Seas of golden grass above a blue ocean
Hiking Wilder Ranch
Neil Wiley

If you would like to see how California once was, or if you would like to see how beautiful it could be, visit Wilder Ranch. Itís a short drive out of Santa Cruz, less than two miles west of Western Avenue on Highway 1. Turn left when you see the Wilder Ranch sign. When the parking kiosk is open (usually only on weekends), pay $3; otherwise itís free.

A short walk takes you to the cultural preserve, an assortment of farm buildings, an interpretive center and a small park store. You can pick up maps, drinks, books, etc. before exploring. You can also visit farm animals, including sheep, goats, chickens and horses, see old farm equipment, or picnic at tables behind the barn.

But Wilder Ranch is far more than a living history farm site. A walk behind the barn takes you through a tunnel under Highway 1 to over 5,000 acres of backcountry and 33 miles of multi-use (equestrian, biking and hiking) trails. And what great trails they are.

I chose a grand loop trail that took me up Wilder Ridge Loop Trail across the park to Twin Oaks Trail, then over Enchanted Loop Trail and back down Baldwin Loop Trail. Then I walked under Highway 1 through a second tunnel to Four-Mile Beach and back to the cultural preserve along the ocean via Ohlone Bluff Trail. This grand loop has it allóbeautiful rolling hills, interesting areas of forest, giant meadows, quiet little valleys, and dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean.

Although the hike took me up about 600 feet, the walk up Wilder Ridge Loop was easy. The trail goes up a series of marine terraces, so you make a short climb, then walk a relatively flat plateau, then climb to another terrace. Also, I started up at 8:30 in the morning, and it was still foggy and cool. By the time I reached the highest point on my hike, the fog had burned off, providing some scenic views.

Twin Oaks Trail was a pleasant, narrow path through meadows and areas of light forest. Next, I came to the Enchanted Loop Trail, another interesting and narrow path. Although these trails were less than a foot wide, my two feet fit fine except in a few sections that had been worn to a deep V.

The Baldwin Loop Trail brought me back down to the ocean. Most of this trail was in a giant meadow, tilted down just enough for easy walking and good views of the ocean. Although I was walking in bright sun, the breeze off the ocean was cool. As I got closer to Highway 1, the trail sloped downward steeply and the vegetation was higher. It was like walking in a jungle.

A short walk through the tunnel took me to a different landscape of high cliffs, rocks, a narrow sandy beach and blue ocean. I watched the surfers for awhile. Rather than following the trail, I walked on the beach until it became too narrow. I was jumping from rock to rock, and found myself trapped up against the cliff with water lapping at my feet. I had to climb back over the rocks until I could find a path up the top of the cliff and Ohlone Bluff Trail.

This part of the trail is not well marked, and I found myself walking through a bean field. If you canít find the trail, you might do as I did. I walked north until I found the railroad track, then followed it east until I reached the Cultural Preserve parking lot.

Total walking distance of my loop was twelve miles or so. Although this is a good loop for hikers and bikers, equestrians must stay on the north side of Highway 1. My trip is only one option. The park offers many miles of looped trails with lots of variety, so you can go back many times.

If this hike sounds too ambitious, you can walk the Old Cove Landing Trail from the parking lot down to the ocean. Itís only a few miles long but it offers some interesting sites, including Fern Grotto Beach. And if you are looking for a longer adventure, you can connect with trails to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park or Pogonip Park. (Note: The Engelsman Loop Trail is closed temporarily, and the Wagon Wheel Trail is closed permanently.)

Wilder Ranch offers great variety. Itís one of my favorite places. I liked it so much that I almost forgot to eat lunch. Let me know if you like it too.

For more information about Wilder Ranch events and tours, call 831-426-0505. (See our calendar to learn about Wilderís July 4 celebration.) For trail information, call the ranger office, 831-423-9703.


This trail  map is based on a map from Tom Taberís Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book, page 190, Oak Valley Press, 228 Virginia Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94022. Tomís books are available at bookstores and parks in the Bay Area.

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