7.7 mile partial loop on grassy hills above the ocean. Popular with mountain
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.
More shade than sun.
Moderate -- lots of cyclists.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
3 1/2 hours.
Nice any time, but best in early spring.
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:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
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
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.
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:
Park office 831-423-9703
Use AAA's Monterey Bay Region map to get there.
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.
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.
photos from this hike.
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Ranch State Park 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.
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
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.
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
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. As 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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