Not quite the Skyline-to-Sea Trail

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Not quite the Skyline-to-Sea Trail

Post by torpified » Sat Dec 14, 2019 10:23 pm

Things are slow here right now, so I’m abasing myself by filing a trip report on a humble and familiar walk that I still managed to do wrong.

As I may have already observed, in real life I am a staunch and unrepentant Midwesterner. However, and I’ve never been able to explain this adequately to my incredulous (and also midwestern) family, every 5-10 years there is a respite from real life, and I get to do my job from the Bay Area---specifically from a redwood grove in a (possibly imaginary) community called Skylonda. Painfully aware that any year now I’m going to start aging in earnest, I’m doing my best on this Skylonda iteration to take something that feels like a hiking trip at least once a month. November’s was constrained to be an overnight that I could cram between delivering the dog to Planet Pooch after 7 one morning and collecting him therefrom before 5 the next afternoon. This effectively limited me to something involving trail camps in the Santa Cruz mountains. Parking regulations, water availability, and my very finite patience with research into such matters quickly conspired to identify an itinerary: an out-and-back, mostly along the Skyline-to-Sea Trail, between Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin HQ.

During my last Skylonda sojourn, with Mr. torpified’s supererogatory assistance, I’d dayhiked the Skyline-to-Sea trail from Saratoga Gap to Waddell Beach. (We stopped at Hwy 1 Brewery on the drive back, so that I might attempt to consume an infinite number of tater tots. The only other customers were two evident regulars, and (if his costume was to be believed) a pilot for United Airlines, whom everybody else---like Manhattanites in the presence of a celebrity---was pretending not to notice. At some point, as the pilot or “pilot” rose to toddle off to the bathroom, one of the regulars uttered the greatest intervention I’ve ever heard from a drunk guy at the bar: “Please return the seat to the upright position.”) While I enjoyed the walk tremendously, I also thought that anyone who wasn’t transfixed by the Skyline-to-Sea narrative would prefer to walk loop routes that overlapped the S-t-S T between China Grade and Berry Falls---one long loop as an ambitious day hike from Big Basin HQ, or two smaller (but still burly) loops from there, overnighting in a campground, or cabin, in between.

I still think that’s correct. But I wanted to backpack. So this is what I did:

11/15, 8:15 am: Having stashed my dog at Planet Pooch and my car at Castle Rock’s overflow parking lot, I head toward (but not all the way toward) the sea. There’s a popular loop hike through Castle Rock, connecting the Saratoga Gap and Ridge trails. I’ve walked it maybe 5 times with Mr torpified, each time counterclockwise. The Saratoga Gap segment features lovely open sweeping views across a deep drainage, (on a good day) all the way to Monterrey Bay. The trail also clambers over some rocks, at one point providing utterly gratuitous metal railings hikers can clutch to prevent themselves from spontaneously flying over drop-offs they’d have to be Bob Beamon to reach under their own power. This terrifies Mr. t. So we always go counterclockwise, starting down the Saratoga Gap trail, to get the lethal segments out of the way earlier. (The lethal segments are, in fact, almost exactly halfway. But in the face of the malicious non-gravitational forces he believes to operate in the vicinity of precipices, Mr t is immune to reason.)

Today I get to start down the Ridge trail, which is shrouded in a chilly fog, utterly deserted, eerie, mysterious and beautiful
---especially past Goat Rocks where the greygreen live oaks stand silhouetted against the burnt and golden grasslands containing them.
The woods teem with industrious early morning squirrels, behaving as though today is the only day they have this year to amass winter stores. A number of them nevertheless take breaks from their squirrel business to scream at me like deranged howler monkeys. It is early enough that the fusillades from the Los Altos Rod and Gun Club---perennial accompaniments on this stretch of the walk---have yet to start. I know that the gunfire, which at times is unnervingly persistent, comes from a sportsperson’s club, because the drive to the TH from Skylonda passes a conspicuous sign for the club. But I think I’d be pretty freaked out otherwise.

A trail camp emanating a nature trail lies just past the Ridge and Saratoga Gap trail junction. So there are about 85 forks to navigate. I guess wrong about half the time (which I guess is good evidence that I’m guessing), but each wrong turn feels wrong so soon that I’m never long off track. Eventually I’m descending through ankle-deep drifts of big yellow leaves, down a service road toward a bridge over an adolescent San Lorenzo River. Not far after, the single track Travertine Springs trail peels off to the left. I join it.

It’s a wonderful walk, roughly level, at first wooded but overlooking the rocky course of the juvenile San Lorenzo. When the river descends, the trail declines to follow, instead staying high, the better to reward the traveler with striking views of the valleys carved by the river and its tributaries. Hawks soar in the distance. From a shrubbery bordering the trail, a mini raptor I stipulate to be a kestrel startles as I walk by.

There’s an unnerving stretch with powerlines and the crossing of a private road that leads to what looks like a shooting range less regulated than the Los Altos Rod and Gun club (which I am now hearing --- when it’s active, it’s audible all the way to Waterman Gap). Then back into the woods, where a flourishing of bamboolike plants heralds the presence of Travertine Springs themselves. They’re a little too buggy to be idyllic, but appreciated anyway.

What is not appreciated are the fronds of poison oak encroaching on the path and (despite my best efforts to bat them away with my poles) brushing against my pointlessly (it’s like 45 degrees F) bare legs. I am relieved to reach the broad Saratoga Toll Road, which descends, crossing another branch of the San Lorenzo, to Beekhuis Road, also broad. I stop to gobble a gigantic cookie before Beekhuis Road’s steep but short climb to the Skyline-to-Sea trail. The trail will parallel Hwys 9 and 236 for the next seven miles or so. The road’s frequently in view; when traffic’s heavy, the road is heard even when it’s not seen. The last time I walked through here, it seemed like Big Basin was hosting some sort of Harley convention, and the road was constantly heard. (Like the Los Altos fusillades, this unnerved me---until I got to BB HQ and realized that most Harley enthusiasts are mild-mannered retired orthodontists.) Today it’s quiet, and the redwoods start more or less immediately after I join the StS trail. I stumble along gawking into their crowns, and make a note to repack my bag tomorrow so that I might crane my neck even further back.

Even though the road is quiet, the trail gods see to it that I’m reminded that it’s there by arraying a variety of wrecked cars downhill from the trail (which is downhill from the road). One of my favorite Santa Cruz Mountains hikes---to the Peters Creek grove of old-growth redwoods in Portola Redwoods State Park---passes a very charismatic and improbable abandoned car. I resolve to regard the wrecks as good omens.
multi use.jpg
Past Waterman Gap’s deserted and waterless trail camp, the sounds of gunfire fade away, only to be replaced, after the trail dips to cross Hwy 9, by intermittent but insistent---and excruciatingly shrill—honks from some sort of Harpo Marxist logging and/or construction operation just to the northeast of the park. Redwoods continue to strut their mossy and vaulting stuff, and I try to focus on that. But there’s a bit where I can actually see the heavy equipment laying waste to the trees that have been so intemperate as to grow outside the State Park, and it’s exasperating.
approaching China Grade.jpg
The climb to China Grade continues for some time before it ends. And that’s about where the trail stops hiding its light under a bushel. It parts way with Hwy 236, and enters some land of munchkin trees punctuated by sandstone (?) slopes. To cross these, you follow the discolored treadway worn by those who preceded you. You’re on the lip of, and beginning to descend into, the basin that is Big Basin. If you look out over the local scrub, you look straight at the crowns of the soaring redwoods in the heart of the park.

The trail descends in earnest, and the woods soon transition to full-on crazy gigantic endless fantastic redwoods. This continues for miles. You encounter, cross, and follow Opal Creek, eventually reaching a—closed to traffic; I think it’s a tsunami evacuation route or something--- road at an info board about an early settler cabin. The trail basically parallels the road the next 2 miles to BB HQ. Since I’ve been repeatedly stumbling off the trail due to looking up at tees, I decide it’ll be safer to follow the road. The trees just keep treeing, eventually being joined by a remarkably extensive, and unusually tasteful (at least when witnessed devoid of picnickers) picnic area. I encounter my first humans of the walk, a couple out for a stroll, about a mile from the day’s goal.

Which is Jay Camp, the backpacker camp adjacent to BB HQ. Rather than proceeding directly there, I duck into the general store to acquire supplemental provisions: quarters for the rumored showers (?!), a Busch beer, and a big bag of Fritos. It’s not hard to find Jay Camp, which is 5 minutes from the store, behind the dumpsters behind the employee residences, a vigorous skid off of Hwy 236. All this is very disorienting. I’m used to backpacking to spots of aggressive solitude, spots where I can’t buy Fritos, but also spots where it’s hard even for me to worry about encountering other humans. This is a place of solitude aggressive in another way. Not another soul is there, but behind the dumpsters behind a state park’s employee residence is the epitome of place where it’s easy for me to worry about encountering other humans. I so pitch my tent that a gargantuan redwood dominates the view from the front door, and hope that that will help me to overlook the dumpsters, the highway, and the blatantly temporary employee housing.

On the other hand, there are showers! I tentatively deposit the pair of quarters required for a minimum 2 minute dose, and brace myself for a tepid trickle that I resolved to endure for the sake of scrubbing my poison oak impacted parts. Instead I am barraged by genuinely hot water, and quickly deposit more quarters. I spend the few hours before dark wandering the redwood-riddled trails near BB HQ and casing Jay Camp trying to get used to it. Then ramen and reading and trying to sleep. The road gets quiet quick after nightfall and I begon to settle. At some point (what I desperately hope is a crew of) other backpackers arrive, and set themselves up nearby. Once the adrenaline released by their arrival wears off, I drift into a nervous sleep.

11-16. Winter nights are looooooong. I’m up before the sun, and heading out as it rises, backtracking to Castle Rock. I’d worried that this would be boring, but it isn’t. Even though Big Basin yesterday afternoon was virtually deserted, Big Basin at dawn is a whole other kind of deserted, intensely peaceful and abiding. And, having reorganized my flimsy pack to maximize craning, I can rear my head back as far as my vertebrae allow, and gaze at tree trunks converging toward a vanishing point in the heavens. Borne by delight, I ascend to, and cross, China Grade.
opal creek.jpg
Shortly thereafter, I meet my first human of the walking route: a trail runner. Then a team of 8 mountain bikers, whom I’m pretty sure aren’t allowed through here but whom I’m too chickenshit to challenge on the point. Then a number of backpackers (!) ---two solo guys, a two-woman team, a man and a woman, another pair of women. Each group has a member with an REI halfdome 2+ person tent strapped to the outside of their backpack, which makes me feel like I’d missed some sort of memo about how to walk the StS trail.

It’s Saturday, and after Waterman Gap, the cacophony from the Los Altos Rod and Gun club is neverending. (At least the HarpoMarxist construction operation is silent.) The company is not: other than a group numbering over a dozen lunching at Travertine Springs, I see no one between the StS trail and the Castle Rock Trail Camp.

From there, I follow the spectacular Saratoga Gap trail back to my car. I encounter maybe 8 million people coming the other direction, and yield to them all. (I’m little, mobile, and uninterested in dominance---so I’m an inveterate yielder.) Reactions range from complete oblivion to excited interrogation (prompted, I expect, by the sleeping pad I’ve strapped to my pack, the better to gawk at redwoods) about what kind of camping I’ve been doing. Just short of the parking lot, I meet what looks like a married couple with something like a dozen middle schoolers, many of them carrying the sort of outrageously overstuffed backpacks people take on their first overnight excursion. “Have fun?” I say to the grownups, who laugh nervously in response. I hope they did. I certainly managed to.
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Re: Not quite the Skyline-to-Sea Trail

Post by rlown » Sun Dec 15, 2019 10:56 am

I love the Los Altos Rod and Gun club. Haven't been there in decades since I moved North. Sorry it impacted your trip.

Nice report!

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Re: Not quite the Skyline-to-Sea Trail

Post by c9h13no3 » Sun Dec 15, 2019 8:19 pm

Yeah, I've only ever backpacked once in the Santa Cruz mountains, and it's not really the same. Lots of campers cramped into one spot, and I usually go in winter where the days are short and lounging in the sun minimal.

The trail running at Big Basin though... the best. It's just deceivingly far from the Bay Area despite being *in* the Bay Area (like 1.5 hrs drive, wat?).
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