Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Wilder Ranch Grand Loop

Coastal bluffs at Wilder Ranch
11 miles loop, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Wilder Ranch State Park entrance fee required

Wilder Ranch State Park lies just outside Santa Cruz on the Central California Coast and protects a diverse landscape of coastal bluffs, grasslands that once supported a coastal dairy, second-growth redwood forests, and farms. The Wilder Ranch Grand Loop- which utilizes portions of the Wilder Ridge Trail, the Enchanted Loop, the Baldwin Loop, and the Ohlone Bluff Trail- is a somewhat long loop trail around the state park and samples everything that the park has to offer. The highlights of the hike for me were the lush woodlands on the Enchanted Loop and the stunning coastal views on the Ohlone Bluff Trail, but the views on clear days from the grasslands on Wilder Ridge are probably quite nice as well when the landscape is green in winter and spring. This park is quite popular with mountain bikers, which can make the trails a bit more busy and unpredictable than usual for hikers. While this is a reasonably enjoyable outing, the scenery here is standard rather than outstanding for the area, so I would recommend this hike primarily for Bay Area/Santa Cruz locals looking for a new place to explore.

I hiked the loop at Wilder Ranch on a November day, before the arrival of autumn rains. From the southern end of the Bay Area around San Jose, I took California Highway 17 south across the Santa Cruz Mountains to Santa Cruz and then exited onto Highway 1 heading north. I drove through the town of Santa Cruz on Highway 1 and reached the turnoff for Wilder Ranch State Park on the left (south) side of the road shortly after leaving town. I made a left turn here into the park, passing the entrance station on my way to the large parking lot, which has room for about 80 cars. Like other Bay Area and Santa Cruz state parks, you may struggle to find parking here on weekends; luckily, there is some free parking along Highway 1 outside the park.

From the trailhead sign next to the bathrooms, I headed out on the trail towards the Wilder Ranch Cultural Preserve. The Wilder Ridge Trail starts from the back end of the cultural preserve, which protects artifacts related to the area's ranching history. The dirt trail leaving from the parking lot joined up with a paved road after 150 meters and quickly arrived at the entrance of the cultural preserve soon after. I turned left at the entrance of the cultural preserve, entering a cute collection of Victorian buildings. The Wilder family operated a dairy here from the 1890s through the 1960s, grazing their cows on the grasslands of the ranch. The dairy and creamery here were extremely successful for a time, allowing the family to build the Victorian houses on the property. I wandered through the property and exited to the back left (northwestern) side, where I passed a chicken coop. The farm area is still used for interpretive programs.

Wilder Ranch Cultural Preserve
Chickens at Wilder Ranch
I left the cultural preserve on the Wilder Ridge Trail, a wide road trace that took me underneath Highway 1 through a tunnel and then passed by some wooden ranch buildings that were built by the Meder family when this property first became a dairy. The road trace stayed fairly flat until I came to a junction at just over a half mile from the trailhead. Here, the Engelsman Loop Trail followed the road trace straight ahead while the Wilder Ridge Loop Trail followed the road trace that made a sharp switchback to the left. I took the left fork and began following the Wilder Ridge Trail uphill.

For the next 1.2 miles, I traveled through open grasslands on the approach to Wilder Ridge. The trail made an initial uphill to reach a grassy plateau extending to the foot of Wilder Ridge to the north and then crossed that plateau for the next mile. On clear days, there should be nice views from these grasslands down to the coast, with Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the distance; however, fog covered the ocean at the time of my hike and there weren't much views here to speak of. In November, these grasslands were a very dull brown as the winter's rains had not yet arrived; the ranch probably is prettiest in winter and spring when the grasses turn green.

There were many mountain bikers on the this trail: the park in general is quite popular with mountain bikers and the Wilder Ridge Loop especially so. However, the road trace was quite wide and easily accommodated both hikers and bikers. At 1.3 miles from the trailhead, I stayed right at a junction with the return leg of the Wilder Ridge Loop and at 1.7 miles I arrived at the base of Wilder Ridge.

Wilder Ridge
The trail reentered forest at the base of Wilder Ridge and then began a steep ascent up to the ridge itself. I passed a junction with the single track Twin Oaks Trail at 2 miles. After ascending about 250 feet, the trail arrived at the top of Wilder Ridge at 2.1 miles and began following the ridge to the west; at 2.2 miles, a spur trail split off to the left, leading to a viewpoint. I took this short spur, which ended at a picnic table with a wide view over Monterery Bay and the Pacific Ocean. On a nice day, the views of the water here are probably excellent; I just saw a blanket of fog over where there should've been water. Still, I enjoyed the nice views of the Santa Cruz, Gabilan, and Santa Lucia Ranges in the distance. The view included Loma Prieta Peak, a high point in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Fremont Peak, a high peak at the northern end of the Gabilan Range. I could also see over the grasslands of Wilder Ranch below. This was the nicest elevated vista point of the hike.

Santa Cruz Mountains
Santa Lucia Range, fog over Monterey Bay, and the grasslands of Wilder Ranch
Leaving the vista point, the Wilder Ridge Trail continued following the broad, grassy crest of Wilder Ridge. While views down either side of the ridge were limited, I still could see the distant Santa Lucia and Santa Cruz Mountains rising over the surrounding grasslands. During my visit, the grasslands north of the Wilder Ridge Trail were blackened due to an active prescribed burn, part of a land management response that will be necessary in California to prevent future repeats of 2020's disasterous wildfire season.

Prescribed burn on Wilder Ridge
I passed a junction with the Zane Gray Trail at 2.7 miles and continued along the road trace of the Wilder Ridge Trail until it intersected with the Enchanted Loop Trail at 3.3 miles. While following the left fork of the Enchanted Loop to continue on a road trace along the ridge is the shortest and fastest way to complete the Grand Loop, the right fork, which descends into a lush second-growth redwood forest, is far more scenic and adds some much-needed diversity to this hike. Thus, I took the right fork and descended to the north on a road trace. After following the road trace downhill for 150 meters, I came to a junction in a grassy clearing. Two trails split off to the left of the road trace: of these two trails, the left fork was a cutoff trail leading back uphill while the right fork was a continuation of the Enchanted Loop Trail that led into the forest. This junction was marked but a bit confusing; I took the single track trail on the right (of the two forks on the left side of the road). 

The Enchanted Loop Trail began a steady descent, initially through grasslands and then through woodlands when the trail entered the forest at 3.8 miles from the trailhead. The surroundings changed dramatically as the Enchanted Loop Trail entered forest: the dry grasslands of Wilder Ridge were replaced by a verdant forest with fern and sorrel groundcover and many towering second-growth redwoods. Moss adorned many tree trunks. The trail descended through this lovely forest until reaching the banks of Baldwin Creek at the bottom of the canyon at 4.2 miles. While there were quite a few hikers and bikers on the Wilder Ridge Trail, I saw just one other group of hikers while I was hiking through the redwoods of the Enchanted Loop.

Redwoods of the Enchanted Loop
Redwood and sorrel on the Enchanted Loop
Lush woodlands of the Enchanted Loop
After briefly paralleling Baldwin Creek, the Enchanted Loop began the most extended ascent of the hike, climbing about 300 feet out of the canyon and back to the grasslands. At 4.7 miles, the Enchanted Loop Trail emerged from the forest atop the grassy plateau and came to a junction with the Baldwin Loop Trail. Both legs of the Baldwin Loop Trail lead downhill to the coast but I chose to take the right fork, which was a single track trail through the grasslands rather than the road trace that the left fork followed. The Baldwin Loop Trail descended steadily through the grasslands, with some nice views that would probably encompass the ocean on a clear day.

Grasslands of the Baldwin Loop
The descent on the Baldwin Trail ended when I reached the bottom of Baldwin Creek's canyon at 6 miles into the hike. Here, I passed through another pocket of lushness, hiking through ferns and trees and crossing a tributary of Baldwin Creek. At 6.3 miles, I passed some farm buildings that are still private held and rejoined the other branch of the Baldwin Loop. I crossed the dirt road leading to the farm and followed signs pointing me towards the Ohlone Bluff Trail; I passed underneath Highway 1 in another hiker tunnel.

Lush environs along the canyon of Baldwin Creek
Emerging on the south side of Highway 1, I followed the road trace as it curved off to the left and joined up with a trail coming from a roadside parking area for Four Mile Beach at 6.5 miles. Continuing along the road trace, I crossed a set of railroad tracks and then descended to Four Mile Beach at 6.8 miles. Four Mile Beach was a wide, sandy beach at the mouth of Baldwin Creek bordered by 60-foot high coastal bluffs. The ocean was still fogged over when I was at Four Mile Beach but I could see far see surfers a short distance off the coast waiting for waves to ride in to the beach. There were quite a few visitors in this area because of the easy access from a parking area on Highway 1, but the crowds immediately thinned out once I began heading east on the Ohlone Bluff Trail.

Foggy Four Mile Beach
A number of paths led up a hill on the left (east) side of Four Mile Beach to join with the Ohlone Bluff Trail, which runs the length of the Wilder Ranch State Park coast. I followed one of the paths up and then joined the Ohlone Bluff Trail, which ran eastward along the top of the coastal bluffs, sandwiched between the cliffs and fields of brussel sprouts. The coastal farms in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties produce a majority of the brussel sprouts grown in the United States and have benefited from the vegetable's recent resurgence in popularity.

Brussel sprout fields
Over the next three and a half miles, I followed the flat Ohlone Bluff Trail along the coastal bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. The fog that had covered Monterey Bay all day finally lifted in the late afternoon, opening up some beautiful views of the coast. The trail passed above Three Mile Beach at 8.4 miles and Strawberry Beach at 9.2 miles; spur trails led down to these beaches. There were no trail markings to go off of here and quite a few junctions, but I followed the trail closest to the edge of the bluffs at all times as a rule of thumb and did just fine.

Three Mile Beach
Wilder Ranch coastline
Views were consistently excellent along the Ohlone Bluff Trail, encompassing sea stacks and rocky islets offshore and the Santa Lucia Range rising across Monterery Bay. Waves coming off of the Pacific sent surf flying high as they slammed into rocks on the coast. This was the most scenic stretch of the hike, but I only saw a handful of other visitors at the midpoint of the Ohlone Bluff Trail. After enjoying constant views, I came to the final coastal view of the hike at 10.2 miles, where the Ohlone Bluff Trail turned sharply inland.

Waves pound the coast, Santa Lucia Range in the distance
Coastal bluffs at Wilder Ranch
Late day lighting on the Wilder Ranch coast
Leaving the final seaside view, I followed the Ohlone Bluff Trail inland for the final 0.8 miles back to the trailhead. The trail followed the rim of a small ravine for 2/5 of a mile and met up with a set of railroad tracks at 10.6 miles into the hike; here, I turned right and followed the railroad tracks for 200 meters. At an intersection with a dirt road, the railroad tracks faded into bushes; here, I made a left onto the road, joining up with the Old Cove Landing Trail. The Old Cove Landing Trail led back into some farm fields where I could now see the parking lot; I continued following the Old Cove Landing Trail, which branched off from the right of the dirt road and then led back to the trailhead parking lot.

Overall, this is a nice hike. The coast views along the Ohlone Bluff Trail are great and the lush second-growth redwood forests of the Enchanted Loop are a joy to hike through even if they don't match the majesty of the region's rarer old growth redwoods. However, you can find many of these hike's features all around the central California Coast, often in even more spectacular displays. Expect beauty, but look elsewhere for the exceptional if you have limited time in the area.

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