Travel Blog

PUT YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD: SANTA CRUZ COUNTY’S TOP 5 HIKES

Santa Cruz County is home to rugged coastline, majestic redwoods, and trails to secret beaches making it the premier destination for your next hiking adventure! Join us as we go through our Top 5 Picks for hiking!

MOST DIVERSE HIKE

What: 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.

Walk: By far, one of the most scenic spots to hike is the Old Cove Landing Trail, a 7 ½ miles round-trip located on the north coast that is one of the prime spots for wild flowers.  You can access the beach from here and walk along the bluff leading to the cove.

Factoid: The Old Cove Landing Trail is packed regularly to be wheelchair accessible – but weather and wear is something to consider. On a good day you will come across gulls, pelicans, geese, sea lions passing, and maybe even migrating whales. The park grounds also include restored Victorian homes, barns, shops, gardens, and a historic adobe for visitors.

Pro tip* Bring a jacket on this hike, as the coast can get a little breezy.

BEST HIKE FOR FAMILIES

What: 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.

Walk: 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, river and creeks sure are tempting!

BEST SEASIDE HIKE

What: 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.

Walk: 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.

MOST MYSTERIOUS HIKE

What: Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Most of the old-growth redwoods in Nisene Marks were felled a century or more ago. But a few old giants remain in this sprawling, less-crowded redwood park just outside of Aptos Village, and so does a mysterious group of trees with oddly configured trunks known as the Twisted Grove.

Walk: This 3 ½-mile round trip hike starts on Aptos Rancho Trail and leads to the Old-Growth Loop. To get to the Twisted Grove, turn right on the trail just after the creek crossing and follow it up to a bluff overlooking the creek to gape at the gracefully twisting trunks. (The seasonal bridge is dismantled every winter, but many years the creek is shallow enough to rock-hop or scoot across a log.) After the Twisted Grove, the loop leads to a section of trail with some magnificent old-growth trees rising from a fern-thick ravine that looks straight out of Jurassic Park.

Factoid: The 1,000-year-old Advocate Tree at the base of the ravine toppled during the storms of January 2017. The mighty 260-foot-tall specimen had been a mascot of sorts for the park’s preservation; now it’s slowly returning its nutrients to the forest floor, a process that will take centuries.

Pro tip* Bring a snack to enjoy at Pourroy’s Picnic Area, a peaceful spot located right next to the creek crossing.

BEST “HIDDEN” HIKE

What: 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.

Walk: 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!

For more info on hiking in Santa Cruz County, check out our website, or the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks page!

Updated September 2020

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