Did you know that Santa Cruz County has over fourteen state parks? Day hikes are the best way to explore them as you can travel through scenery ranging from towering redwoods and babbling streams to mountaintop views plunging to the ocean. Although you may not be able to get to all the parks in on your first trip, these hikes will show some great highlights so you can plan what to see when you return. Most state parks are open from sunrise to sunset so there’s plenty of time to let the miles glide under your shoes. Want to bring your furry friend along? Check out these options as not all state parks allow dogs.
For Forest Lovers
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Vista Point Loop
This Henry Cowell hike among redwoods with views of the Monterey Bay is perfect for those with limited time who want to get the most out of their visit. Starting from the visitor center, walk along the sandy River Trail until hitting the paved path of Pipeline Road. After a steep, shady climb, stop for views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk at the Overlook Bench on Pipeline Road. Return the way you came taking a right on the Ridge Fire Road Trail walking up twisted tree roots to a sandy trail leading to the Observation Deck. At this point you can return on Eagle Creek via Pine Trail to finish the loop, arriving back at the visitor center. Make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen if you plan on hiking in the afternoon. Limited snacks and water are available for purchase at the Mountain Parks Foundation store. Parking is $10 or free with an annual State Park Pass.
Henry Cowell- Fall Creek Division
Mileage: 2.2 Roundtrip
Containing about twenty miles of trails, the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell is located in the small town of Felton in the San Lorenzo Valley. As a slightly remote location with no facilities, this is another place to get away from it all. The sounds of the river and streams are the perfect background noise to a relaxing hike in the redwoods. Take the Bennet Creek Trail and follow Fall Creek for about a mile before taking South Fork ending at the lime kilns and powder magazines left from the 1870s. Parking is free but limited. For your safety, please stay on marked trails.
Nisene Marks State Park
Stay cool as you step into the solitude of old-growth redwoods at Nisene Marks State Park. From the main parking lot, follow the fire road or take Rancho Aptos Trail for approximately 2.5 miles until you reach the Loma Prieta Grade trail. This mainly flat section is lined with redwood trees and Bay Laurel and slips in and out of the sun. Keep right once you reach Hoffman’s, staying on Millpond Trail. Follow the path down, stopping to see the placards with information about the Porter House (since overgrown) At the bottom of your descent you will reach a small wooden bridge at around 3.2 miles. On still days watch the reflection of maple trees as they arch over Aptos Creek. Take a seat on the bench before you cross and enjoy the sounds of the forest. When you are ready to return cross the bridge, veering right and continue the way you came to return to the parking lot. Parking is $10 or free with an annual State Park Pass. Be sure to arrive early, especially on the weekends, as the main lot tends to fill up quickly.
For Wide Open Vistas
Castle Rock State Park
Skyline/Loghry Woods/Saratoga Gap Loop
With its unique rock formations and thirty-five miles of trails, Castle Rock State Park is ideal for hikers and geologists. To begin this hike, take the Connector Trail from the main parking lot entering the cool shade of oak trees. Pass Goat Rock, a climber’s haven, stopping for views of the Santa Cruz Coastal Range on clear days. Continue by following the trail to the campground (which is 1.7 miles away) or take a 0.1 detour to the interpretative center. This covered overhang has picnic benches and information about park history, wildlife, and geology. You will know you have reached the campground a mile away after crossing two wooden bridges. Follow the signs for Skyline/Loghry Woods and pick up the Skyline Trail across the road. Follow Skyline Trail as it enters Sanborn County Park, continuing until you reach the main entrance to Castle Rock State Park. Be sure to arrive early and carry plenty of water as none is available past the visitor center. Parking in the main lot is $10 or free with an annual State Park Pass. Overflow parking on Highway 35 is free and is first come first served.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch is a year-round favorite for cool coastal temps and some epic open vistas. Want to see wildlife and wildflowers? This is your park as poppies bloom in the spring and rabbits constantly skitter into the brush. Whatever time you get to visit, begin this hike passing through the historic ranch complex and walking by the old cowboy barns and bunkhouses. Be forewarned this hike begins with an uphill climb on Engelsmans Loop Trail. Once you reach the top look back to see views of the Monterey Bay before dipping into shaded forests via Old Cabin Trail. After reveling in the quiet of redwood trees, emerge into open meadows as you take a left on the Eucalyptus Loop Trail. Listen for the call of wild turkeys while keeping an eye out for herds of deer. Get your first glimpse of the ocean as you make your way down Wilder Ridge Loop. For about a six-mile trip take the Zane Grey Cutoff or continue on Wilder Ridge Loop Trail for a 7.5-mile round trip dropping you back at the visitor center. Be sure to stay on the trail to avoid poison oak and keep an ear out for mountain bikers. Parking is $10 or free with an annual State Parks Pass.