Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Sea Ranch, California

Sea map 2Traveling from Santa Rosa, some 50 miles north of San Francisco, we head west to the Pacific Ocean. On this Friday in mid-January, we wake to another, not boring at all, California day on its way to 65 and sunny. At Bodega Bay we head north on the winding Pacific Coast Highway of hairpins that takes us two hours to travel 60 miles.

Something Beach at the start of the bluff trail

Beach at the start of the bluff trail

Our mid-day hiking destination is the exclusive Sea Ranch community, created in the 1960s, along a ten mile stretch of the Sonoma County coast. The first residents of Sea Ranch were not software engineers or trust fund babies, but the Pomos, who gathered kelp and shellfish from the beaches for centuries.  Nowadays, residents gather rays and stock options. In the early 1970s, the California state legislature passed a law that required new coastal communities, like Sea Ranch, to grant the public access to the Pacific Ocean.  They were thinking of the Dan and Hannahs of the world.

Sea Ranch houses in the distance

Sea Ranch houses in the distance

Most houses are designed to fit into the natural setting of coastal plain and inland forests. There are no sidewalks or mailboxes. To promote their “living lightly on the land,” you rarely see manicured lawns, flower gardens, fences along property boundaries, or brightly painted houses.

Common VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owners) rentals are $200 to $500 per night. The community of Sea Ranch straddles the Pacific Coast Highway with an ocean side and a forest mountain side.  This 5,200-acre settlement is dotted with 1,800 houses, perhaps a third of them occupied year-round, and a handful of commercial and community buildings.  The ocean side homes can go for $1 to $2 million on trulia.com

Surf below the Sea Ranch bluff trail

Surf below the Sea Ranch bluff trail

It’s a posh and exclusive and private; and I’m not sure how they feel about the likes of Dan and Hannah hiking their bluff trail. Listening to our instincts, we don’t ask at the Sea Ranch Lodge for directions to the trail, but saddle up in our boots and fanny packs, not hiding our hiking intentions at all. Lunching in the Adirondack chairs at the Lodge looking out to the Pacific, we see a trail to the promontory just out from the lodge.

Northern California coast in Sonoma County

Northern California coast in Sonoma County

With ten miles of sea front, we opt to hike north past the barn on the bluff trails. Soon we chat up two home owners who tell us that, though the trail is private, just plead ignorance if anyone asks.  I have to say there are “private” signs. But this all begs the bigger question – who owns the coast? Is it like Oregon where the entire coastline is open to the public or like Maine where the landed gentry are looking to keep out the riff raff and their ilk?

Sea 2C more shorelineHere’s my reasoning why we hiked on these “private” trails today. Our responsibility while hiking is to respect the trail and the environment by not drawing attention to ourselves, littering, or walking off the trails. If challenged, we will explain what we are doing. We are hardly a detriment to the trail.

Renegade on the trail

Renegade on the trail

As we begin our hike, we see Sea Ranchers sitting on their lawns facing the ocean. We wonder if they are members of the unofficial Sea Ranch police keeping interlopers and intruders away from “their” trail. They say nothing. We stay on the trail. In time, my paranoia abates.  The residents are not the issue.  We owe the earth our respect.

Bluff trail itself at Sea Ranch

Bluff trail itself at Sea Ranch

The majority of the 1800 or so homes at Sea Ranch are smaller second homes (i.e., if your first home is a mansion). Though there are about 300 full-time residents, nearly half the homes are weekend rentals. We catch a sweet hiking rhythm as the terrain is level and easy to hike at 3 mph pace. A few are out on the bluff trail walking dogs (I guess they could be rule breakers like us, but they have $75 haircuts, boat shoes, and the latest styles), and all are friendly.

Sea 1C more surfWe talk about Arthur Aron’s question #25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…” As reminders of what we have in common, we each find 20 we can say. People say opposites attract. I get that. Do they stay together?  Despite a belief in magnets, I also believe “likes” attract.  I think you need lots in common for a successful marriage. If you marry young, like we did at 24, you also need to grow together as you inevitably develop and change.

We are done with Arthur’s questions and see if we can make up some of our own. And we do.

What adjectives would you like used to describe you?

What five bits of wisdom would you like to leave to your grandchildren?

As you can imagine, the tangents and details add richness to our hiking afternoon along the Pacific. The trail weaves along the coast and then through neighborhoods. Here at Sea Ranch, lighting is baffled to minimize nighttime light pollution; there are no street lights and the night sky is dazzling.

Sea 2F more surfRetracing our steps after 90 minutes, we have “evaded” any Sea Ranch police.  Once back at the lodge and ready to drive north, we are on a mission as we travel the Pacific Coast Highway through Gualala, past Point Arena for our overnight stay with Tree and Scott.

VCU's Treavon Graham and Briante Weber

VCU’s Treavon Graham and Briante Weber

Our mission: Virginia Commonwealth University plays St. Louis University at 4P Pacific Time. Though Tree and Scott are out counting whales at Point Arena, they have set up the TV for the CBS Sports Channel for us. After 11 days on the California road, we’ll have a beer with the game, dinner with old friends, and top it off with a soak in their bubbling Jacuzzi. Life is good – all the time.

The current Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2015) has a featured article on Beach Wars: Who owns America’s coastline?  How much access does the public deserve?  Communities from California to Maine are struggling with these issues, which are rooted in almost 1500 years of legal history.

Repeated cover for the March/April 2015 issue

Repeated cover for the March/April 2015 issue

It seems the law in California is that the public has the right to walk the beaches to the high water mark.  The challenge is how to get to the beaches when land owners restrict access.  Exorbitant and limited “parking” fees can reduce the public’s access to the ocean.

http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2015/03/02/in-the-magazine/beach-wars.html

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Dan and Hannah Hike the Marin Headlands at Golden Gate Park, California

GG Natl Rec Area mapLet’s begin with a shout out to our friends, Scott and Tree. They turned us on to both the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore as primo northern California hiking destinations. With Muir Woods, these two make a Golden Triumvirate of San Francisco area hiking venues. Muchas gracias.

As country mice we have a well-grounded respect for driving through big cities. Have you been to Maine? Our biggest city Portland has 66,000 people. It’s the Tea Cup ride to Thunder Mountain in Los Angeles. But today we have no way around another of the Big Bad Leroy Brown of cities – San Francisco. So like a big boy and girl, we suck it up and drive in.

Waking to the king of motel breakfasts with mouth-watering biscuits and crispy home fries at the Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz, we wait for the morning rush hour to settle down before we drive the 80 miles to San Francisco. Rated the third worst city for traffic in the United States, San Francisco traffic is not to be messed with. Taking I-280 towards the city, we have Beast Mode traffic as we crawl north. Traffic jams, in fact, make the driving easier as there are no crazed Californians zipping in and out. And then for no discernible reason, things open up and we are doing 65 mph.

GG bridge itselfTo get to the Golden Gate Bridge, we take I-280 which dumps us on 19th Avenue into the city. This Wednesday morning in mid-January we sail through the eight miles of city streets with no problemo. Ahead lays one of the seven man-made wonders of the United States, the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge’s two towers rise nearly 200 feet higher than the Washington Monument. Officially an orange vermillion called international orange, the color of the bridge was selected to complement the natural surroundings and enhance the bridge’s visibility in fog.

The Marin Headlands of Golden Gate Park

The Marin Headlands of Golden Gate Park

From the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s a piece of cake as we take the very first exit (Alexander Road) to Sausalito.  At the bottom of the hill, we head straight through the one way tunnel for the Tunnel Road/Bunker Road. It takes us two miles to the Visitor Center where the ranger recommends the Wolf Ridge Trail. Being a Wednesday in mid-January, the parking lot is nearly empty; but soon we will be joined by 65 pint-size hikers.

GG1 H at Lagoon trail signStarting at the Lagoon Loop, we are quickly on the Miwok Trail, which, truth be told, is a gently rising fire road to the Wolf Ridge Trail. With full sun and into our second week of California hiking, we catch a climbing vibe and know again how fortunate we are.   Gaining 900 feet of elevation through this desert landscape, we still have not had a drop of rain or a cloudy sky since we came to the Golden State nine days ago.

Hannah climbing on the Miwok Trail

Hannah climbing on the Miwok Trail

We dive into Arthur Aron’s question #19 – If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why? Nope. I am living now as if I am on a short leash. Though I have some long-living genes from Dad (lived to 94) and Mom (to 92), I try to be a carpe diem kind of guy. I’ll hike, travel, hit the gym, and play ping pong as long as I can because the Universe has made me no promises about tomorrow.

Hannah B on the Wolf Ridge Trail

Hannah B on the Wolf Ridge Trail

Before long we meet some school kids hiking as they good-naturedly plod along. We learn that these Sacramento sixth graders are here for a week in the great outdoors. By law, every California sixth grader must participate in an outdoor experience. Once more, California leads the way again.  Given enough time, some non-educators will come up with a way to standardized test this experience and ruin it for good. Ouch.

Dan ready to descend on the Coastal Trail

Dan ready to descend on the Coastal Trail with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance

Above the Wolf Ridge Trail we see turkey vultures as we break for a lunch of apples and pb& j sandwiches. The kids are clustered, listening to the YMCA leader talk about the Hard core Apple core challenge. Eat the whole apple except the sticker, the seeds, and the stem. The students have no idea that they have a lifetime member in Hannah just 60 feet away.

Hiking above the Pacific Ocean

Hiking above the Pacific Ocean

As we descend the Coastal Trail, we are always in view of the beach below, the onetime barracks of Fort Davis, and the inland lagoon; the majestic Golden Gate Bridge is just beyond. During World War II, Fort Davis was built to protect the Golden Gate Bridge and the entrance to the San Francisco Harbor. The massive cannons could fire a one ton missile 25 miles out to sea, though these 16 inch guns were never used in combat.

With surfers in the background, Hannah chills at Rodeo Beach

With surfers in the background, Hannah chills at Rodeo Beach

Looking from above the cliffs at the Golden Gate Park, we see Rodeo Beach (pronounced Row-day-oh Beech), which is made up of tiny dark grey stones. On this Wednesday, the surfers are out and loving life.   Macho California men and women that they are, they still wear their wet suits in January.

Check the YouTube video on the scene from the Coastal Trail down to Rodeo Beach

Marin Headlands

Marin Headlands

Our hike concludes back along the lagoon. At 330P, we’ve been on the trail for 3+ hours and have shrewdly planned it so we will beat the afternoon rush hour as we head north away from San Francisco, or so we think.  Ah, but the 101 giveth and the 101 taketh away. Initially cruising north at 65mph to our overnight Quality Inn 50 miles away, we are feeling quite smug.

GG trafficThen bam. A dead stop near Petaluma where construction workers are widening the highway. We inch along as four lanes go to three and then two. As country mice, we keep our heads down, remain quiet, and just slip away to our overnight in nearby Santa Rosa.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Wilder Ranch Bluff Trails in Santa Cruz, California

SR1 UCSC signBack in the mid-60s, I first heard of Santa Cruz when Mitch, my high school buddy, applied to go to its brand spanking new school of higher learning – the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Universe had other ideas for Mitch; he wasn’t accepted at UCSC, went to Whittier College in southern California instead, and met the girl of his dreams.

Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz, California

Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz, California (the Jacuzzi is to the far lower left)

Driving 85 miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway from our hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, we arrive at our Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz just before dark. Settled into a poolside Jacuzzi, we look up from the swirling, steaming waters and count our lucky stars one by one.

Already fans of good motel breakfasts, we hit the mother lode the following morning. The biscuits are thick and flaky and make the excellent coffee even more excellent. The sausage links for Hannah and the crispy home fries for me are worthy of the Luxury Diner in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I return for another buttered biscuit; the kind of biscuit that makes grown men cry.

The crashing surf of Wilder Ranch State Park

The crashing surf of Wilder Ranch State Park

Returning to Santa Cruz where we hiked the bluff trails just one year ago, we vowed to rent bikes this year and pedal the entire trail and into the foothills of Wilder Ranch State Park.  In the past we rented 7 speed bikes from Billy’s Rentals on Sanibel Island, FL for $12 for four hours. Why the last time we were in Hilton Head, we rented single speed cruisers for $25 for the week from Bicycle Billy’s with 50% off for the second bike!

SR1 Epicenter cyclingThis being California, good deals in bike rental are not so easy to come by. The best we can do is rent mountain bikes for $45 each for 24 hours at Epicenter Cycling. They recommend 21 speed mountain bikes for the rough bluff trails of Wilder Ranch.  Since we are not biking in traffic today, we opt for the free spirit feel of no helmets.  Not so fast suggests the clerk, You’ll be ticketed in the State Park if you don’t have helmets. We grudgingly rent the $5 helmets.

WR1 H by signWhile we ride hybrid bikes at home, we are not used to leaning over the handle bars as we must do with these mountain bikes.  Slowly adjusting to our bikes, we take Mission Street to the bike path along the Pacific Coast Highway and on to the bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. Immediately we see that the mountain bikes are made to order for this bumpy trail with ruts and muddy potholes from recent rains.

Migrant workers shacks

Shacks of migrant workers just off the trail

Soon we pass three mothers pushing strollers. Then we see a line of people in brightly colored shirts who I think are here for a park tour by the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. As we approach we see that they are, in fact, a single file of migrant workers heading to pick artichokes and Brussel sprouts this January morning. The contrast between these seasonal workers and these upper middle class women and vacationers like us is unsettling. Why us? Why them?

Dan helmeted above the surf on the Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Dan with his $5 helmet above the surf on the Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Within minutes we stop for pictures of the Pacific coast bluff trail in all its foaming glory.   The mountain bikes navigate the rutted path easily as the trail hugs the coastline and gives us stunning views of the crashing surf.

Bicycling along the  Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Bicycling along the
Wilder Ranch bluff trail

With the trail 50 feet above the incoming tides, we keep back from the unstable cliffs. Hunched over the handle bars of the mountain bikes, every so often we stretch our backs like our cat Sadie to work out our soreness.  Over 60, we find riding a mountain bike is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Hannah gets creative with this shot

Hannah gets creative with this shot at Four Mile Beach

On a week day Tuesday, there are very few others on the bluff trail so we can often ride side by side. As with other bluff trails, there is little shade and no available water. Taking a break from our biking body contortions, we check out the surfers at Four Mile Beach.

SR3A another crashing waveAs a Jersey boy in the Sixties, I thought that nothing was cooler than surfers. The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean spoke to my yearning to be all things California; and, I have to admit, to escape Jersey.  By the way, I followed that itch and took my first teaching job in Anaheim, just 20 miles from Newport Beach in southern California.

Wildflowers along the Pacific Coast Highway

Wildflowers along the Pacific Coast Highway

The two hours on the trail have been more than enough as we never really adjust to the leaning over position necessary to ride these mountain bikes. With no interest in riding into the foothills of Wilder Ranch, we take the direct route back to town on the Pacific Coast Highway.

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, CA

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, CA

Back weary from the mountain bikes, we pedal slowly in town above the Pacific on West Cliff Drive.  With other bicyclists and recreational walkers, we bike along the trail that takes us to the Santa Cruz Lighthouse and towards the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz Beach.

Within inches of falling over the cliff

Within inches of falling over the cliff

Wanting no part of the 20 hours left on our rental, we return to Epicenter Cycling and leave the wiser. We are not mountain bikers. Give us smooth country roads with our hybrid bikes with upright handlebars.   Are we soft? I guess that is pretty obvious.

The Comfort Inn Jacuzzi listens to our tale of mountain biking woe and soothes us without comment or advice or judgment. Many of us have a lot to learn from the Jacuzzis in our lives. In the cool California night, we mellow out in hot tub appreciation.

Dan and Hannah Hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Early morning Hannah on the Pacific coast north of Cambria, CA

Leaving Cambria on the coast of California early to hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we have the highway to ourselves. With its hairpin turns and spectacular vistas to the west, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) provides us with an amusement park ride of hairpin turns and steep drop-off thrills.

BS1B - Gorda Springs gasThink about it. By heading north on the PCH, we are always nearest the mountainside of the highway and away from the plunging cliffs that the southbounders must deal with. That is a good thing for the slightly acrophobic in the front seat next to Hannah. After driving just 33 miles in the first hour, we take a quick break to change drivers at Gorda Springs.  There, we see, despite falling gas prices across the United States this winter of 2015, Gorda Springs has the same price that it had a year ago.

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

Along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur

On our way to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we pass the entrance to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (JPB); Hannah reads aloud about this park and we learn that a fifty foot waterfall overlooking the ocean, a stunning redwood grove and a 200 foot tunnel leading to the beach through the cliffs are just a taste of what awaits you…

BS2 - D at Ewoldsen TrailMaking a u-eee (U-turn) immediately, we change plans on the spot and drive four to five miles back to the park entrance at JPB.  At 930A, the drop dead gorgeous ranger suggests the Ewoldsen Trail.  The juxtaposition of a natural beauty among such natural beauty makes this trail an obvious choice

Let the redwoods begin.  Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Let the redwoods begin. Hannah on the Ewoldsen Trail.

Hiking under the redwood forest canopy, we start off in sweatshirts. The Ewoldsen Trail is a 4.5 mile loop with an invigorating 1300’ gain in elevation. Today redwoods are like the Beatles – here, there, and everywhere. Redwoods are found in deep valleys and gullies where the coastal fog bathes the towering redwoods in moisture.

Redwood twins

Redwood twins

Rising above the river bed, the trail has us in redwood heaven. A cool, moist climate is needed for the redwoods to thrive in this, one of the southern-most groves of redwoods. We find redwoods along the stream bed or up the north facing mountain slopes.

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

Among the redwoods on the Ewoldsen Trail

I have to say that any day in the redwoods is a great day. Ken Burns of PBS fame calls our National Parks America’s Best Idea. Well, California has its own best idea, too, with its spectacular Big Sur State Parks here on the Pacific. As we hike, I hum Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land is Your LandThis land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests…

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

A VCU Ram on the Waters Trail

After two miles of hiking beneath this redwood paradise, we take to the recently blazed Waters Trail under a full California sun. Here the chaparral vegetation dominates as we see sage, coyote brush, and gooseberry; there is now a high desert vibe to our hiking adventure today.

Overlooking the Pacific

Overlooking the Pacific

The trail is cliffside and gives us a view of Pacific Ocean miles away. Lunching on a park bench near the summit of the trail, we deboot and desock and revel in how damn fortunato we are to be here in January while Mainers are preparing for Snowmageddon.

A baby redwood next to Mama

A baby redwood next to Mama

Upon our descent, we return to the shaded redwood forest and spot a baby redwood. As the tallest trees, redwoods are found on a very narrow coastal band from here at JPB to the extreme southwestern corner of Oregon. The thick bark and the soaring foliage protects the redwoods from both fire and insect damage.

Heading back to the trailhead

Heading back to the trailhead

Descending, we pass many hikers on this holiday Monday in January wondering about the next turn and how long it would take to finish the loop trail. We love the trails with the buzz of hikers. One, we love the interaction, and two, it’s less likely we’ll get lost on popular trails.   Though the trail guide says the Ewoldsen Trail could take a full day for an average hiker, we found its 4.5 mile loop with the additional 2.4 miles going up and back on the Waters Trail has taken just over three hours.

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

At the tunnel of love to the Pacific

Once back at our rented Toyota Corolla, we know that there is just a quarter mile walk to the Overlook Trail above the Pacific cliffs.  Through the 200 foot metal culvert under the Pacific Coast Highway, we see the aforementioned waterfall, which falls quietly to the beach at McWay Cove.

Due to the unstable cliffs, the beach is not open to the public; as such, the Observation Deck is overrun with touristos.   Spent from the three plus hours of hiking and knowing we have at least two hours of driving ahead to Santa Cruz for the night, we know it’s time to boogie.

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline

The magnificence of the Big Sur coastline from the Observation Deck at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Nothing like the majesty of the redwoods!   The redwood forest trails not only puts the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at the top of our list of hiking destinations on the coast of California, but anywhere from California to the New York island.