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12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails near Santa Cruz, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Aug 7, 2019

Spanning 2,000-foot elevations in the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the ocean shore, hiking trails near Santa Cruz traverse a wide range of environments, leading to plunging waterfalls and stunning ocean vistas. But perhaps the biggest attraction of hiking trails near Santa Cruz are the magnificent redwood groves that surround them. These millennia-old trees, some rivaling the height of the Statue of Liberty, are world famous and credited with kickstarting the California State Park system.

A great first place to head for hiking trails near Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located less than 10 miles from downtown. Featuring family-friendly hikes through ancient redwood groves, Henry Cowell also features one of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz. More redwood hiking trails wait to be explored farther north at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California's oldest state park.

Many hiking trails near Santa Cruz offer views of the ocean, but none perhaps as dramatic as the Old Cove Trail in Wilder Ranch State Park. For overnight adventures and the depth of Santa Cruz hiking trail landscapes, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is an approximately 30-mile route connecting Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. Providing hikers a direct connection between the mountains and the ocean, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is one of the more difficult hikes near Santa Cruz.

Explore the best trails around this popular beach town with our list of the top hiking trails near Santa Cruz, California.

1. Redwood Grove Loop Trail, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Redwood Grove Loop Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Seven miles from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Redwood Grove Loop Trail is the most popular hike at the world-famous Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In the city's backyard, this less-than-a-mile loop tours next to coastal redwoods exceeding 250-feet tall and provides interpretive information about the forest along the way. A must-hike trail of California, the Redwood Grove Loop is only a small fraction of all there is to see within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Address: 101 N Big Trees Park Road, Felton, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=546

2. Sequoia Trail, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Sempervirens Falls on the Sequoia Trail

The ancient redwoods within Big Basin, the oldest State Park in California, are attributed to jumpstarting the California State Park system. Over 80 miles of trails span this century-old state park, including the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail that connects to other state parks in the area. The universally accessible and half-mile Redwood Trail is a nearly required hike at the park that leads to inspiring redwoods, like the towering "Father and Mother of the Forest."

For a longer introduction to the park, the Sequoia Trail is a family-friendly, four-mile loop starting from the park's Sequoia Campground. Exploring along the edge of an ancient redwood forest, the trail follows a road for half of the loop, with a level and well-maintained trail throughout. At the halfway point of the hike, a short descent takes hikers down to see Sempervirens Falls, a roughly 20-foot waterfall plunging into a forest grotto.

Address: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, California

3. Old Cove Landing Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park

Old Cove Landing Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On the Santa Cruz coastline and extending to the crest of Ben Lomond Mountain, Wilder Ranch State Park offers over 7,000 acres to explore. Thirty miles of trails navigate the ocean bluffs and generous forest encompassed by Wilder Ranch State Park, as well as the late-19th-century preserved dairy ranch the park is named after. Easily accessible from the parking lot, near the Wilder Dairy Cultural Preserve, the Old Cove Landing Trail is the signature hike of the area.

A half-mile from the parking lot, the Old Cove Trail meets a bluff overlooking Wilder Beach, a now protected snowy plover habitat. The trail follows the bluff's edge from here, quickly coming across the historic Old Cove Landing, where schooners used to come ashore. After following the bluff for about a mile, hikers can head back to the parking lot for a 2.5-mile loop or continue hiking the Ohlone Bluff Trail for more great views of the ocean.

Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California

4. Old Growth Loop Trail, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Editor's Pick

Old Growth Loop Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This local favorite and hidden gem of a state park is located near Santa Cruz, just outside the small community of Aptos. With an extensive logging history, Forest of Nisene Marks now features numerous hiking trails and old forest roads leading to waterfalls, redwood groves, and views of the ocean. Near the entrance station, the Old Growth Loop Trail is a moderately trafficked 2.2-mile loop showcasing some of the signature landscapes of the region.

Beneath the neck-craning redwoods at the beginning of the trail, the Pourroy Picnic Area is a great spot for a picnic. Farther into the trail, hikers come across unique and scenic features like bridge crossings, twisted groves, and The Advocate-once the tallest tree in the park until felled by storms in 2017. For those looking to put in the extra mile, the Old Growth Loop connects with the Oak Ridge Trail for extended day hikes.

Address: Aptos Creek Road, Aptos, California

5. Saratoga Gap Trail, Castle Rock State Park

Castle Rock State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

High up on the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park encompasses over 5,000 acres of rugged terrain. Frequented by hikers, backpackers, and horse riders, Castle Rock has over 30 miles of trails to explore and two trail camps to spend the night. A popular trailhead in the park, the Saratoga Gap Trail, and Castle Rock Trail, can be accessed at the Main Park Entrance and explored as far as the day allows.

Castle Rock Trail is a short and level loop often used by rock climbers, who also flock to the area. From the Castle Rock Trail, hikers begin descending on the Saratoga Gap Trail, where panoramic vistas quickly unfold. Including scenic overlooks of the San Lorenzo River, the Saratoga Gap Trail passes by other photogenic features like Castle Rock Falls.

A six-mile loop can be accomplished by utilizing the Ridge Trail back up to the parking lot, or hikers can continue farther on the Saratoga Gap Trail to the Castle Rock Trail Camp, where registered backpackers can spend the night with limited facilities available. For a full day hike requiring a shuttle, the Saratoga Gap Trail stretches for a total of 18 miles end-to-end, making it one of the most difficult day hikes near Santa Cruz.

Address: 15000 Skyline Boulevard, Los Gatos, California

6. Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail

Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail | daveynin / photo modified

The name says it all for the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail in Santa Cruz, stretching from the 2,000-foot ridges found at Castle Rock State Park to the Waddell Beach region of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It's a popular overnight backpacking route, and numerous shorter loops and day hikes utilize this approximately 30-mile path. Trail camps along the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail are by reservation only, with a wide enough variety to accommodate two-, three-, and multi-day trips.

7. Campground to Redwood Grove Trail, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Campground to Redwood Grove Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

One of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz, the Graham Hill Campground at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park contains an awesome trailhead that accesses a sprawling network of hiking trails. Between sites 82 and 84, the trailhead leads towards an intersection with all paths heading to the San Lorenzo River or its tributaries. The Redwood Grove Loop Trail, near the Park Entrance Station, is often a destination to aim for from the campground with a five-mile round trip.

Another highlight in this network of hiking trails stemming from the campground includes an Observation Deck overlooking an area known as the Santa Cruz Sandhills. On the way to the Redwood Grove Loop from the campground, alongside a towering forest canopy, hikers come across and follow the banks of the equally scenic San Lorenzo River. The popular Rincon Fire Road can also be accessed within this network of trails, offering a wide pathway and great exposure of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Address: 101 N Big Trees Park Road, Felton, California

8. Berry Creek Falls, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Berry Creek Falls

A difficult hike near Santa Cruz, the 10-mile loop to Berry Creek Falls and back takes hikers an average of six hours to complete. Exploring deep into the 18,000 acres encompassed by California's oldest state park, the trailhead begins near the Big Basin Park Headquarters and utilizes portions of the Sunset Trail and Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Along the way, hikers pass into the non-developed West Waddell Creek State Wilderness portion of the park.

A stunning redwood forest lines much of the trail, adding an almost surreal feeling next to giant trunks and towering canopies. The trail leading to Berry Creek Falls is popular on the weekends, especially the Skyline-to-the-Sea portion, but the set of four waterfalls near the turnaround point is well worth the small crowds. With a viewing platform available, Berry Creek Falls is a year-round hike, subject to landslide closures, with the falls flowing heaviest come winter.

Address: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, California

9. Fall Creek Trail, Fall Creek Unit, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Fall Creek Trail | Panegyrics of Granovetter / photo modified

A short drive north of the campground, the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is designated as day-use only with over 20 miles of trails to explore. The Falls Creek Trail follows the meandering water through the heart of this 2,000-acre park unit, connecting with numerous other trails along the way. This pathway adjacent to Fall Creek is wide and accommodating for the whole family, and the lush forest and fern canyon surrounding the water is simply stunning.

10. Aptos Creek Fire Road, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Aptos Creek Fire Road | Sandip Bhattacharya / photo modified

Popular with long-distance runners, hikers, and mountain bikers, numerous trails and fire roads lead deep into the local-favorite Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. The Aptos Creek Fire Road is the main hiking trail that explores the farthest reaches of Forest of Nisene Marks and connects with other long-distance trails of the area. The Fire Road also connects to the West Ridge Trail Camp-the only place to spend the night within the park.

With steep sections throughout, Aptos Creek Fire Road climbs to near the summit of Santa Rosalia Mountain, where the nearby Sand Point Overlook provides distant views of the ocean. Other notable side-hikes stemming from Aptos Creek Fire Road include Five-Finger Falls and numerous historic sites, including the Loma Prieta earthquake epicenter. Near the trail's southern terminus, the popular 2.5-mile Old Growth Loop Trail within the state park offers much easier elevation to navigate.

Address: Aptos Creek Road, Aptos, California

11. Wilder Ridge Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park

Mountain biker on Wilder Ridge Trail | Noah Meyerhans / photo modified

Alongside the oceanside Old Cove Landing and Ohlone Bluff Trails of Wilder Ranch State Park, this day-use only hiking destination has numerous trails that navigate the mountain slopes opposite Highway 1. The Wilder Ridge Trail is a central artery in the network of these mountain trails, accessed by a pedestrian tunnel under the highway. On this unpaved road with moderate to strenuous elevation gain, hikers are rewarded with stunning views of Monterey Bay after about two miles of uphill hiking.

Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California

12. Pogonip Creek Nature Loop, Pogonip Open Space

Pogonip Creek Nature Loop | Photo Credit: Brad Lane

About 10 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz and providing a trail connection between UC Santa Cruz and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Pogonip Open Space is a popular outlet for stepping out of the city. A popular place to start exploring Pogonip, which encompasses over 600 acres and eight miles of trails, is the Pogonip Creek Nature Loop. Navigating through open meadows and a rolling landscape, the Nature Loop connects with many other trails, like the woodland Fern Trail, to extend a hike.

Address: 333 Golf Club Drive, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: http://www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/parks-recreation/parks-beaches-open-spaces/open-spaces/pogonip

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Camping near Santa Cruz: One of the best ways to experience all the hiking trails in the area is by spending the night at one of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz. For more camping options on the California coast, Big Sur Campgrounds deliver on more amazing landscapes where the mountains meet the sea. For further redwood appeal and campsites next to towering trees, these beautiful campgrounds in Redwoods State and National Parks deliver on great places to pitch a tent or park an RV.

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