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 the Bluff Trail at Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur, California

AM map of big sur

Snaking north on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hannah and I do not pass a single burg, not a village, or even a hamlet.  A few cabins in Gorda with its $5.99 per gallon regular are the closest thing to a settlement that we see.  Today we have set our sights on a bluff hike in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur.  FYI, Andrew Molera was a rancher in the 1930s, whose family donated the park land to the state of California.

While there is a “town” of Big Sur, the Big Sur region is considered to be the 90 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to Carmel.  Once a hippy heaven back in the day, its Big Sur Folk Festival in the late 60s had musical heavyweights like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Now along this stretch there are no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food restaurants.  The mountainous terrain and environmental restrictions have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled.  As a result, homes can be north of $2 million.

AM trail map

After four hours of the PCH’s hairpins, we have just five minutes more through the heavily forested mountainside from the Big Sur gas station/convenience store to the entrance of the Andrew Molera State Park.  On this Saturday noon time, the parking lot is packed; and why wouldn’t it be on a day that is 75 degrees and a location just some 20 miles south of Carmel and Monterrey.  For $9 admission for seniors, we park and lunch out of our rental car’s trunk on oranges, apples, trail mix, and motel muffins.

AM 1 first sign

Informed that the seasonal bridge over the Big Sur River is out, we un-shod and de-sock and dip our feet into the 6 to 10 inches of 47F water.  With no choice, there is little complaining by the hikers and beachgoers that we see as they cross the 25’ of flowing stream.  (At the end of the blog is a short video on Hannah re-crossing this stream.)

Big Sur River

Big Sur River

Taking the Creamery Meadow Trail we hike for the fourth day in a row in California under cloudless skies in the mid-70s.  The trail to the beach is sandy dirt that is easy on the feet, level and winding through a savannah similar to what we have seen in the grasslands of the Everglades.

Heading to the Pacific

Heading to the Pacific

While the park pamphlet recommends hiking this loop trail by starting with the inland Ridge Trail first, we choose the direct route to the water with its crashing surf and with the ocean extending to the horizon.  In less than twenty minutes we are at the beach with families and surfers giving it their best ten seconds.  (Does that sound like a shot at surfing?)

AM 7 arrive at beach

The bluff trail is clearly marked and spreading before us to the south.  Passing ten to fifteen hikers over the nearly next two miles of the Bluff Trail, we have brief, smiling conversations and then move on.

AM 8 bluff trail sign

The trail is narrow and distinctive, winding its way through the very dry grasslands above the shoreline.  Below us at low tide beachcombers can walk for two miles along the sandy shore easily getting around the rocky outcroppings.  The park pamphlet warns with CAPITAL LETTERS of the danger of misjudging the tides.  The bluff walls are no easy climb and often inaccessible.  The number one rule of the coast is Never turn your back on the ocean! 

AM 9B shore line with D

Transported into another country and time here in California, we have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no “to-dos,” just hiking and hanging out together.  Hannah loves her sun and I am equally enamored today with the pristine coast with no houses on the cliffs or any cell services.  At no point on this hike do we feel we may get lost.  The trail is well-laid out, easy to follow, and popular.

AM 9C H on bluff trail

On the East Coast there would often be mansions (euphemistically called “cottages”) on the water’s edge.  In New England, there would be laws (decrees from the King of England) from the 1600s giving rights to the low tide line to land owners effectively keeping the public out; the modern day landed aristocracy would have the ocean views to themselves, as is now in danger of happening in York County, Maine.

AM 9D bluff trail with sea

After nearly three miles of hiking from the parking lot in a little over an hour, we descend the steep side Spring Trail to the ocean shore through coastal scrub and grasslands.

AM 9E trail into mountains

Meeting a couple from Australia with an extreme sports camera that records their every step as they run the trail, we linger by the water’s edge; we are torn between just catching some rays on the beach and the fact that we have 2+ hours of mountainous hiking still ahead before the late afternoon January sunset.   We turn for the hills.

AM 9F beach waves

We look ahead to the climb ahead of us with oaks and redwoods in the distance.  As my friend Mitch says, these are Adirondack switchbacks (i.e., straight up!).  Climbing from the shore we have a serious 1000 feet of elevation gain ahead of us.  There is no shade and no mercy, but also no driveway with snow.

The "switchbacks" of the Panorama Trail

The “switchbacks” of the Panorama Trail

It’s amazing how willing hikers coming down the mountain are to give you the information they think you want.  As an entre to conversation, I ask everyone, Which is the top most peak? (which they incidentally have just come from).  They see my sweat-stained face, big smile, and just give me what I obviously want!  With their best intentions, they say, It’s just over the hill there, or You’re close.  Brimming with hopefulness, I am to blame.  Fact is, we are not close and it takes an hour to climb a mile and a third.

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

Though slow going, we are under a full sun as we arrive at the end of the Panorama trail.  There a bench in the shade provides us with, you got it, a panorama of the ocean to our left and the mountainous terrain of the rest of the Andrew Molera State Park across the Pacific Coast Highway.

But it’s all downhill from here (in a good way!).

AM 9J H on trail back

The Ridge Trail is wide, shaded, and our energy level returns.  Within the canopy of the forest we rarely see the ocean.  Taking the side Hidden Trail down the mountain to the River Trail, we are nearly done with our three plus hours of hiking over these eight miles.

Just 100 yards from our rental car, we ford the Big Sur River one more time.  Again, Hannah impresses.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Montana De Oro State Park on the coast of California

MDO map 1

Heading north from Santa Barbara on The 101, Hannah and I hug the coastline for some twenty miles before veering inland past the towns of Los Alamos and Santa Maria.  With credit card points, we will spend the night at a Quality Inn in Pismo Beach 80 miles north; fortunately our room is available at 9A so we stow our luggage and seek out a coastal bluff trail.  Though January is both the off-season and the rainy season in California, the weather gods didn’t get the memo.  Today is our third day in the upper 70s without a cloud in the sky since we arrived from New England.

MDO sign 1

From Pismo Beach, it is a 45 minute drive through this residential and strip mall part of San Luis Obispo on Los Osos Valley Road.  Soon we are weaving through a coastal forest to the Montana De Oro State Park.  Though we see a sign for the park, we pass dunes between us and the beach for miles with no sign of a visitor center or admission gate.  Fear not.  The park headquarters at the old Spooner Ranch House lies at the end of the road.

MDO Han on road at bluff

Arriving at 10A, we meet two women who have just hiked three hours to and from 1300′ Valencia Peak.  That is a hike for next year; today we want bluff hikes with crashing waves and steep cliffs.  Lacing up our hiking boots, we walk 300 yards on a paved road that leads us to the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean.  With seven miles of coastline, Montana De Oro will give us two miles of bluff trail hiking this morning.

MDO Dan at bluff

Though it’s a midweek Thursday in January, we are not alone on this summer-like day.  Beach goers hang out at Spooner’s Cove while others are here and there hiking the Bluff Trail.  Though Montana De Oro gets half a million visitors a year, today there are no crowds and few trail bike riders.

MDO 3 trail along bluff

In just five minutes we are at the top of the cliff with striking views of crashing waves to the north.  Montana De Oro means “Mountain of Gold” which comes from the golden wildflowers found in the park.  This year we see no such flowers as the land is parched and dry due to the ongoing drought.  With cliffs, sandy beaches, canyons, and hills, Montana De Oro has something for every nature lover.

MDO 4 bluff waves

Weaving in and out of the steep cliff peninsulas as we hike south, I am struck by the relentless snow white waves that keep coming and coming.  It is one spectacular view after another.  We have hit bluff hiking oro (gold).

MDO 5 han on bluff trail

Hiking in shorts and tee shirts, we get all the sunshine we can ask for while friends stomp through the snow of our driveway with our mail and to feed our cat Sadie.

On the trail we see a mother, her mom, and daughter.  We talk and eventually learn the nine month old’s name is Siena.  With another grandchild on the way, Hannah and I are looking for names to send Molly and Tip’s way.  Molly and Tip are old school in that they won’t know the gender of their baby until the bambino is born.  Playfully, they have come up with a baby pool, something similar to a March Madness bracket, for people to see if they can guess the names Molly and Tip will pick for our new grandchild.

MDO 8 beach scene great

Occasionally there is access to the beaches beneath the cliffs.  The bluff trail itself is entirely level some 60’ above the shore below.  Soon we see a young father, his Dad, and a 15 month old resting at a picnic table with their bikes parked nearby.  When we leave and Hannah realizes we haven’t asked the little boy’s name, she returns and finds that it is Kiernan.  If you are wondering about my leading baby’s names: Carly and Johnny.  You heard it hear first.  It’s going to be a girl.  Rachel?  Caroline?  Julia?  Quinn?  I’m grabbing at straws.

MDO 9 han on beach

After walking the beaches of Santa Barbara and Summerland, CA, we finally hike the bluffs above the relentless ocean for over two miles in what literally is paradise.

Up and down the coast, California is fantastic at reinforcing the danger of the public feeding the wildlife.  This gull expects a treat, but it will not be from us.

MDO 9D han with seagull

The trip back to the Spooner Ranch House takes the Pecho Valley Road for a little over a mile.  Rather than return, we spot in the distance what looks like more trail.  We will soon discover that the Point Buchon Trail lies just south of us on the Pacific Ocean.  Stay tuned. We are on our way.