cell signal. We put the phone in airplane mode, turn off Bluetooth and WIFI, and consume 20-30% per day doing things like checking our location using Gaia, taking photos, looking at bird guides. We download the maps we need into Gaia prior to the trip, and then there’s no need to have cell service turned on.
3. Sorry about the insect issues; when we did the walk they were not a significant issue so perhaps they vary with the season or perhaps they were more abundant due to the heavy winter rains we had this year.
4. We used the Toll Road Trail as the alternative is the parallel Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which is closer to and cross Highway 9 several times. Perhaps you might prefer the S2S when you do this with your daughter.
5. We know that the Empire Grade Road is a weak point in this walk. There is a large piece on conservation land immediately to the west of the road called the San Vicente Redwoods; unfortunately it is not yet open to the public, but we hope that in the not too distant future there will be a trail through the park off of the pavement.
I apologize if my report sounded negative because the hike was definitely a gem, and I was more looking at it as a dad. That is great to hear about the workaround at Empire Grade, I saw a sign along the road but didn’t know how to interpret. Regarding Gaia I’m sure if you have a newer phone and are confident about the trail then battery usage is more modest, but if you’re inexperienced it becomes your wet nurse and you’re more insecure about battery life than water even. No worries about insects, they’e everywhere in Austin where we live but it’s different when you’re trying to set up camp and they’re eating you alive and you’re wondering how your daughter would react. They were only bad on a few stretches.
I used Gaia while pacing for the Tahoe 200. Found that with the phone in airplane mode (download the routes ahead of time), battery usage was only about 5% after 12 hours of hiking. The GPS chip draws very little power and you can set your to use that, but not use cellular or wifi. However, if you take if off airplane mode, be sure to put it back, as the phone will drain the battery as it repeatedly tries and tries to find signals.