Santa Cruz County’s rugged coastline, majestic redwoods, and expansive mountaintop vistas make it the premier destination for your next hiking adventure! Join us as we go through our picks for the Top Hikes in Santa Cruz County!
Photo by @gust_in_the_wind
MOST ICONIC HIKE
The Place: Berry Creek Falls at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin is California’s oldest State Park and is home to the largest continuous stand of Ancient Coast Redwoods south of San Francisco. The park offers over 80 miles of trails and has a surprising number of waterfalls.
The Hike: You have to work a bit for this one! Berry Creek Falls is just under 11 miles and climbs over 1000 feet of elevation. It features a series of year-round waterfalls, lush redwood forest and steep canyons. Not in the mood for a 10+ miler, but still want to see some falls? Try the Sempervirens Falls Trail which is about 3.2 miles.
Factoid: To get to Berry Creek Falls you will hike along the well-known Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. The complete 29.5 mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail begins at Castle Rock State Park, travels through the Santa Cruz Mountains and Big Basin Redwoods State Park and ends at Waddell Beach. A popular alternative to the whole Skyline route is taking the trail from Big Basin to Waddell (still getting the full redwoods to the sea experience) on an approximate 12 mile stretch of the trail. This is a one way hike so organizing transportation is key.
Pro Tip: Bring plenty of water and food. Ten miles is enough to warrant a good stash of fuel and fluids, but it's not uncommon to add a few miles in exploring more falls - or the occasional wrong turn. Better to be prepared!
Photo by @cassidybarry
MOST DIVERSE HIKE
The Place: Wilder Ranch State Park
Grasslands, oaks, knobcone pines, coastal redwoods, douglas firs, rugged coastline, tidepools, hidden beaches, Victorian farmhouse, barns — need we say more? Wilder Ranch boasts a wide assortment of terrain and habitat, and offers over 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails winding through coastal terraces and valleys.
The Hike: By far one of the most scenic hikes at Wilder is the Old Cove Landing Trail, a mellow 3ish mile round-trip amble along the north coast; a prime spot for wild flowers. You can access the beach from the trail and walk along the bluff leading to the cove.
Factoid: The Old Cove Landing Trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible! On a good day you will come across gulls, pelicans, rabbits, bobcats, sea lions, and maybe even migrating whales.The park grounds also include restored Victorian homes, barns, gardens, and a historic adobe for visitors.
Pro Tip: Bring a jacket on this hike, as the coast can get a little breezy.
Photo by John Harvey
BEST HIKE FOR FAMILIES
The Place: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Whether you’re a family with tiny tikes or tough teens, Henry Cowell has a trail for you and yours. The main park area features 15 miles of hiking and riding trails through a variety of forested areas with redwoods, mixed evergreens, ponderosa pines, and even sandhills. Some park trails run alongside the San Lorenzo River.
The Hike: For stroller riders and little legs, try the Redwood Grove Loop. This one mile path is a breeze for hikers, but doesn’t skimp on impressive encounters with redwood giants. For slightly older kids – not in need of a stroller – take the River Trail for a scenic hike with great rewards – i.e. some water play!
Factoid: Did you know that there is a northern section of Henry Cowell called Fall Creek with an additional 20 miles of hiking trails? Although not stroller friendly, this is another great option for families looking to enjoy the forest and some creek exploration. Bonus: Banana slugs and newts are common on these trails.
Pro Tip: Leave a change of clothes or towel in the car for the little ones. The streams are pretty irresistible!
Photos by @tlk
BEST SEASIDE HIKE
The Place: West Cliff Drive
Although not considered a traditional “hike”, West Cliff Drive delivers on some serious strides with seaside views. Bustling beaches and surf spots to tranquil coves and wildlife, this coastal path serves up some breathtaking vistas.
The Hike: Begin your 6 mile round trip trek near the Santa Cruz Dream Inn and let the Monterey Bay be your trail guide. Pass the famed Steamer Lane surf spot and a brick lighthouse which also serves as a Surfing Museum. When the path ends, take a peek toward the ocean and see the photogenic Natural Bridges State Beach. Add some steps to your outing and explore the monarch groves and short trails offered at the popular state park.
Factoid: No need to leave anyone behind on this one! West Cliff Drive is stroller, wheelchair, dog, bike, rollerblade, and even segway friendly! Another bonus, it’s pretty hard to get lost on this trail!
Pro Tip: When the waves are crashing against the cliffs, take a breather between Auburn and Chico Ave and try to spot the “blowhole” where water surges up into the sky mimicking our whale friends. Also, Fido will love this walk and the pup-friendly beaches along the way.
Photos by @bettyintheusa
BEST “HIDDEN” HIKE
The Place: Quail Hollow Ranch
Quail Hollow Ranch’s 300-acre space offers scenic trails, majestic vistas, and a dazzling array of family-friendly activities — and is off-the-beaten-path enough to always seem to have plenty of space to roam. This “local secret” is one of the best kept of its kind in the county.
The Hike: On the 2 ½ – mile long Sunset Trail and the mile-long Discovery Loop Trail, you’ll see oak riparian forests, a visitor center housed in an historic ranch house, and endangered Western pond turtles. The park also hosts a broad range of interpretive programs.
Factoid: The park – located in Felton – is also home to one of the best local examples of a sandhill habitat. In Santa Cruz County, sandhills – unique communities of plants and animals found only on outcrops of Zayante sand soil – are home to four species of plants that you can only find in this environment: Santa Cruz wallflower, Ben Lomond spineflower, Ben Lomond buckwheat, and the Bonny Doon (or silverleaf) manzanita. Click here for a park map!
Pro Tip: As always with hiking, bring plenty of water. But know that this area of the county can be a bit warmer than the rest, and hot days feel a bit hotter up in the mountains.
For more information regarding hiking in Santa Cruz County, check out our website, or the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks page!