Residents in and around Santa Cruz County don’t have to travel far for an outdoor adventure—in this rich and diverse region, hiking opportunities abound. From easy strolls along the scenic coastline to strenuous treks deep into the forest, you will certainly find the perfect summer hike to suit your needs.
"There's quite a bit of hiking around here," says Cindy, an employee at Outdoor World in Capitola. "Nisene Marks has a lot of great trails and so does Wilder Ranch. We have plenty of maps right here in the store to help you decide where you want to go."
Below is a list of the top hiking trails in the Santa Cruz County area.
Old Cove Landing Trail—Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz: This is a hike that every local resident and visitor should do at least once. It’s relatively easy if you’re in decent shape and affords spectacular views of the entire Monterey Bay. It’s a 7.6 mile out and back hike located right along the ocean bluffs that features beautiful wild flowers and amazing views. Don’t be intimidated by the fact it’s 7.6 miles. This is a flat trail and if you get tired early, you can just turn around and head back to the trailhead.
Five Finger Falls Trail—The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, Aptos: If you’re looking for a strenuous hike that takes you into some of the region’s most beautiful wooded forests, this is one hike you won’t want to miss. Reward yourself with a dip in the river or if you don’t want to get completely wet, you may be able to catch the mist from the waterfall (the waterfall is very powerful in the spring, so watch out!). This hike is definitely on the difficult side, but at roughly 10 miles round trip, you can do it in one day—just make sure you start bright and early.
Skyline to the Sea Trail—Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek: Don’t know if you want to be by the ocean or in the trees? Well this is one time you won’t have to decide. A favorite hike on the California Central Coast, this 29-mile trail stretches from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains all the way to Waddell Beach, 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. You got it. You’ll be in the forest yet still have an ocean view—you’ve met your perfect match. This is not necessarily a hike you can do in one day, but you don’t need to. Most people break the trail up into sections and complete a few miles at a time over the course of days, weeks, months and even years!
Redwood Loop Trail—Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton: For the less ambitious or for those individuals that still want to enjoy the beauty of the redwoods while not exerting themselves beyond their comfort zone, a stroll on the Redwood Loop Trail at Henry Cowell is on the agenda. It is a self-guided, easy, flat, wheelchair-accessible, .8 mile loop through giant old-growth redwoods. But on most weekends in the summer, free guided walks led by docents or park employees are available.
Meadow Trail Loop—Mount Madonna County Park, Watsonville: For a short and easy 3-mile hike among beautiful second-growth redwoods, take the Meadow Loop Trail which passes in and out of redwood, oak woodland and Manzanita scrub environments, often within 50 steps of each other. Also a great hike for families with children as the trail passes the pen holding the park’s small herd of white fallow deer—always a hit among the youngsters.
Be sure to adhere to the following hiking tips for a safe and fun outdoor adventure. Even if you plan on just going for a short stroll, I encourage you to be prepared. You never know when that safety kit will come in handy.
- Always carry a first aid kit, flashlight, matches and emergency blanket.
- Carry enough water to last several hours longer than you plan on being out.
- Pack some snacks in your backpack (fruit, energy bars, nuts, trail mix, etc.)
- Consider purchasing a GPS (Global Positioning System) or at the very least a compass.
- Although you probably won’t get a signal when you are deep into the forest, you should still bring a cell phone.
- If you hike alone, inform a friend or family member of where you are going and when you intend to return.
- Always carry out what you carry in (no one likes a litterbug).
- Dress in layers. Coastal weather can change instantly once that fog rolls in!