Wilder Ranch State Park,
California State Parks,
Santa Cruz County
In brief:
7.7 mile partial loop on grassy hills above the ocean. Popular with mountain bikers.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 7.7 mile hike is moderately easy, with about 900 feet in elevation change. Park elevation ranges from sea level to 1200 feet at the northern boundary. Elevation changes are gradual.

Exposure:
More shade than sun.

Trail traffic
:
Moderate -- lots of cyclists.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time
:
3 1/2 hours.

Season
:
Nice any time, but best in early spring.

Getting there:
From CA 1 in Santa Cruz County (about 6.5 miles south of Davenport/6 miles south of Bonny Doon Road), turn right into the park. Proceed past the entrance kiosk to the parking lot.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
http://transitandtrails.org/trailheads/536

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3657'36.60"N
Longitude
122 5'8.03"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Stores, restaurants, gas, and pay phones north in Davenport or south in Santa Cruz. No camping in the park. There are campgrounds nearby at Portola Redwoods State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Trailhead details:
Lots of parking in a paved lot. $10 entrance fee. Restrooms and drinking water at trailhead. There are two designated handicapped parking spots, and wheelchairs should be able to navigate to the historic area, but the remaining trails are not suitable to wheelchairs. Pick up a map from the entrance kiosk (if staffed), or from the ranger station, just past the entrance kiosk, on the right. From a perusal of the somewhat cryptic Santa Cruz Metro website, it looks like bus #40 stops at the park entrance on Highway 1.

Rules:
Park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. All trails are multi-use, except for the path on the south side of CA 1, which is closed to equestrians. No dogs.

The Official Story:
CSP's Wilder Ranch page
Park office 831-423-9703

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's Monterey Bay Region map to get there.
• 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website) has a simple map and a featured hike. Order this book from Amazon.com.
Trails of Santa Cruz, by Pease Press (order from Pease Press) shows Wilder Ranch trails in great detail.
• Buy the park map (the one with topography) at the entrance kiosk.
Official park brochure (includes map)
• Tom Taber's The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map and park descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).


Wilder Ranch in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.

View photos from this hike.





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Wilder Ranch State Park Trailhead is one of the bay area's most popular off-road cycling destinations, and I wasn't sure how I'd like hiking in a park where all but one trail are multi-use (and that trail is closed to equestrians, but open to bikes). There was a steady volume of bike traffic when I visited on a sunny spring day, but I had no negative interactions with cyclists on my over 7 mile hike. In fact, one kind cyclist stopped peddling and steered me in the correct direction when I failed to locate my position on the map. If you are concerned about mixing it up with cyclists, plan a visit for a weekday, when the park gets less bicycle traffic.The historic area
     When Jay McKinsey wrote encouraging me to explore Wilder Ranch, he praised the park's beauty and trail system, but warned me about what he calls the park's "trail confusion zone." Sure enough, the multi-junction extravaganza he wrote about, along with a few other spur paths not on the map, was severely befuddling. The park map is better than nothing but lacking important details, so until you're familiar with the park's trails, take care not to push too far into Wilder Ranch's backcountry, for it is easy to end up far from your targeted destination. It's also a good idea to remain flexible with your hiking plans, since trails shown on the map may be closed when you visit. And if you navigate with a compass, note that at Wilder Ranch the ocean sits to the south, rather than the west.Wilder Ridge Loop Trail
     There are about 15 trails to choose from in the park's "backcountry," and one out-and-back path running along the bluff on the south side of CA 1. You can take an easy, but somewhat bland walk on Old Cove Landing Trail/Ohlone Bluff Trail, which offers beach access in a few places. Be sure to check out the grotto, where seeps have created a lush alcove packed with ferns. The bulk of the park is the backcountry, on the north side of CA 1. Although trails climb from nearly sea level to about 1200 feet, the elevation changes are mostly gradual, and Wilder Ranch is a great place for long, yet easy hikes. It's a more than 10 mile round trip to the park's northern border at the Twin Gates Entrance on Empire Grade, but there are nice shorter loops too. Some parts of Wilder Ranch, near the sand plant and landfill are noisy and unsightly; look for the privately-held property marked off on the park map and try to avoid those trails that run nearby. Twin Oaks Trail
     Start at the edge of the parking lot near the restrooms, and head out on the paved trail, following the sign to the historic buildings and backcountry trails. The path descends a bit, then joins a service road at about 500 feet. Turn right. You'll pass one of the historic houses on the left, then reach a junction at about 0.14 mile. Turn left.
     The level path bisects old buildings and the small ranch farm, then crosses under CA 1 via a tunnel. On the other side you'll reach an information sign at about 0.39 mile. Once over the cattle guard, the wide and nearly level gravel trail skirts another collection of historic ranch buildings on the right, then reaches a fork at about 0.53 mile. Bear left, and a few steps later, turn left again, onto signed Wilder Ridge Loop Trail.
     Initially the ascent is very easy, as the broad multi-use trail climbs through grassland marked with California coffeeberry, poison hemlock, and coyote brush. Eucalyptus Loop TrailAs the trail sweeps right near the edge of a farmed field, the grade picks up just a touch, but it's still an easy walk. Wilder Ridge Loop Trail flattens out, and you might notice a small pond off to the left. In spring, look for brodiaea along the trail, but thistles have largely overtaken the grassland. At 1.28 miles, you'll reach the signed junction with the other end of Wilder Ridge Loop Trail. Continue to the right.
     The trail climbs slightly, with tangles of blackberry lining the way, along with some coast live oak, poison oak, willow, and coyote brush. There is a short shaded section where you might notice California bay, hazelnut, thimbleberry, tanoak, and Douglas fir. At 1.97 miles you'll reach a signed junction with Twin Oaks Trail. Turn right.Descending on Wilder Ridge Loop Trail
     Although this is a narrow path, it is multi-use, so be alert for traffic. Poison oak and coyote brush border the trail to the right, while an assortment of coast live oak, madrone, and Douglas fir stand slightly back on the left. Twin Oaks Trail dips down to a creek, then climbs at an easy pace into grassland. Ferns hunker down against the ground, a strange counterpoint to the grassland where you might see white brodiaea, blue-eyed grass, and flax in late spring. In this quiet part of the park I repeatedly heard the mournful cry of a train whistle drifting west, originating from the Roaring Camp and Big Trees line. In 2003 park staff rerouted this trail slightly, out of the bottom of a drainage basin and up onto a slope -- hopefully this will prevent muddy conditions in winter and early spring. At 2.65 miles you'll reach an undersigned split, with a wider trail heading left and a narrow path veering right. If you veer left here, you'll end up at the trail's namesake oaks, and avoid a sequence of confusing junctions. Stay to the right.
     Twin Oaks Trail heads into a forest of Douglas fir, California bay, and redwood. Ferns and hazelnut nestle on the forest floor, where starflower blooms in May. The woodland idyl is over soon, and the trail heads back into a tangle of sun-drenched vegetation. At 2.83 miles, Twin Oaks Trail ends at a signed junction with Eucalyptus Loop Trail.This junction finally appears on the new park map. Turn left.Zane Gray Cutoff
     Open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians, the trail climbs at an easy grade through grassland dotted with coyote brush. At 3.04 miles, you'll reach a signed junction, the first in a confusing series. Turn left. In just a few steps you'll arrive at the next junction. Take the first trail to the left. The broad trail, paved for a short stretch, climbs through a pocket of woods, then reaches the last (and worst) of the junctions, at 3.18 miles. There are some signs, but it's hard to tell which paths they refer to, and there are more paths in reality than routes shown on the map. Turn left onto the fire road.
     Wilder Ridge Loop Trail sweeps through grassland, then, at a horseshoe curve, meets the other leg of Twin Oaks Trail, on the left. Stay to the right.
     You'll descend easily through grassland where you might see owl's clover blooming in early spring. Yellow tarweed-type flowers are more obvious in late spring. A few coast live oaks on the fringes of the grassland provide hiding places for hawks. At 3.76 miles, you'll reach a signed junction with Zane Gray Cutoff. Turn right.Wilder Ridge Loop Trail
     Narrow multi-use Zane Gray Cutoff meanders through grassland. As the trail curves right and the hillside drops away on the left, there's a nice viewpoint, showcasing, on a clear day, a view across Monterey Bay to the mountains of Los Padres. The trail descends, at some places moderately, but mostly at an easy grade. You might hear or see activity at the landfill area, to the right, but thankfully Zane Gray Trail bends left and leaves the noise behind. On my May hike I saw dozens of golden brodiaea in bloom on both sides of the trail. A sharp curve takes you through a damp and shaded area near a creek, then the trail emerges back in the grassland. At 4.65 miles, Zane Gray Cutoff ends at a signed junction with Wilder Ridge Loop Trail. Continue straight.Returning down Wilder Ridge Loop Trail
     This section of Wilder Ridge Loop Trail, still multi-use, is narrow. Although there are some slight variations in elevation, the trail keeps a nearly level course through grassland and occasional clumps of poison oak, coyote brush, and monkeyflower. Blue-eyed grass, a common early spring blossom, lingers here to mix through flax, white brodiaea, golden brodiaea, and yellow mariposa lily in May. The trail follows the contour of the hillside, occasionally sweeping right or left to remain uphill of a creek. At 6.37 miles, you'll reach a familiar junction with the other section of Wilder Ridge Loop Trail. Bear right and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
     
As I hiked back to the trailhead here in May, I was bemoaning the fact that although there was plenty of scat on the trails, I had seen nothing larger than a cottontail. On the other side of the tunnel, near the orchard, with perhaps a dozen other park visitors within a 50 yard radius, I was surprised to catch a glimpse of a young bobcat dawdling near the fence.

Total distance: 7.64 miles
Last hiked: Thursday, May 23, 2002