Monday, March 9, 2009

Cruisin' to Santa Cruz - A Day of Lots of Driving and Very Little Hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains

I had some errands down in Santa Cruz the other day. Rather than do the out-and-back drive down Highway 17, I decided to make a long loop of it and enjoy the drive through the northern Santa Cruz Mountains and down along the coast. I had some roads and trailheads I wanted to scout out in San Mateo County, and this was a perfect opportunity.

From Mountain View I went up 280 N to the Sandhill Road exit. Exiting west on Sandhill I continued to Portola Rd. where I (mistakenly) turned left. After passing through the idyllic little town of Portola Valley and its many equestrian facilities, I reached Windy Hill OSP. I've been wanting to scout this trailhead out anyway, and had to use the bathroom, so I hopped out for a look around.

I did a quick scouting of the first couple of trail junctions, and snapped a few pictures of the flora.

Things are very green after all this rain!

By now I knew I had gone the wrong way on Portola Rd., so I reversed course out of the Windy Hill parking lot. I headed back on Portola, passing Sandhill where I made my wrong turn, and not too long after that, La Honda Rd. where I turned left.

La Honda was a pretty drive, up and up and away into the mountains.

From La Honda I went left onto Pescadero Rd., following signs for Sam McDonald County Park. This is one I've been wanting to scout, since it connects into Pescadero Creek County Park, which connects to Portola Redwoods State Park. From Portola Redwoods one can hike the entire northern Santa Cruz range. Heading north to Skyline Blvd would take you to the spine of the range and Black Mountain (the highest peak in the north half of the range). Hiking east would take you to Castle Roack state park. Going south would take you into a vast expanse of coastal ridges comprising Big Basin State Park, Butano State Park, Ano Nuevo State Park before finally reaching the mighty, majestic Pacific Ocean.

Long story short, Sam McDonald connects you to a lot of interconnected prime hiking lands. The parking lot was plenty big enough for a group hike, fees are $5 per car and hours are 8 - sunset.

Some really nice maps of the entire region can be found here:

I still had many miles to go so I decided not to stick around and hike. I kept motoring down the road, shortly passing San Mateo Memorial Park along the way. As I got closer and closer to Highway 1 the deep dark mountains of the redwood forests gradually opened up to rolling coastal hills.

Passing through the small farming town of Pescardero I saw the goat farm on my right. I was tempted to stop and get some cheese and pet some goats, but I kept moving.

I did make myself pull over and stop when I saw a trailhead for Pescadero Marsh. This was a primitive parking lot with no other cars, just a warning sign and a dilapidated wooden sign board. Any messages that were once on the wooden sign have long since faded or disintegrated. Next to it is a narrow little trail into the marsh, which I take.

Something about being that close to where the primordial underwater world meets terra firma really spooks me. What sorts of things might slither up and bite or sting me? Worse, what if some ancient evil reaches up to pull me down to a dark, watery grave, never to be heard from again? I'd rather be mauled by a mountain lion any day. Fortunately none of that happened and I'm here to report about it. I did venture out several hundred yards before I was surrounded by soup on all sides.

I beat a retreat back to the car and continued down the road. Shortly I realized that I had been to the back entrance of the marsh, when I passed the main entrance, where Pescadero Rd. meets Highway 1. This entrance actually had signs of life, and maybe better hiking opportunities, but I decided to cross over the highway and explore Pescadero State Beach instead.

I wasn't walking away today until I got a shot of the Orange Poppy, California's state flower and a sure sign of spring in the San Francisco bay area. Pescadero State Beach didn't let me down.

I also saw birds...


...and lots and lots of shellfish...

...of different colors.

Heading south on Highway 1 I pass Ano Nuevo State Park, Big Basin State Park (Rando del Oso entrance) and Wilder Ranch State Park. Wilder Ranch is a favorite mountain biking destination of mine. As a Santa Cruz hiking destination it's not the greatest, but it does connect you into a lot of other lands in downtown Santa Cruz and up into the mountains.

By the time I reached downtown Santa Cruz it was past noon, the time I was originally hoping to be home. I decided to make it quick and keep moving, rather than give into the temptation to hang out and lollygag. The return trip up Highways 17 and 85 was a lot less eventful, but a lot faster than the trip there. The whole drive got a little long by the end, but was worth it for the scouting and exploration, and the cruise along the coast.

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