If you took all of the outdoor recreational opportunities in the Santa Cruz Mountains and forced them to join high school sports, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail would be that one freakishly talented kid from your school who was the Varsity teams’ starting pitcher, point guard, and goalie. You know, that good-looking popular kid whose biggest problem seemed to be having to turn down prom dates. That’s this trail!
The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail runs about 30 miles, depending on where you start and what side quests you settle on. Fulfilling the promise of its name, the trail dips, climbs and winds from the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. On this epic journey, it passes waterfalls, springs and creeks, wetlands and chaparral, forests of redwood, oak and madrone, ridges and beaches, wilderness and lush farmland. These many-varied ecosystems support species from mountain lions to banana slugs and just about everything in between.
Created through a partnership of the Sempervirens Fund, CA State Parks, area Boy, and Girl Scouts, and the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is truly a testament of the power of cooperation as a tool for the conservation movement. Work on the trail started in 1969 and was completed in 1976 with the Sempervirens Fund purchase of a large portion of the Waddell Valley, finally bringing the trail to its rightful end at the Sea and fulfilling the promise of its name.
What To Do
We would be wildly remiss in our duties if we didn’t start this section out with a shout-out to the backpacking opportunities for which this trail is famous. Many of you are reading this article precisely for information on this subject, and to you, we apologize for not mentioning it earlier, but that wouldn’t fit the format, you silly reader you. Backpackers should note that reservations are required for camping in any of the Trail Camps along the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail (with one exception at Jay Camp near Big Basin HQ– see Where to Go below for more) and can be made up to 60 days in advance, although if it hasn’t been reserved yet, it is possible to make same-day reservations. Rangers and staff are pretty diligent in asking for backcountry permits of backpackers, so definitely pony up the $15 per night plus $8 reservation fee to make everything strictly legal. Check out their Backcountry Trail Camp Guide for information on all the trail camps and rules, links to the online reservation request system, and even ideas for trip routes.
Of course, backpacking isn’t for everybody, and even seasoned trail rats need to mix it up now and then. If gear or carrying weight is an issue, but you love sleeping under the stars (or branches) then take advantage of the car camping at Big Basin and get your day hiking on! Or if you have a group and a couple of vehicles, set up a point-to-point hike, like from Big Basin HQ to Waddell Beach. More of an equestrian adventurer? Horse riding is especially popular on the coastal side of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, offering a Horse Camp for overnight excursions providing a horse-accessible trail that goes from the Rancho Del Oso parking area to within a half mile of Berry Creek Falls, right before the small seasonal footbridges start. Bicyclists should also take note- that dismounting point near the falls boasts a bike rack, so bring your lock!
Leave No Trace, people! On behalf of everyone who will ever hike it in the future, please dispose of all waste appropriately. For regular trash, this means carrying it all out, and for human waste, it means either confining it to designated restrooms and/or pit toilets (every Trail Camp and trailhead has one or the other, but that’s about it) or burying it in 6-8 inch holes at least 100 feet off trail.
When To Go
Whether backpacking or taking the day hiking route, keep in mind that the relevant parks, Big Basin and Castle Rock, both close their trails and day parking lots from sunset to sunrise. It is especially crucial if you’re planning a long stretch, say from Big Basin HQ to Waddell Beach, a point-to-point hike of about 12 miles. It’s even more crucial in the offseason when the days are shorter, so plan accordingly and give yourself plenty of time to finish hiking before the sun sets.
The season is going to be a huge determining factor in your visit. Weather will determine what kind of clothing and gear you’ll want to bring along, an especially important consideration for backpackers. As the season’s change, so does park visitor-ship. Almost everyone wants to get out there in the summer, which means increased foot traffic, fuller campgrounds, a busier beach and fewer available campsites for reservation. Of course, the favorable weather is a plus, and backpackers can save some weight on the trail by ditching the heavy rain gear and tent. If you’re willing to brave the bugs, that is. On top of that, the Backcountry Trail Camps are only regularly serviced May to October, so from November 1st through April 31st you’ll have to pack out all your trash. We also recommend taking toilet paper!
Where To Go
Where not to go? The whole trail is a winner, though there are certainly some highlights and detours that should be pointed out. One pro tip for backpackers is to avoid the original starting point at Saratoga gap for Day 1. Yes, that way saves some mileage, but by starting in the Castle Rock Parking lot, one can get a healthy serving of the limestone formations, seasonal waterfalls and craggy ridgeline vistas for which the park is loved. Starting at Saratoga Gap, you miss all of this in favor of several miles of second-growth redwood forest following closely to Highway 9.
If you had to pick the trail’s crowning jewel, it would be Berry Creek Falls, though technically not on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail itself, but a couple of hundred yards up the Berry Creek Fall trail from where it intersects with S2S. For more info on hiking it, visit our Guide to Berry Creek Falls. In a nutshell, it can be viewed as part of an 11-mile day hike from Big Basin HQ or as a point of interest on a backpacking trip. Situated about a quarter mile above the top falls, Sunset Trail Camp is one of if not the best trail camp in the mountains, despite the bugs. Though it’s not part of the classic, quick-and-dirty three-day version of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail backpacking trip, it’s well worth an extra night or a one-night trip looping from Big Basin HQ and back.
On the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, it’s easy to focus on the “Sea” part, especially while hiking it on a hot and dusty day. Plus it’s the destination, at least it is for those of us not crazy enough to hike it backward. Of course, the higher end boasts spectacular views of the Sea as mentioned above, especially for those using the Castle Rock alternate starting point as mentioned prior. The sandy, sun-swept ridges are also home to chaparral ecosystems, where redwood and madrone gives way to manzanita and Black Sage, where lizards and snakes sun on rocks and where wildflowers like Sticky Monkey and Indian Paintbrush bloom in profusion. Backpackers will get a good taste of these environs whilst hiking between Waterman’s Gap in Castle Rock and Jay Camp in Big Basin; day hikers should check out the Hollow Tree loop.
So, we teased before that there was one exception to the “by reservation only” rule to the trail camps. If you have no reservation and you either hike or bike into the park, you are entitled to a space at one of Big Basin’s Hike and Bike campsites. Unlike every other campsite, these are charged per person ($6 per person per night) though as there are only a few of these sites, you may have to share with other hikers/bikers (although it’s rare). Besides being cheaper for one or two individuals, these sites have fire rings, unlike all the regular backcountry sites, even the ones in Jay Camp. The camp store at Big Basin HQ, only a quarter mile away, sells firewood, beer and wine, and all kinds of other camping equipment, so you can really get your glamping on if that’s your thing. The key here is that they won’t give you one of these spots if you have a car, so either bike in or get dropped off somewhere and hike in, like from China Grade road at the northern boundary of the park, or Rancho Del Oso off Highway 1 at the south.
Go on, get your gear on! Without knowing your plans or when you’ll be putting them into action, it’s tough to get too specific here.
Backpackers and day hikers alike should make sure to prepare for the activity, the weather, the terrain and the length of hike (in mileage and time) when considering necessary gear and supplies. A lot of stuff is universal, like appropriate footwear, plenty of water and food, a map, compass and trail info, a first aid kit and a flashlight, for a start. All visitors are well-served by checking the weather report ahead of time, even in the summer. Backpackers especially need to be prepared as their survival could literally be in the balance, and as such, we recommend beginners start here for packing advice. The list comes from REI, so it’s about as horse’s mouth as it gets.
Whichever leg of the trail you walk, make sure you inform someone of your plans. It’s always good to tell a friend or family member where you’re headed, and it’s even better to let the relevant park authorities know by getting one of the slips from the park kiosks to leave on your dashboard with info like your trail, destination and start time for the Rangers. If you’ve done your homework ahead of time and prepared yourself, you likely won’t need it, but in the rare case that you do, you’ll be glad Search and Rescue knew where to look!
So you want to go backpacking, but you’ve never been before, or maybe it’s been a while, or you don’t know the area. Like John Muir once said, the mountains are calling, and I must go. It’s not like you can just send the mountains to voicemail. So what do you do? Get a guide, of course! California State Parks offer guided trips, led by park naturalists well-versed in the biology and history of the area. Their trips include a three-night Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail option that is a wildly fun and deeply informative way to scratch the trail off the old bucket list. Check out California State Park Backpacking Adventures (CASPBA).