Santa Cruz Section 4
Wilder Ranch State Park to Santa Cruz Wharf
Along this walk you'll see many contrasts, from the rural agriculture north of town to suburbia to the bustle of the wharf area. The busy multiple-use trail explores a spectacular shoreline. Plenty of interesting things to do and see along the way can make this short hike an all day affair.
From the Wilder Ranch State Park parking lot, walk east down the park road to the historic center of the ranch. This is the real thing restored ranch houses, buildings, and artifacts from the 1850s through the 1890s. Docents lead tours on weekends, and visitors are welcome to wander among the buildings or hike the miles of trails inland.
Continue on the road to reach Highway 1 at ⅜ mile. Walk the new trail off the road along the highway right of way. The latter is heavily used by mountain bikers going to Wilder Ranch State Park. At 1⅝ miles turn right on Shaffer Road and walk to the railroad tracks at 1⅞ miles.
From here you have a choice. Go left along the tracks for a short distance and turn right just before the little bridge onto a trail skirting Antonelli Pond, coming to Delaware Street at 2⅛ miles. Alternately continue across the tracks on Shaffer Road and turn left on Delaware. Either way continue on Delaware a short way. Watch on the right for the wide paved trail entering Natural Bridges State Beach at the intersection with Natural Bridges Drive. Walk the paved trail into the park and find the visitor center around 2⅝ miles. The visitor center emphasizes the thousands of monarch butterflies which migrate here, overwintering in eucalyptus trees from September through March. A short wooden ramp trail leads into the butterfly resting area.
Walk across the parking lot and take the trail leading down to the beach around 2¾ miles. The rock bridge that once graced the main beach is gone, washed away by the waves. Only one of the original three natural bridges for which the park was named remains.
From the beach, walk up the bluff stairway to West Cliff Drive and the beginning of the busy paved multi-use trail. As you follow the trail east, watch for runners, bicyclists and inline skaters. The trail stays near the bluff's edge overlooking the churning surf crashing against the cliffs. Houses line the other side of the street. All along here board surfers and boogie boarders enjoy some great breaks. Point Santa Cruz at Lighthouse Field State Beach at 4⅝ miles defines the northern tip of Monterey Bay. On the point a building designed to look like a lighthouse now houses a surfing museum and store. The point offers good viewing of sea otters, whales and brown pelicans. Steamer Lane, a world famous big-wave surf break, rolls along just off the east side of the point. As you round the point and head north, you can see the Santa Cruz Wharf ahead. Follow the wooded path winding along the bluff. Above Cowell Beach it leaves West Cliff Drive and descends to the foot of the wharf and section's end at 5½ miles. The ½ mile-long wharf is worth a look with fisherfolks, boat and sea kayak rentals, restaurants and shops.
SUGGESTED ROUND TRIPS & LOOPS: Starting at either the Wharf or Natural Bridges State Beach, walk out and back on the multi-use trail for a fine urban waterfront 6-mile round trip. From Wilder Ranch State Park, several long and short loops climb into the low hills across the highway from the historic ranch buildings. This area is heavily used by mountain bikers, so hikers should use caution walking the inland areas. The park also has docent led tours of the extensive and historically significant farm buildings.
Distance: 5½ miles (8.9 kilometers).
Open to: Hikers. Bicyclists on most.
Surface: Trail, highway shoulder, paved trail, beach.
Access point: Wilder Ranch State Park parking lot.
How to get there: Turn west off Highway 1 one mile north of the Santa Cruz city limit.
Other access: Natural Bridges State Beach, anywhere on north Santa Cruz city shoreline.
Elevation gain/loss: 100 feet+/160 feet-.
Cautions: Watch for speeding bicyclists and skaters on the multi-use trail.
Further information: Santa Cruz State Parks (831)429-2850, Natural Bridges State Beach (831)423-4609.
Facilities: Restrooms, water, picnic tables at several points along route.
Campgrounds: Henry Cowell State Park 3 miles east of Santa Cruz has camping.
Lodging: Santa Cruz Hostel (831)423-8304. Santa Cruz has abundant motels, hotels and B&Bs.
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