Awesome Panoramic Views
FRONTCOUNTRY HIKING & WALKING
Sempervirens Point on Highway 9 in Castle Rock State Park
This one is the most accessible and truly a drive-up panoramic views in the mountains as it boasts the best view directly from the parking area, which is adjacent to Highway 9. While you can walk down the Skyline to the Sea Trail in either direction to find one of their viewing benches, the driver’s seat works just as well. There’s even a vault toilet here, so it’s a great rest stop if you’re heading out of town, but you’re going to want to bring hand sanitizer. On clear days you can see out to the bay and beyond, and on foggier days you may find a serene river of clouds flowing over the San Lorenzo Valley below you. A beautiful view in all seasons, this is also a prime sunset vista as you can watch the sun go down right from the parking lot and then leave before getting an after-hours parking ticket.
Moon Rocks at the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve
This one is a relatively short walk but does involve an uphill climb on rocky terrain. Park at the visitor parking lot next to the Bonny Doon fire station on Martin Road, then take the little trail across the street up to the left toward the moon rocks. Don’t worry; you’ll know them when you see them. Keep climbing until you find a spot you like and enjoy, but keep in mind there’s not much shade to be had. For obvious reasons, this area is fairly well-patrolled, at least at the parking lot, so as always be sure to respect all posted signs and get back to your car by sunset.
Ano Nuevo Trail at Butano State Park
If you can’t make the full 10-mile loop at Butano for the airstrip, don’t worry; you don’t need to go that far for great panoramic views. The quickest way is to hike up the Ano Nuevo Trail straight out of the parking lot by the Visitor Center. It’s a short trail but not an easy one as it quickly switchbacks up to get to the good views, though there are a couple of benches just off the trail so you can sit and enjoy them. You can do just the Ano Nuevo trail as an out-and-back of about 2 miles (or however long you like) or use the Olmo Fire Trail and Six Bridges Trail to make a loop of about 3 miles.
Eagle Rock at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The jewel of “Little Basin,” this is a relatively new acquisition to the nation’s first redwood park. It can be done as an all-day hike from the Big Basin HQ area, taking the Pine Mountain Trail to the Tan Bark Trail (which is actually a fire road). However, most prefer to park on Little Basin Road where it meets the Eagle Rock Trail, greatly shortening the trip. Just make sure to get a day use parking pass from Big Basin HQ first. This out-and-back version is a bit over 3 miles and is well worth the jaunt. At the top is an abandoned fire lookout sporting a riot of graffiti, sort of an easter egg for peak baggers.
Observation Deck at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Getting here can be done as a full day’s hike if leaving from the Henry Cowell Visitor Center area by the Highway 9 entrance. Alternatively, you can park in the day use parking lot next to the campgrounds off of Graham Hill Road, making it just about a 2-mile there-and-back along the Powder Mill Fire Road to Ridge Road. Be forewarned though, in the off-season when the campground is closed; you can still park here but it’s not well-patrolled, and break-ins are somewhat common. That said, the deck has great 360-degree views of the bay, the valley, and Santa Cruz itself, and the interpretive signs at its top are an added bonus.
Goat Rock at Castle Rock State Park
You can and should check out our Guide to Goat Rock for more details, but naturally, this spot makes for the best panoramic views on the list. Castle Rock has no lack of spectacular vistas, particularly when hiking out of the main parking lot along the Ridge Trail/Saratoga Gap Trail loop. Some would argue that the best version of this view is the one you get when you’ve climbed it’s face to the top, but the trail does go up there as well.
The Skyline to Sea Bypass Trail at Rancho Del Oso (Big Basin Redwoods)
There can be some confusion here, as the Rancho Del Oso Visitor Center and surrounding Waddell Valley is not its own park, but part of Big Basin, however those who can make the distinction are well rewarded for it. If a day at the beach is more your speed, but you want to run up to a great view real quick, then we have just the spot for you. Do yourself a favor, though, and punch “Waddell Beach” into your GPS. Park at the beach for free and walk about ½ mile to the Ranger Station, where you can pick up a map. In the peak season, you can make a 3-mile loop of the Skyline to the Sea Trail, which at this point is an active dirt service road, and the Skyline to the Sea Bypass Trail, which quickly climbs up the ridge and then just as suddenly drops back down into the valley. Heads up though: in the rainy season they take the footbridge out as the Waddell Creek can get quite deep and fast-moving.
Middle Ridge Road/Ocean View Summit @ Big Basin
This one is borderline back-country, as the best way to do this is as a 6-mile loop, but it’s a pretty well-traveled hike in a popular park. It’s also a great one for tree searchers as it boasts some of the tallest coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Starting at Big Basin HQ, take Skyline to the Sea north to the Meteor Trail, then hop onto Middle Ridge Fire Road. The Ocean View Summit is along Middle Ridge about ½ mile south of the junction with Meteor. Continue south to Dool Trail or, for a little extra length, the Creeping Forest Trail, either of which will take you back to the parking lot and Visitor Center.
BACKCOUNTRY HIKING & BACKPACKING
Mt. McAbee Overlook in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Probably the least strenuous of the panoramic view hikes in this category, Mt. McAbee is typical of Big Basin’s wealth of awesome lookouts. Ideally, you can include either at the top or bottom of your adventure the Redwood Loop, with the Mother of the Forest and other wonders. However, if time’s a factor on this 7-mile out-and-back, you can always just go straight through to the Skyline to the Sea Trail. Climb that up to the Howard King Trail to the Mt. McAbee Overlook and then either return the same way or take Hihn Hammond Road back for a slightly quicker but steeper variation.
Sunset Trail in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
If you’re looking for a great backpacking spot, look no further. Sunset Trail Camp boasts more scenic beauty than probably any other trail camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Though the camp itself isn’t overly impressive, it is only about ¼ mile from the splendid Golden Falls, the waterslide-esque Cascades, and majestic Silver Falls. Go up the Anderson Landing fire road from the trail camp, and you get to a great viewing spot, christened by regulars as “The Street Corner.” Of course the waterfalls, as well as the brilliant views of the Sunset Trail, can be seen by doing the 11-mile Berry Creek Falls Loop starting from Big Basin HQ (See our handy-dandy Guide on that topic) but only backpackers can enjoy the stargazing here as the trails close at sundown.
Chalk Mountain in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Perhaps the best panoramic view in all of the Santa Cruz Mountains, conquering Chalk Mountain is well worth the effort, but know that it will take effort. As a day hike you’re looking at about 14 miles in all, climbing just over 1600 feet from the sea to the peak. Park for free at Waddell Beach, walk in the road to the ranger station and pick up a map if you don’t have one already. Take the Skyline to the Sea trail to the Clark Connector trail, which switchbacks up to the Westridge Trail. Westridge itself has plenty of incredible views, but the literal and figurative peak is Chalk Mountain. Watch out though, as you climb the terrain gets more and more sandy, rugged, and exposed to the elements. For backpackers, it makes a great excuse for an alternate route connecting Sunset and Twin Redwoods Trail Camps, though it does add on considerable mileage and elevation from the traditional Skyline to the Sea route.
The Old Airstrip at Butano State Park
A lesser-known gem in a lesser-known park, but between the banana slugs and the beautiful views, it’s hard to imagine why. Granted it can be a bit foggier in the summer than most Santa Cruz Mountains parks as it is so close to the coast, but on clear days it’s hard to beat the old airstrip on the Butano Fire Road. Day hikers can get this in on a loop of just about 10 miles, starting from and ending at the Butano Visitor Center, along the following trail route: Jackson Flats to Butano Fire Road to Olmo Fire Road to the Ano Nuevo Trail. Take the adventure to the next level by making it an overnight trip to the Butano Trail Camp, but make sure to get reservations through the Big Basin Trail Camp Office. It’s well worth the registration fees though, as the airstrip is just about a half mile up the Butano Fire Road from the trail camp, and the view is just as spectacular at night.