When living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it can be east for the natural beauty of the region to go unappreciated by those who see it day in and day out — especially when that natural splendor typically spends all winter trying to wash you away or crush your car.
But, during the summer months, Mother Nature takes a break from the wind, floods and the falling branches to put on a show. So, camera in hand, I set off to play tourist in my own town and find some spiffy trails that showcase all that the Santa Cruz Mountains have to offer.
Somehow, I managed to live in the San Lorenzo Valley for nearly three decades without ever visiting Quail Hollow Ranch, 800 Quail Hollow Road, in Felton. I don’t know that happened. Let’s agree to blame yellow jackets.
Well, at any rate, let my folly serve as an example of what not to do because the Discovery Loop in the county park is the ideal trail for just about anyone.
The trail begins alongside a shaded pond before delving into the assortment of habitats and ecosystems bundled into the former working ranch — including ponderosa pine forests, grasslands, and chaparral.
At slightly less than a mile in length and almost entirely flat in topography, the loop can be easily traversed in an hour, making it perfect for a quick run or for an afternoon family outing for grandparents and grandchildren.
Observation Deck (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park)
There are several ways to reach the observation deck at Henry Cowell, the two most easily accessed are from the main park area (101 Big Trees Park Road, in Felton) — a roughly 5-mile roundtrip — or from the campgrounds off Graham Hill Road (2591 Graham Hill Road) which is a 2.5-mile hike.
Whichever way you choose to approach it, the observation deck is one of the most spectacular views in the San Lorenzo Valley, affording those who make the trek panoramic views of the nearby sand hills, the San Lorenzo Valley itself, and the Monterey Bay.
If you approach from the campground — as I did — it’s a reasonably flat 20-minute walk along the Powder Mill Road and the Pine Trail that affords up-close views of the border of the forest and sandhills environments before the final, sandy approach to the observation deck itself.
The approach is narrow and has unevenly spaced steps. It is not particularly difficult, but not really suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.
From the main visitor’s center area, the hike involves several hundred feet of elevation gain as hikers follow the Pipeline Road before encountering the Pine Trail. It isn’t overly difficult, but it is relatively steep — if you’ve got children and older hikers, you’d probably do well to come from the campground.
Skyline to the Sea (Big Basin Redwoods State Park)
Full disclosure here: I did this 12-mile hike in 2009, with a backpack that did not fit and shoes with thin soles and no arch support. (Pro tip: Don’t do that.)
One of the more famous trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Skyline to the Sea trail takes hikers along 12 miles of scenic backcountry from the Big Basin headquarters in Boulder Creek, 21600 Big Basin Highway to Waddell Beach, north of Davenport.
Provided you leave early enough, this could easily be done in one day with plenty of time to take in the sweeping views, as well as detours to the beautiful waterfalls along the way.
Now is the perfect time to check this trail out, as Santa Cruz Metro recently resumed weekend bus service to Big Basin until mid-September.
The trail itself rises and falls with the topography, following Waddell Creek while gradually decreasing in elevation to the beach north of Davenport.
For the uninitiated, there is little to no cell phone reception at Waddell Beach so either leave a car at the beach parking lot, or have a ride prearranged.
The first half of the trail consists of a lot of up-and-down and is somewhat steep in places, while the second half is reasonably flat. Wear proper shoes and think long and hard before bringing younger children along.
Also, watch your step, as Pacific giant salamanders tend to lurk in damp and leaf-covered portions of the trail. When I did this hike, my companions and I found numerous instances where these threatened animals had been stepped on or ran over.
Emma McCrary Multi-use Trail (Pogonip)
Newly opened on June 1 after a massive community construction and clean-up effort, the Emma McCrary Trail is a 1.5-mile trail designed for hikers, cyclists and horse riders in the Pogonip area of Santa Cruz. The trail is being used fairly heavily by cyclists
Access is gained through the trailhead gate at the end of Golf Club Drive, off Highway 9 in Santa Cruz.