Notes for Potential Hikers
Our 2020 trip was a variation on a similar walk we took in late November of 2005; both routes are shown on the CalTopo map.
In 2005, instead of starting the hike from our home, we got a ride to the Rhus Ridge trailhead in Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, and at the end of the trip we got a ride home from Palo Alto’s Arastradero Preserve. On this trip we found walking through the urban areas to be quite satisfying; very little of it was on busy streets, the walk passes through several parks, and it makes use of the extensive Los Altos urban trail network.
Although we did not do this on our walk, from the Caltrain station it is only a few extra miles to walk over and start at the San Francisco Bay. One possible Bay-to-Sea route alternate is included in the Caltopo map.
The CalTopo map shows three routes that connect the Skyline ridge to Big Basin Redwoods State Park:
- The Skyline-to-the-Sea (StS) Trail is the most popular and well known, but is the least enjoyable because some sections are too close to Highway 9 and the noise from cars and racing motorcycles is annoying, particularly on weekends. It starts at Skyline Boulevard near Saratoga Gap.
- A second route from the Skyline ridge to the sea follows the Slate Creek Trail and Ward Road, passing through Pescadero Creek County Park and Portola State Park. This is scenic and quiet.
- Finally, the Toll Road is roughly parallel to and on the other side of Highway 9 from the StS Trail. Compared to the StS trail, the Toll Road Trail is much quieter, has far fewer users, is similarly well maintained, and is a very nice walk. This option also starts and ends at Saratoga Gap.
On our 2005 hike we hiked to the coast via the Toll Road and returned via the Slate Creek/Ward Road route. This year, some sections of the Slate Creek/Ward Road route were closed due to COVID and in order to respect that closure we followed the StS instead. This route through Pescadero County Park is quieter and is also a bit more satisfying than our 2020 hike because it forms a true loop with no repeated segment. In summary, combining the Toll Road with the Slate Creek option creates a fine loop that avoids the noisy StS.
The only downside to the 2005 variant is walking a few miles of coastal Highway 1, but if the tide is down, a lot of that can be done on the beach instead of the pavement. The road has a lot of traffic on weekends, but is not bad the rest of the time. To avoid walking along Highway 1, one could also take the Westridge Trail from the Waddell Creek Ranger Station up to Chalk Mountain and rejoin the 2005 route.
There is no overnight parking available at the trailheads on the bay side. It is apparently possible to arrange overnight parking at the Waddell Creek Ranger Station on the ocean side, so you could do the walk in reverse: start at the coast and go up and over Skyline Ridge and down to the Bay side and then return.
An easier solution is to take Caltrain to the San Antonio Station and start and finish your hike there. It is possible to reach the Caltrain station using mass transit from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. We live reasonably close to the station and so we simply started walking from our house.
We chose to stealth camp instead of using the various public campsites along the way. We prefer the solitude of stealth camping, and the ability to stop walking when it suits us. However, it is against regulations in all of the park jurisdictions, so if you choose this option, you do so at your own risk and must follow all stealth camping protocols. In particular, the use of fires, stoves, or matches is completely unacceptable when stealth camping.
Finding good stealth sites was usually not an issue, although there are stretches of the route where camping is impossible due to steep terrain and heavy undergrowth. Although we have never tried it, using hammocks might be an effective solution for making a camp on this walk.
If you choose to use the official sites, you will have to follow a predetermined schedule and make the required reservations with a variety of state and local agencies prior to starting the walk. You cannot legally use the backcountry sites on a walk-in basis.
Once you leave the lowland suburbs, the only food you can buy on route is at the tiny shop at Big Basin Headquarters. Selection is extremely limited so don’t depend on this shop to fill out your pack. On the 2020 route, you will pass several large grocery stores and many restaurants while walking through Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos.
Our CalTopo map identifies a number of water sources found along the way. The natural sources we have marked are generally reliable year round, although in a serious drought year, some of them may dry up. There would be numerous additional sources if hiking during the rainy season. Most of these sources are streams and the water should be treated before use.
On our June 2020 walk, once we crossed Skyline Ridge we had surprisingly large numbers of mosquitoes at our campsites. They were not an issue when walking, but if we stopped for too long, we were swarmed. Once we reached our campsites we set up the tent and quickly retreated inside, protected by the netting.
We had no insect issues during our November 2005 walk, nor on any of numerous other day and overnight hikes in these hills. We do not know know the timing the mosquito season.