Musings on IT, data management, whitewater rafting, and backpacking

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

100 mile Backpack Trip in Santa Cruz Mountains

You can backpack for 10 days in a loop in the Santa Cruz Mountains, between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean, hiking 8-12 miles per day. This trip is roughly 100 miles, depending on which trails you take, and which maps and signs you believe!

August 6, 2014: Portola Redwoods State Park has no piped drinking water until further notice. Due to severe drought, you should check all water sources before depending on them.

Trip Overview
Click to Enlarge
Image from Google Earth

After day hiking in these mountains for over 20 years, I realized that you could backpack a long loop. I haven't seen this loop described anywhere else. I backpacked this trip alone in 2002, 2003, and 2008, and a variation in 2012.

This trip is mostly on well-maintained trails and dirt roads, with a moderate amount of climbing and dropping. You will hike roughly 4 miles alongside paved country roads with few cars.

Each night you camp in a campground, with an outhouse or flush toilets. Most camps have drinkable water. Jay Camp has pay showers nearby. Costanoa Resort has many luxuries, roughly halfway through the trip. Backcountry camping is not allowed. You must reserve most campsites by phone. Some camps are booked many weeks in advance. California State Parks have reduced campsite seasons, closed some campsites, reduced operating hours, and reduced trail maintenance budgets. Contact each park for current information.

By picking up supplies at Costanoa Resort, you carry only five days of food at most. You pass reliable water sources every day, though you need to carry water overnight three times. You need to carry a stove, open fires are mostly prohibited.

Cell phone coverage is very spotty in these mountains.

You will be hiking through mixed redwood forests most of the time, so you really appreciate the few scenic overlooks.

I've backpacked this trip in the spring, summer, and fall – spring and fall are the best seasons. You can go for days without seeing other hikers, yet you are surrounded by 8.5 million people in the greater San Francisco Bay area.

Spring and fall temperatures range from the 30°s F to 80°s F, with rain possible. Summer temperatures range from the 40°s F to 90°s F, with thick fog likely. Tent recommended for the rain, fog drip, and bugs. Mosquitoes are a nuisance at dusk and dawn. Ticks, scorpions, and other night time visitors can cause problems. I stored food in my tent at night without problems, but raccoons and mice could cause problems if you are careless.

Getting There

You can start at many different trailheads and hike either direction. The recommended trailheads and direction minimize food and water carries. Finding good water is surprisingly hard in these rainy mountains.

You could have someone drop you off and pick you up at the recommended trailheads, which have no overnight parking.

You could take SamTrans buses to within a half-mile of the Arastradero trailhead, and walk the rest of the way. You could take Santa Clara Valley VTA buses to within a couple of miles of the Arastradero and Rancho San Antonio trailheads,  and walk the rest of the wayYou could take Santa Cruz Metro buses to Big Basin headquarters or Waddell Creek, but you must carry a lot more food.

For most trailheads, you can request overnight parking when you make camp reservations. Some parks get confused when you tell them that you are hiking through and don't need parking!


Two maps from Redwood Hikes Press cover this entire trip, with excellent accuracy, updated trails and roads, and all trail mileages.
You can also find these maps at many stores. I used only these maps for my 2012 hike. Highly recommended.

In 2013, National Geographic published new Trails Illustrated maps that cover this trip: #815 Skyline Boulevard, and #816 Big Basin, Santa Cruz. I haven't seen these maps yet.

For my early hikes, I gathered all these maps:
  • Enid W. Pearson Arastradero Preserve – City of Palo Alto
  • Foothills Park – City of Palo Alto
  • South Skyline Region – MROSD
  • Castle Rock State Park – State of California
  • Big Basin Redwoods State Park – State of California
  • Costanoa trails map – Costanoa Resort
  • Butano State Park – State of California
  • The Basin Trail Easement – Sempervirens Fund (very hard to find)
  • Pescadero Creek County Park – San Mateo County
  • Portola Redwoods State Park – State of California
  • Rancho San Antonio County Park and Preserve – MROSD
Two older maps give a good overview of the hike, but they have many frustrating errors:
  • Trail Map of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Map 1 – Sempervirens Fund
  • Trail Map of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Map 2 – Sempervirens Fund

Day 1 - Arastradero to Black Mountain

Start in Palo Alto at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve, and hike towards Foothills Park. Non-residents are allowed to hike through Foothills Park (1). Hike through into Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, then into Monte Bello OSP, and camp at Black Mountain Backpack Camp. Black Mountain has non-potable water which you should filter, treat, or boil.

Day 2 - Black Mountain to Castle Rock

Hike down Stevens Creek and up through Stevens Creek County Park to Highway 35 - Skyline Blvd. Continue southeast, east of Skyline, through Saratoga Gap OSP, to the intersection of Highways 35 and 9 at Saratoga Gap. Cross Highway 9 and follow the Bay Area Ridge Trail east of Skyline to Castle Rock State Park. Camp at Castle Rock Trail Camp, with drinking water.

Day 3 - Castle Rock to Waterman Gap

Hike to the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River and the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. You will follow this trail to the sea for the next few days. Camp at Waterman Gap Trail Camp, with drinking water.

Day 4 - Waterman Gap to Big Basin

Follow the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Park headquarters has a small camp store with fast food. Camp at Jay Trail Camp, with drinking water.

Day 5 - Big Basin to Pacific Ocean

Follow the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail to the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach. After your ritual toe-dip, return the way you came. Load up on  drinking water at the horse camp, and camp at Twin Redwoods Trail Camp or Alder Trail Camp. You could treat and drink Waddell Creek water, but I don't recommend it.

Day 6 - Pacific Ocean to Costanoa

Cross Waddell Creek, hike up West Ridge Trail, over Chalk Mountain, and down Whitehouse Creek, to Costanoa Resort. You can sleep in luxury, or pitch your tent. I like the Douglas Fir Cabins. Costanoa has a very small store and restaurant.

On some trips, my wife met me here with supplies for the second half of the trip. On other trips, I dropped off supplies packed in two 5 gallon buckets with lids, which the resort stored until I arrived.

Caution: some maps show a trail between Whitehouse Creek and Old Womans Creek, crossing the inland portion of Ano Nuevo State Park. Don't take it!  In 2003, that trail was badly overgrown, and crossing Old Womans Creek was quite difficult. In 2008, California State Parks had placed No Trespassing signs in that area.

Day 7 - Costanoa to Butano

Take the back roads through Costanoa, parallel to Highway 1, to the intersection of Highway 1 and Gazos Creek Road, where you might find a small convenience store and restaurant open. Gazos Creek is your last chance for a short side trip to the Pacific Ocean. Follow paved Gazos Creek Road and Cloverdale Road (you might see a dozen cars on a weekday) to Butano State Park. Load up on drinking water at the park entrance. Camp at the Trail Camp. An unreliable creek is roughly 1/2 mile away and a few hundred feet lower.

Day 8 - Butano to Slate Creek

Take Butano Fire Road to the end at China Grade Road. Take the Basin Trail Easement down into Pescadero Creek County Park. Cross Pescadero Creek into Portola Redwoods State Park. Load up on drinking water at park headquarters. Camp at Slate Creek Trail Camp. An unreliable creek is roughly 3/4 mile away and a few hundred feet lower. 

Day 9 - Slate Creek to Black Mountain

Hike up to Long Ridge OSP. Follow the Bay Area Ridge Trail to Skyline Ridge OSP. Cross over Skyline Blvd into Montebello OSP. Camp at Black Mountain Backpack Camp again.

Day 10 - Black Mountain to Arastradero or Rancho San Antonio

You can return to your starting point at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto, or hike over the top of Black Mountain to end your trip at Rancho San Antonio County Park near Cupertino.

Miles and Trails

Here are the miles and trails for one trip. Slate Creek camp was closed for the season, so I used Tarwater Camp in Pescadero Creek County Park instead, a few miles out of the way. Slate Creek is much nicer!

Distances shown on maps, signs, and my hiking-pace estimates differ, sometimes wildly. I've always found the MROSD and Redwood Hikes maps to be quite accurate. Where I had any doubt, the miles shown are my best estimate.

Start – Pearson Arastradero Preserve
0.1 – Parking lot trail
0.5 – De Anza trail
1.4 – Arastradero Creek Trail
0.3 – One-way Road
0.3 – Road to Orchard Glen
0.4 – Wildhorse trail
0.8 – Costanoan Trail
1.4 – Los Trancos Trail
0.5 – Bay to Ridge Trail
2.1 – Page Mill Trail
0.3 – Canyon Trail
0.8 – Bella Vista Trail
0.7 – Old Ranch Trail
Night 1 – Black Mountain Backpack Camp
1.0 – Indian Creek Trail

2.3 – Canyon Trail
1.1 – Table Mountain Trail
2.7 – Un-named Trail
1.7 – Saratoga Gap Trail
Cross Highway 9
1.7 – Skyline Trail
Cross Highway 35
1.8 – Loughry Woods Trail
0.2 – Service Road
Night 2 – Castle Rock Trail Camp
0.6 – Frog Flat Trail

0.4 – Saratoga Gap Trail
2.1 – Travertine Springs Trail
0.8 – Saratoga Toll Road Trail
0.4 – Beekhuis Road Trail
2.6 – Skyline to the Sea Trail
Night 3 – Waterman Gap Trail Camp
4.3 – Skyline to the Sea Trail

Cross China Grade Road
4.3 – Skyline to the Sea Trail
0.4 – Sequoia Trail
Night 4 – Jay Trail Camp
0.4 – Sequoia Trail

0.9 – Skyline to the Sea Trail
Cross Middle Ridge Road
9.4 – Skyline to the Sea Trail
Pacific Ocean
2.0 – Skyline to the Sea Trail
Night 5 – Twin Redwoods Trail Camp
0.1 – Skyline to the Sea Trail

1.0 – Clark Connection Trail
4.2 – West Ridge Trail
1.4 – Chalk Mountain Road
1.2 – White House Ridge Trail
1.5 – White House Canyon Road
1.2 – Costanoa trails
Night 6 – Costanoa Resort
1.4 – Old Highway 1

2.1 – Gazos Creek Road
1.2 – Cloverdale Road
0.3 – Butano SP road

0.7 – Jackson Flats Trail
0.2 – Mill Ox Trail
4.3 – Butano Fire Road
Night 7 – Butano Trail Camp
4.7 – Butano Fire Road

1.8 – Basin Trail Easement
2.2 – Butano Ridge Trail
0.1 – Old Haul Road
0.9 – Bridge Trail
Night 8 – Tarwater Trail Camp
1.4 – Pomponio Trail

Portola State Park HQ
0.2 – Service Road
0.1 – Old Tree Trail
4.2 – Slate Creek Trail
2.1 – Ward Road
2.0 – Long Ridge Road
2.9 – Ridge Trail
Cross Highway 35
0.4 – White Oak Trail
0.9 – Canyon connector trail
0.2 – Canyon Trail
1.0 – Indian Creek Trail
Night 9 – Black Mountain Backpack Camp
0.2 – Indian Creek Trail

0.2 – Monte Bello Road
4.1 – Black Mountain Trail
3.0 – Chamise Trail
0.6 – Mora Trail
1.0 – Lower Meadow Trail
End – Rancho San Antonio CP

105.6 Miles Total

Many shorter and longer variations are possible.

I completed an 8-day, 96-mile version of this loop in late August 2012. I used most of the trails and camps listed above. Instead of staying at Waterman Gap, Jay, and Twin Redwoods, I stayed at Lane Camp in Big Basin Redwoods State Park (no water), using Basin Trail, Johansen Road, Whitehouse Canyon Road, and Chalk Mountain Road.

Highlights included awesome views along Whitehouse Canyon Road and Chalk Mountain Road, and touching the ocean at Gazos Creek instead of Waddell Beach.

Low points included starting with 7 liters of water from Waterman Gap to get through Lane Camp to Costanoa Resort; getting eaten alive by mosquitoes on warm evenings at Lane Camp and Butano Trail Camp; and thick fog, wind, and horizontal tree drip at Black Mountain Camp on the last night.

This trip is better in the spring or fall.

Grab some maps and plan your own trip soon!

(1) Palo Alto Municipal Code 22.04.150(b):
For the purpose of using the Bay-To-Foothills trails in the park, no person who is not a resident of the city shall enter or exit the park except on foot and at the designated entry and exit locations on the park boundaries shared with the Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve and the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve.


  1. Awesome! Great trip reports and a lot of helpful info.

  2. Awesome! Great trip reports and a lot of helpful info.