Four women, 30 miles, three days and zero permanent injuries on the PCT of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Story and photos by Kate Bradshaw
Ever since moving to the Peninsula two years ago, I’ve envisioned hiking the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Why this trail? Because its lovely name telegraphs its two loveliest features: great views and a net elevation loss. And frankly, the thought of schlepping a heavy backpack roughly 30 miles sounded more tolerable with the promise of spectacular views and an assist from gravity.
So in anticipation of my 25th birthday, mildly panicking per the terms of my looming quarter-life crisis, I recruited my little sister Molly (16), my mom Joyce (53), and my college bestie Madison to join me on this 3-day journey through the Santa Cruz Mountains. As for our experience levels, neither Molly nor Madison had been backpacking before; I had been on a couple of 3–5 day backpacking trips; and my mom had been on several extended backcountry forays. In retrospect, this was probably not a great first-timers’ outing, but things worked out fine, mostly because our group’s novices showed some grit.
Getting the permit was one of the hardest parts of the trip. Reservations are required, can be made no more than two months in advance, and fill up quickly for weekend dates. The reservation system feels antiquated—you have to call to make a reservation—and I had to follow up with the office several times to get the proper documents sent to me. Permits cost $38 for up to six people for two nights.
Day 1: Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap (7 miles)
My mom and I started the morning by shuttling our cars to the Rancho del Oso Nature Center, which, from the Mid-Peninsula, took about an hour each way. The entrance is guarded by a yellow gate across Highway 1 from Waddell Beach. Driving back, I had a scare when realized I’d put only the parking pass, instead of the pass plus the required copy of the backpacking permit, on the dashboard of the car we ditched. I called Big Basin Headquarters in a panic, but since parking is handled by a different office, the conversation was not very helpful. The gist was: “Maybe they’ll tow you, maybe they won’t.” We decided to gamble rather than turn around and lose valuable time.
After picking up the rest of our troops and our supplies, we cajoled my cousin into giving us a ride to Saratoga Gap. If you aren’t able to talk your way into a ride to that trailhead, you’ll have to drive to Castle Rock State Park, where overnight parking is permitted. That route adds roughly 3 miles to the trip.
The first day’s hike, about 6.7 miles from Saratoga Gap to the Waterman Gap backpacking camp, covered some beautiful ground, if a little close to civilization. I had cell service, and Highway 236 was within earshot nearly the whole day.
We arrived at the site earlier than expected, though a little later than some of our trail compatriots who had claimed the more isolated spots, so we set up camp and got to cooking the best backpackers’ meal for warming the belly and the heart: Annie’s white cheddar mac and cheese. Nommm.
Day 2: Waterman Gap to Jay Camp at Big Basin State Park (10 miles)
We were mentally prepared for the second day to be the hardest — trail narratives we’d read indicated that there is a fair amount of elevation gain on the route. Most maps says you’ll hike about 10 miles over the course of the day.
(Image from trail description linked on Sempervirens Fund website).
The trail felt a little crowded the second morning, with some groups passing back-and-forth to establish pace with other Skyline-to-the-Sea hikers. There was one group of twentysomething dudes who struck us as pretty obnoxious. One of them had shouted out something lame and macho like, “Give a holler if you need reinforcements!” as we were setting up camp the previous night. As if. Needless to say, we were determined to outpace them. Madison’s “Smash the Patriarchy” T-shirt and our heated discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale kept us powering along the trails well ahead of the bros. We barely noticed the climb over the China Grade crossing.
Somewhere along the way, Mama Joyce earned herself the title “Queen of the Outdoors” (complete with a jingle we invented) for Mary Poppins-ing all kinds of tools out of her pack that we amateurs didn’t even know we needed until we really needed them: moleskin, the poop shovel, extra socks, and of course, Ibuprofen.
Once we hit Big Basin State Park, we started running into more people who were coming from the park’s center. We finally arrived at the Ranger’s Station at Big Basin State Park, which has a cafe offering sweet respite from camp food in the form of soft serve ice cream cones, espresso drinks and cold beer.
The backpacking camps at Big Basin are more spartan than the car camping sites at the park, which was mildly disappointing — no fires are allowed for backpackers. But there are bear boxes and bathrooms nearby with flushing toilets, plus showers that you can use for a fee, so it was still basically a hotel compared to our nights of roughing it.
For 50 cents, I had a glorious two-minute shower that even had hot water. My companions teased me mercilessly for being insufficiently committed to The Grunge. But after two days of feeling my face a-pimpling from the constant application of sweat, dirt, sunscreen and bug spray, I felt I’d earned more than enough badass outdoorswoman points. Best 50 cents I’ve ever spent.
I also spotted electric outlets near the outside sinks for folks needing an emergency phone charge. Note: there is no cell service there, though there is a pay phone near the ranger’s station.
We rounded out the day with a short walk through the park’s half-mile Redwood Loop path, which passes by the Mother and Father of the Forest — two giant redwood trees nearly 300 feet tall.
Even more impressive to me than these trees’ height is their age. By the ranger’s station was a cross-section of a giant tree showing each ring of its 1,400 years and a superimposed timeline showing historical events. As in, the U.S. has only been around for a small part of the tree’s outer circumference growth. It made me feel tiny and insignificant, but also lucky to be trekking around on a planet where there are things as beautiful and elegant as giant redwoods.
By then, I’d also discovered another, more profane perk of these magnificent trees: at their base, many redwoods trunks have been hollowed out, usually by fire, and they double as fantastic pissoirs — they’ve got great visibility screening. Just don’t forget to whiz off the beaten trail, and bury your TP carefully.
Day 3: Jay Camp to Waddell Beach, via the waterfalls (13+ miles)
The third day of the journey did not go according to plan. More specifically, winter storms had washed out the Skyline to the Sea Trail, so we had to take the Sunset Trail to Berry Creek Falls Trail, extending our route by about 3 miles, much of which was uphill.The trail markers were actually labeled with “WARNING” signs indicating it was not for the faint of heart or under-hydrated. Given existing muscle soreness and the more challenging terrain, there were a couple of stumbles, but fortunately no major injuries. We eventually made it to some spectacular waterfalls: Golden Cascade at the top, which flows down to Silver Falls. The descent between the falls was fairly steep. About a mile down Berry Creek Falls Trail is the namesake waterfall, which marked the juncture to reconnect with the Skyline to the Sea Trail.
Once we were on the trail again, it eventually widened and flattened out to a bike- and horse-access trail. Along the way, a guy walking barefoot and his long-skirted lady friend pointed out to us a rare albino redwood. It cannot photosynthesize for itself, but gets its nutrients from its parent trees’ root networks, the man said. Once back in cell range, I looked it up. Sure enough, albino redwoods are rare, but known to grow in the area.
At a subsequent fork, we opted to follow the hikers-only extension of the Skyline to the Sea Trail — though there was a flatter, more accessible option for bikes and horses — which routed us up through a valley. Just when it felt like we must have gone too far or missed a turn, we rounded a bend and were met with the sight and scent of the ocean.
Somewhere near the finish line, we made the unanimous decision that our destination should actually be spelled “Waddle” Beach, since that’s what our gaits most resembled. Skyline-to-the-Sea might be classified a downhill trek, but it’s a long one for most city dwellers, with a surprising amount of climbing, and footsore is the natural state for trekkers at the end.
Finally, though, we rounded the corner and, with relief, spotted our car in the distance near the Rancho Del Oso Nature Center — it hadn’t been towed! Once at the car, we gingerly hopped in to cross Highway 1 to the beach. We saw the waves crashing onto the sand, and, with newfound energy, dashed into the water.
For more information, visit the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail page on redwoodhikes.com.
Kate Bradshaw is a reporter at the Almanac, where she covers all things Menlo Park. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and exploring the Peninsula.
Note: Since I completed the trail in June, there have been some changes to the reservation process. Now, to make a reservation, you’ll have to visit the Santa Cruz Mountains Backcountry Trail Camps page to fill out a trail camp request form. The link also has a new, more comprehensive trail guide, according to Big Basin park staff.
If the request is approved, you’ll have to call (831) 338–8861 within 24 hours between 9am and 5pm to pay for the permit by phone with a debit or credit card.
According to Big Basin’s backcountry calendar, there are still limited sites available in August and September, especially on weekdays. October reservations become available Aug. 1.
Backpacking reservations for the trail can be made year-round. If you’re planning to hike the trail between November and April, services are limited, according to park staff. In other words: be prepared to bring your own toilet paper and hike out your trash.