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Hike of the Week: Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail

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Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. For us, reading about a great trail is enough to get us motivated to want to check it out for ourselves. We hope to inspire this same adventurous spirit in you, our readers, by covering some of the best backcountry adventures the world has to offer.

This week's spotlight takes us to one of the most popular backpacking routes in California's Bay Area: The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.

Featured Photo: Big Basin Redwoods State Park (photo by Sandip Bhattacharya)

Why this Hike?

Whether you're lucky enough to visit the area or live nearby, a walk through the iconic redwood forests of California is always a wondrous experience. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail gives backpackers a taste of some of the best scenery the West Coast has to offer, from the ridgelines of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the peaceful redwood forests to the foggy beaches of the Pacific.

  • 28-mile, point-to-point trail   
  • 3-day, 2-night trip   
  • Moderate difficulty   
  • Best time to go: Late spring and early fall are great weather-wise, though summer can be pleasant too as long as you book your campsites well in advance.  
  • The trail passes through Castle Rock and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks (SP). 
  • The views get better the further you continue, ranging from open meadows to mountain crests, creeks to waterfalls, and quiet forests to the awe-inspiring Pacific Ocean.   
  • The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is interesting because instead of making a steep climb and then coming back down or going on a roller-coaster of a trail, this hike is mostly downhill, starting in the Santa Cruz Mountains and making its way southwest before reaching the coast of the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach. With that being said, you will still gain about 2,000ft of elevation in total, but lose around 4,500ft.   
  • Don't miss the short side trip to the stunning 70ft tall Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin Redwoods SP.

Before you start planning your trip, keep the following in mind:

  • Dispersed camping is not allowed along the trail. Designated campsites can be reserved in advance and run $15/night (up to 6 people allowed at each). More information on reserving campsites can be found in the “Resources” section.
  • Fires are only allowed in certain areas during the rainy season (winter). 
  • Many areas in the western U.S. are prone to forest fires starting in late summer/early fall, so be sure to check reports before you head out.   
  • You will need to spot cars or arrange other means of transportation. (If you plan on leaving one at Waddell Beach, you will need to register it with park staff there as only backpackers are allowed to leave their vehicles there overnight.)   
  • Several sections of the trail run adjacent to state highways, which can cause some noise and take away from the serene ambiance of the hike.   
  • Your 4-legged canine friends are not allowed on this trail.

    How do I get there?

    If you will be flying in, San Jose International is the closest major airport. From here, follow Airport Boulevard southeast until merging onto I-880 S. Continue for 2.5 miles before the road veers south and becomes known as CA-17 S. Continue south/southwest for 10 miles.

    After exiting on the Bear Creek Road exit, turn left onto Black Road and continue for 4.5 miles. Turn right onto CA-35 (also known as Skyline Boulevard) and drive another 3.8 miles. Turn left and you will find overnight parking near the entrance to the park. Total drive time from the airport is around 35 minutes.

    Map

    The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.


    We recommend a 3-day, 2-night trip to enjoy all that the area has to offer.

    • Day 1: Castle Rock State Park to Waterman Gap (9 miles)
    • Day 2: Waterman Gap to Jay Camp (9 miles)
    • Day 3: Jay Camp to Waddell Beach (10 miles)

    Trail Description

    You can go from Castle Rock State Park to Jay Camp in one day to turn your trip into an overnight instead, but you'll likely be so enchanted by the redwoods from Waterman Gap to Jay Camp that you'll be glad you decided to take your time.

    Start near the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Castle Rock SP, starting off on the Saratoga Gap Trail. Today's scenery is varied nicely, mostly alternating between ethereal forests and open chaparral areas with great views of the surrounding mountains. There is also a waterfall to enjoy along the way, made easy to view with a platform. Sections of your first-day hike will likely be the most difficult of the entire trail as you will have some boulder scrambling and a short cable-aided section. Make a couple of trail switches after passing through the San Lorenzo River Valley before reaching Waterman Gap Camp for the night.

    You'll experience your first up-close redwoods shortly after leaving camp the next day. You'll pass through more open forest after passing over China Grade, which also serves as a halfway point of the trail. You'll make a somewhat precipitous descent after here as you descend into the truly impressive redwood forests of Big Basin. Once the terrain levels out, you'll cross over Opal Creek a couple of times before continuing your journey on the road or the trail that runs adjacent to it towards Big Basin's headquarters. To get to Jay Camp for the night, take the Sequoia Trail off of the main trail. This camp is just for backpackers and much quieter than the main ones nearby, but you can still enjoy a shower and water here.

    Before heading back down the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, you may wish to do the short Redwood Loop Trail in the park, which is said to boast the biggest redwood trees in the area. As you descend the main trail, you'll find yourself in increasingly dense forest of more towering redwoods and plenty of lush undergrowth plants. One of the highlights of the day includes a side trip to Berry Creek Falls. Plus, if you continue past the main falls, you can find two smaller waterfalls. This will add a couple of miles to your trip, but is entirely worth it.

    Shortly, the trail turns into an old road as the redwoods become smaller and the forest opens up. Meander next to Waddell Creek before the trail splits, which eventually opens up to views of the ocean as you finish the final leg of your journey towards Waddell Beach.

    What will I need?

    Being so close to the coast, this trail receives mild highs most of the year, ranging from an average of 60°F to lower 70s. June through September are the exceptions, ranging from an average high of 80-86°F. Lows average in the lower 60s during these months and from 48-58° in all the other months.

    With that being said, it really depends on what the weather is like the time of year you are planning your trip as far as what kind of sleep system you might find most comfortable. A sleeping bag or quilt with a good comfort and survival rating should serve you just fine any time of year. And, of course, the quality of your sleeping pad is also a major factor to consider as it is imperative to how warm you will stay at night as well. You'll want a durable tent to help you stay comfortable during those damp and cool nights too.

     

    The Thermodown 30 Backpacking Quilt is rated for 30 degrees, which makes it a great option for the overnight lows expected along the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.

    You'll need a trusty backcountry stove for your trip since fires are a no-no pretty much year-round. Speaking of eating, some long-handled titanium eating utensils are great for any trip because they're super lightweight, durable, and, well, they prevent you from getting food all over your hands, especially from those convenient dehydrated trail meal packages.

    For a complete list of what to consider taking on your trip, check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List, complete with printable checklist!

    Do I need a permit?

    Permits are not required, but reservations for campsites are! (Again, $15/night.)

    Resources

    Santa Cruz Mountains Backcountry Trail Camps
    Current California Park Closures

    The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is a great, scenic backpacking trip for just about any skill level. Designated camps and close proximity to roads make it a viable option even for the novice backpacker.

    Have you hiked this trail or any others in the Bay Area? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

    Beginner campsite Hike of the Week

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