I have been pining to do this trail for awhile. And I mean, who wouldn't? Just the name evokes a sense of inspiration, an urge to explore -- the Skyline to Sea trail. You pick up the Skyline to Sea trailhead high in Santa Cruz Mountains and finish at the Pacific Ocean, with ancient Redwood forests, waterfalls, and slithering salamanders scattered in between...This is definitely a good one.
I've been trying to find a hiking buddy to go on this trail with me for a couple years now, with no luck. But riding the high after my solo trip to Panama, I immediately came home and booked the first available weekend, which was of course Mothers day weekend (sorry Mom!).
This would be my longest solo adventuring in the backcountry. I was nervous but excited for what the trail had in store for me. Hiking solo can provide interesting challenges that you don’t experience in group hikes as much; logistics and safety are two items that need special attention when hiking alone. But on the other hand it gives you the opportunity to self reflect and push yourself in a way that I have never experienced before.
So if you want to go it alone, I highly recommend my edited route. Logistically it works really well if you do not have two cars and it gives you the opportunity to just go all out beast mode for 3 days.
3 days, 2 nights (typically, but you can do in 2 days 1 night pretty easily just camp at the Ranger Station)
About 30 miles
Elevation Gain: approx 1,200ft - Overall this is an elevation loss as most of the trail is downhill, which is more of a curse than a blessing for some of us with old knees.
The typical Route:
Day 1: Park one car at Waddell Creek and drive to the trailhead at Castle Rock, hike Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap (6 miles)
Day 2: Waterman Gap to Big Basin Headquarters/Jay Campground (9 miles)
Day 3: Big Basin Headquarters to Waddell Beach (10 miles)
Since I was solo, I thought I would be a good lil millennial and just park my car at Waddell Creek and take an Uber to Castle Rock. Jokes on me, because Uber does not pick up this far outside of Santa Cruz (seriously Uber?!). So, last minute, I modified my trip, instead I parked my car at the Ranger Station and made it more of a lollipop loop hike.
Solo Adventurer Route:
Day 1: Park car at Big Basin Headquarters hike Skyline to Sea trail north to Waterman Gap Campground (9 miles)
Day 2: Turn around and hike south from Waterman Gap to Twin Redwoods Campground or Alder Camp (19 miles)
Day 3: Make your way back to Big Basin Ranger Station via McCrary Ridge ( X miles) -- Note: this is the lollipop loop and takes you off the Skyline to Sea Trail
Granted I did miss the top 6 miles from Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap, as well as the bottom 2 to Waddell Beach. But I got to see other remote sections that are hardly visited, meaning lest tourists and more wilderness time. Honestly think I prefer it over the standard route, its more challenging, and you get to see way more of the Park, also you don’t spend the night at the Ranger Station which is not backcountry camping since the Ranger Station is super developed, and is essentially a tourist town.
Day 1 – Big Basin to Waterman Gap (9 miles, XX elevation gain)
So even though the Ranger Station kind of sucks because it is FULL of people, this is where the big boys live. The Redwoods here are absolutely awe-inspiring, I accidentally kept bumping into people and losing the trail at times just because I could not stop looking up. Luckily, about 2 miles past the Range Station I was essentially by myself. Most of the day hikers don’t take this route up to Waterman Gap campground.
About 2 miles in are the first big hills and it will be about another 2 more miles of uphill until you reach the highest point of the Skyline to Sea trail China Grade (somewhere around 2000 ft). There are about 4 miles of uphill in this section but the trudge up is well worth it due to the amazing views that relentlessly fill this trail. Give yourself plenty of time for selfie taking!
Slowly this uphill stretch emerges out of the Redwood forest and into a more exposed/open stretch of trail. This is the only stretch of trail that did not readily have water, and is fairly exposed so be prepared. Nobody like an exposed trail, but just plan accordingly because this was one of my favorite stretches, emerging out of the dark forest to bright beautiful views of endless confer filled mountains is truly a treat. I found a huge rock outcropping I especially liked and spent some time here, having lunch, journaling, and just taking in the fresh air, quite, and expansive views. Occasionally a thru hiker came by, but for the most part this tranquil piece of paradise was all mine. Finding these moments on the trail to shed my pack, be present and focus on me is what being out here is all about.
Once you cross China Grade Road road you will start to descend back into Redwood forests. This trail is really cool at first (around mile 6) as you are back in an Ancient Redwood Grove, standing next to these behemoths really makes you realize how small your really are. Unfortunately, from here on out though you start to follow Big Basin Road and the trail starts to get less exciting and more of a trudge for the end. The last two miles, frankly, suck. These were my least favorite miles of the whole trail, and I can see why people skip the Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap section (the section which I skipped) all together. Its quite frustrating to be hiking with a pack on your back and seeing cars wiz by you. There are also a lot of houses here, sometimes it feels like you are hiking through people’s backyards. But this section of trail is easy, and under the Forest canopy, so you can really push through this section.
Night 1: Camp at Waterman Gap
The Waterman Gap campsite is nothing to brag about but it does the trick for the night. The camping spots are pretty close together, unless you get there early and get the one down the hill. But there is a pit toilet and running water for you to refill. I set up my hammock, said hello to my fellow backpackers, and quickly went to sleep. The site was full and a Ranger came by at some point to check all of our reservations so make sure you carry your papers with you.
Day 2: Waterman Gap to Redwood Campground (19 miles, x elevation)
I wasn’t sure if I was going to do this whole thing, but my car was parked at the Ranger Station so I had an opportunity about halfway to bail out if I wanted. The first 9 miles are a repeat, which usually I am not big on retracing my steps but there are no alternative routes. Good news is, instead of being primarily uphill this time it is essentially all downhill. It was a little daunting to do those first 2 miles along the road again, but once I emerged into the exposed section I really did not mind, since the views along this section are so epic.
After China Grade you will start to descend pretty quickly, once you start hiking along the Escape Road you will start to see more and more people. I got to the Ranger Station around noon and was feeling really good so I decided to keep going.
After the Ranger Station you will meet a steep inclines for about 0.75 miles. Then you will top out at Middle Ridge Road crossing. (note: Summer 2018 XYZ section of trail were closed, but the alternative trail is fairly well marked). Now you are on the route to Berry Creek Falls, this section of trail is fairly highly trafficked, as it is a day hike for many visitors to the falls. But that’s ok because I hadn’t seen many people for awhile and the trail is absolutely gorgeous here.
Berry Creek Falls is marked as a difficult trail, but I think that is primarily for the way back, which you won't be doing! However, miles 11-12 feel like a lot of up and down, until you reach Berry Creek Falls.
After Berry Creek falls you will much descend to the Waddell Creek. Cross Waddell Creek to a logging road and take this road the to Twin Redwoods Camp, following the creek the whole way. The last couple miles are absolutely beautiful and flat, giving my knees the much needed rest from all the downhill I had done that day.
This day is a monster but since its mostly downhill totally doeable with a pack on. I will note though that I have been playing with ultra-light backpacking so my pack was minimal, I bring a hammock over a tent and don't usually bring any type of stove system with me, so when I say a light pack, I mean pretty light. Also you will have ample places to fill up water, especially if you are carrying your own water filtration system, so no need to carry the full 2 liters with you.
Night Two: Twin Redwoods Camground
Overnight camping is not allowed at Waddell Beach, so I had to cut the trip short and camp the second night at Twin Redwoods. I was a little bummed that I missed the last two miles of the trail, since I heard they are beautiful, I will probably come back here for a day hike. Since it was Mothers day I was totally alone, which can be a little creepy (blog post coming soon about how I overcame my fear of overnight camping alone). This is a pretty nice campground situated right next to Waddell Creek, so even though it's a little buggy you have all the water you need. Since you are next to the creek their seems to be a lot of wildlife here as well, in one night I saw a bunch of salamanders, birds, ducks, deer, and heard an owl.
Day 3: McCrary Ridge to Big Basin Headquarters (x miles, x elevation gain)
Originally I thought I would just follow the Skyline to Sea trail back to the Headquarters. But after looking at my map over a PB&J I noticed the McCarthy Ridge trail (ok maybe more like a couple PB&Js....fine maybe I had like 4, but I deserved it right??). I could tell it was going to be difficult based on the maps topographic lines, but it was shorter and I really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back up the way I came. So I decided to go for it.
About 1.5 miles north of Twin Redwoods is the turn off for McCrary Ridge, and its straight up, the trail climbs over 1200' in 2.5 miles....yes it’s a butt buster. But the views are so amazing here, probably some of the best, this is a real treat for the solo hiker because on the Skyline to Sea Trail you don't hit this section of the park. Additionally, I am not sure if it was just because it was a Monday or because of the trails difficulty but I did not see one person on the trail, at this point I had been hiking for about 12 hours without seeing a single soul. At the top are some of the most amazing vista from 1,739' Mt. McAbee Overlook. Spend some time here to reflect on what you just accomplished, you pushed yourself, you did it alone.
Its an easy 2 miles back to the Ranger Station from here.
This may become a yearly trip for me. If you have never been on a solo adventure before, I would highly recommend this for first timers. There are a lot of great things about this hike for beginners, water is readily available along the trail, it is fairly populated so you will never really be "alone", and there is some great terrain to cover.
You can make reservations up to 2 months in advance at backcountry trail camp website. You can try for same-day reservations at 831-338-8861 but if it is a weekend I would not get my hopes up.
The total fee for 2 nights and up to 6 people is $38.00, including parking for one car (this pass is good for both Castle Rock lot and parking at the Ranger Station).
Some area trail camps may be closed between November 1st and April 30th due to winter rains, also summer forest fires can close the trail as well. If you're worried the trail may be closed call the Ranger Station number: 831-338-8860
David Baselt's Redwood Hike blog has some good information on the "normal" route.