Winter Hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains in winter are a mystical thing to behold. The redwood forests are dense and lush. Moss covers the surface of every tree, the cold mountain air sits densely in every canyon, making your breath fog up even in the middle of the day. Noises are softer when the undergrowth comes in strong and green. Tree branches are tipped with dew that never seems to drop, and many hikes leave your boots muddy and heavy from the rain.
There is a stillness and solitude that comes with the rainy months, that you can’t get during any other time of year. Most of the tourists have gone home, and most sane people are inside, avoiding the damp weather. If you, like me, decide to brave the buffeting winds, the large cold drops of water falling from tree tops, and the wild beauty of the grey sea during a storm, then these winter hikes are for you.
Pogonip is a hidden gem off of highway nine that will wind you through towering redwoods, across icy cold streams, past groves of ancient oak trees, and pop you out onto a field that over looks all of Monterey Bay. It’s dog friendly, human friendly, and one of my favorite places to hike in the rain. The trails can be muddy during the wet months, so I would recommend bringing rain boots.
Location: – 37°00’33.4″N, 122°02’57.9″W
Approach Via highway 9 and park on the side of the road. There are many trails that branch off in different directions, take a map so that you can go exploring.
Hiking in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in the winter is a full on adventure. Bring rain boots because the trails often turn into small stream beds! That being said, the hike from the parking area to Maple Falls is a beautiful wander through the woods, past crystal clear streams, and along the canyon like walls of the mountain. At the very end of the Bridge Creek Trail you are rewarded with a small waterfall. It’s a picturesque hike, I highly recommend it.
Location: – 37°02’51.7″N, 121°53’38.4″W
In the winter months they close the gates on the main road. So you will need to walk a couple of miles to reach the trailhead that leads to Maple Falls.
Wilder Ranch State Park
The best part about hiking at Wilder Ranch State Park in the winter is walking out of the old oak groves and coming up onto a windswept bluff, overlooking the ocean. The golden brown fields below you, cliffing out into an endless grey sea in front of you. It’s beautiful. There are a few short trails that are easy ‘out and back’ adventures, but if you really want to explore, it’s worth it to link trails and see how far out you can get. Wilder Ranch is dog friendly and mountain bike friendly, so make sure you’re prepared to move aside at a moments notice. The entrance to Wilder Ranch is home to a few horses as well, so be mindful of your noise!
Location: – 36°57’44.1″N, 122°05’05.0″W
Drive along highway 1 until you arrive at the obvious parking on the side of the road. There is also a paid parking lot inside the park.
Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell State Park
If quiet adventure is what you’re after, then this loop at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is for you. 8.4 miles of towering redwoods, deep clear creeks, ancient green ferns, and (of course) the bright yellow banana slugs Santa Cruz is known for. Hike through second growth redwoods until you come across Big Ben, a giant old growth redwood tree that stands much taller than the rest around it. A stunning trail from start to finish. I would recommend bringing water and pack a lunch for this nice all day hike in the woods.
Location: – 37.049714″N, 122.083170″W
Park off Felton Empire road at the Fall Creek parking lot.
Hiking through the Santa Cruz Mountains in the fall and winter is not for the faint of heart. It is a beautiful and somewhat wild experience to go out in the rain and into the woods or onto the bluffs. Those who do choose to venture out will be rewarded with the scent of a redwood forest after it rains, the sight of a spiderweb frozen in place with dew droplets, and the brisk fall winds running through their hair. Always be prepared for inclement weather, bring sturdy shoes, a raincoat and your sense of adventure!