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 Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz, California

WR Santa Cruz map 1

Traveling north on the Pacific Coast Highway from Big Sur, Hannah and I arrive in Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), California, some 80 miles south of San Francisco, in search of our next bluff trail. It might seem that we are on a quest similar to the one the surfers followed in the 1966 cult classic documentary, the Endless Summer.  In that film they looked the world over for the perfect wave.  We are not looking for the perfect bluff trail; no, we just want another one.  And then one more.

wr beach boardwalk 1

A beach resort town of 60, 000 on the north edge of Monterrey bay, Santa Cruz was one of the first communities to approve the use of medical marijuana (1992).  Later in the day we will walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which is an oceanside amusement park that would make Seaside Heights, NJ or Wildwood, NJ proud.  The Santa Cruz vibe warms my traveling soul and it all says Escape with a capital E.

WR WR map

Not more than a ten minute drive north from the downtown out the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1), we turn left toward the ocean and the entrance of Wilder Ranch State Park.  It’s another picture perfect California Sunday in January.  With the State Parks in California typically charging $10 admission, what better way is there for us to spend a sawbuck or a Hamilton (pictured on the $10 bill) for a morning of uncrowded, outdoor activity?  By the way, the Wilder Family ran a creamery here for five generations.  A creamery is often the source of butter and, as you might imagine, cream.   Their land became a state park in the 1970s.

Though the bulk of the 700o acres of the park lies east of the coast highway, the Ohlone Bluff Trail is a stone’s throw from the parking lot.  By the way, the Ohlone Indians lived in the area for centuries until European diseases and the loss of their lands led to their inevitable demise.  A sadly familiar tale of Manifest Destiny.

WR 2 bluff trail

At 9A the parking lot is empty and we have nothing but blue skies above us.  Four miles of bluff hiking 70’ above the Pacific shoreline lies ahead for us on this Sunday.  With no hills or elevation gain at all, we hike at a crisp three mph pace loving the freedom of being away, so “Carol King” far away.

WR 3 D on bluff trail

Being passed by a team of female cross country runners from one of the four local high schools this early morning, we first hike above Sand Plant Beach, then later on the bluffs above Strawberry Beach.  Sandy trails snake down to the ocean’s edge, but on this 50 degree mid-morning there are no beach-goers.

WR 4 H on bluff trail

There are certainly more bikers on the trail than hiker/walkers this Sunday morning.  While the bluff trail is nine miles round trip, bikers and hikers have access to 35 miles of trails among the Douglas firs and coastal redwoods in the mountains of Wilder Ranch State Park.  Passing two surfers scouting out the morning waves on our way to Three Mile Beach, we are getting all the vitamin D (from the sun) that we could want.

WR 9C Biker on bluff trail

It’s an easy bike or car ride from town so this trail can be a daily bit of exercise for the locals.  The terrain is so level that we catch an easy hiking rhythm while we talk.  Weaving in and out the peninsulas along the coast, we find the sandy soil pleasingly easy to our soles.

WR 8 bluffs and waves

Harbor seals and otters swim these coastal waters.  As with much of the Pacific California coast, one can see migrating whales and dolphins.  You can spot whales by the “blows” you see (i.e., the stream of warm air being forced out of their lungs through their spouts).

California provides 50% of our nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  (The nuts part of that is such an easy shot for haters of all things  California!)  A private farm juts into the park where we see artichokes and Brussels sprouts growing (There is an S on the end of Brussels despite it rarely being pronounced.).  For the life of me, I can’t imagine paying good money for Brussels sprouts.  Or eating them!

WR 9F migrant farmer housingMigrant farmer housing lies on the private land near the state park.  With the artichokes and Brussels sprouts nearly ready for picking, families will return here in hopes of making a better life than what they had south of the border.  A dream they share with us all.

Currently California farmers and growers find themselves without enough laborers to harvest the crops.  The lack of immigration reform and the tightened border security are leaving California farmers high and dry.  American citizens are not lining up for these backbreaking jobs.  Even the tacit use of illegal immigrants in much of the state still does not provide enough labor for America’s hunger for fruits and vegetables.

WR 9G car with eyelashes

After sadly watching the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, we walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  Later this car winks at us.  We are both in on the secret that California is the land of dreams.

We think it, dream it, believe it, do it as the Unity song encourages.