The California State Parks system continues to impress and awe me with the natural beauty of the land they protect. With 118 state parks in California, I am extremely grateful that there are so many parks for us to explore. So many places to get outside and explore that I get a bit antsy when I’m indoors at this time of year. Sure, the National Parks in California are world-renown (there are 9) and amazing, but the lesser known State Parks have so much to offer as well.
In the Bay Area we are blessed to have many State Parks that are accessible for a quick day trip or even a weekend camping trip. A recent weekend found us in Santa Cruz looking for something to do on the way home. Wilder Ranch State Park is just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, so we stopped to take an afternoon hike. We’ve already been to Wilder Ranch before to check out the historic dairy farm they have preserved there (hence the name Wilder Ranch), so on this trip we chose to take a coastal hike along the bluffs next to the Pacific Ocean. For some reason that day, there was a pocket of gorgeous weather in Santa Cruz. Usually, I’m bundled up and freezing when walking along the coast, but that day, the winds were calm and the temperature was just perfect. Maybe it was because we were so comfortable with cloudless sky, but the 2.4 mile loop hike was just incredible! I mean, it’s up there with my all-time favorite coastal hikes. There was beautiful ocean scenery everywhere you looked and the wildflowers added just the right pops of color. We walked on the loop trail (Old Cove Landing trail) in the counter clockwise direction, and made our way slowly around the loop stopping to take pictures and taking side trips to check out the beaches.
The first stretch of the loop trail from the parking lot until you see the ocean is not that interesting, but once you get close to the ocean, the trail opens up, wildflowers appear all around, and you hear sounds from the ocean. This is where you feel like you’ve stepped into a magical land, and your body starts remembering to breathe deep and let the tension from your shoulders melt away. Where you feel like there is no place you’d rather be, but here taking it all in. At that moment, life is all good.
Across the beach from the cave we noticed ferns growing on the wall (it was called Fern Grotto Beach after all). We walked closer and found a cave opening. We bent down and made our way inside a few feet, where we saw a big space, but gradually the “ceiling” lowered until we would have had to get even lower and none of us wanted to crawl around.
Once the trail left the bluffs and turned inland we turned our stroll into a faster paced hike and got our heart rate up a bit, but the majority of the hike was a flat, easy trail.
Biking at Wilder Ranch
There were a number of mountain bikers on the wide hard-packed gravel trail and it would seem like biking would be a great way to explore this area. You can make it a longer ride by parking on Shaffer Road (in Santa Cruz) south of the park and jumping on the bike trail which parallels Hwy 1 that leads directly into the park through the Wilder Ranch historic farm area. This is a paved bike path with a few rolling hills and once you explore the ranch area you can continue on to ride the Old Cove Landing loop trail (turns to gravel/dirt track). In the past we rode our bikes from Shaffer Road to Wilder Ranch, but turned around when we hit the dirt trail because my daughter who was much younger at the time didn’t like it being so “bumpy.”
We loved this hike and left the park with huge smiles on our faces. This is what exploring is about, discovering places that enrich your life! The park encompasses 7000 acres with 35 miles of trails. We’ve only hiked the The Old Cove Landing trail and visited the historic dairy ranch, there are numerous trails that head up to the scenic Santa Cruz Mountains as well. I’m sure we will be back, although we say that about way too many places.
Wilder Ranch State Park
California State Park entrance fee = $10
Hours: 8 am – sunset
Visitor Center Hours: Thurs – Sun, 10 am- 4 pm