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Los Gatos, California, United States

Skyline to the Sea Trail

3-day hike showcases best of the Santa Cruz Mountains

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 (66 votes, 26 reviews)
Difficulty: Difficult
Length: 29 miles / 47 km
Duration: Multiple days
Overview: Campers flock to the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco; most are content to pitch a tent plucked from the trunk of their car, but hardy hikers prefer roughing it with all they need strapped on their backs.

Two of the Bay Area's most popular hiking locales -- Castle Rock and Big Basin Redwoods state parks -- promise one of the region's top backpacking experiences. A three-day, 30-plus-mile hike through these parks from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean shows off everything to see in the South Bay woods, from the redwoods towering above to the banana slugs creeping along the forest floor.

A popular version of this hike begins at the eastern terminus of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, at the intersection of Highways 9 and 35 (Saratoga Gap). The first third of Skyline-to-the-Sea tracks along a highway and is otherwise unremarkable, so a superior option is to start from the Castle Rock State Park headquarters a few miles south of the gap on Highway 35. Castle Rock offers wonderful vistas of the mountains stretching to the sea, and a safe place to park your car.

The second and third days of the hike traverse ancient redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, passing the impressive Berry Creek Falls and ending at the edge of America at Waddell Beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Tips: Click this link (PDF download) for the most up-to-date information on backpacking the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, including current overnight camping fees and the number to call for reservations.

Don't be misled by talk of this hike being "all downhill." While most of it descends, there are substantial uphill sections. With a pack it can be very tiring.

If you're trying backpacking for the first time, rent your gear at a local REI or other outfitter.

Hang your food to keep raccoons and rodents out of it.

All water in streams must be filtered or otherwise purified.

What to bring:
Maps -- available at park headquarters.
Overnight backpacking gear -- shelter, sleeping bag, food, cooking gear
Layers -- it can be very cool in the deep woods and hot in the sun
Bug repellent
Rain gear if you go during the rain season.
Water purification -- filters preferred.

Points of Interest


Day 1

Starting from the Castle Rock parking lot, follow the signs to Saratoga Gap Trail, about a half-mile, and turn left just after crossing a small stream.

Saratoga Gap Trail is a rocky 2-mile route along a ridge with impressive views of the nearby terrain. Footing is tricky, so take your time and watch your step. It ends at Trail Camp, where you can rest up for the next leg.

From Trail Camp, go another three-quarters of a mile on Saratoga Gap Trail and turn left at Travertine Springs Trail. Go 2.1 miles to Saratoga Toll Road Trail and turn left.

Saratoga Toll Road Trail parallels the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail for a mile or so; look for a connector trail (Beekhuis Road Trail), where you turn right and take a short link over to Skyline-to-the-Sea, where you turn left and hike the last few miles to the Waterman Trail Camp.

Day 2

The rest of the route sticks to the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which is well marked so you can pretty much follow the signs.

Day 2 is a 10-mile stretch starting with a section running next to a highway for a few miles, but hang in there: eventually it crosses the highway and dives deeper and deeper into the ancient redwood forest that made Big Basin famous.

As you get closer to the park HQ, the trees get progressively older, bigger and taller. A favorite stop is the site of Maddock Cabin, where early homesteaders carved a living from these woods (the cabin's long gone, but a sign board recounts the Maddock family's woodland lifestyle).

Jay Camp is your Day 2 destination, just beyond the park HQ. There's also a market (open on weekends) where you can buy snacks or soft drinks, and wash up in coin-operated showers.

Park HQ

Stop by the snack shop across the road to grab a cold drink or a bite to eat.

Day 3

It's another 13 miles to the ocean on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail from the park HQ, but side trips could add a few more miles to your hike.

One spur I highly recommend: the one-mile Redwood Trail, which showcases Father of the Forest and Mother of the Forest, two of the biggest redwoods at Big Basin.

When you get back on Skyline-to-the-Sea, be sure to follow any detour signs -- falling trees blocked a section of the trail in spring of 2009; when it would be cleared again was anybody's guess.

The most recent detour pointed to a route from Dool Trail to Sunset Trail up to Middle Ridge Road. Cross the road and take the first left turn at the Skyline-to-the-Sea Connector, and go about a quarter-mile to the Skyline trail and turn right.

From there it's about 4.5 miles of hiking under Big Basin's canopy of ancient redwoods -- arguably among the nicest stretches of trail anywhere in the United States. Eventually you'll hear the sound of roaring waters, then you'll round a bend to see the lovely Berry Creek Falls in the distance.

A side trail passes next to Berry Creek Falls and on to Silver Falls and the Golden Cascade. If you're feeling strong, this three-mile side trip is not to be missed.

The last leg of the trail is all downhill, passing out of the redwood forest into the coastal scrub and ending at Waddell Beach.

Waddell Beach parking lot

Another option is to start your hike down here at the Pacific Coast along California Highway 1 and hike uphill the entire way.
Pictures in this guide taken by: hallidaymw, fusilero, eYeks, liquidthex, wooac, jtg2078, obert82, samshiue, Vaudesir, epedersoli
What a great trip, i will be there soon

by Olagist on Mar 13, 2016
Excellent trail for a one day long-distance hike or run. I started at Castle Rock 8:30am, enjoyed lunch at the store in Big Basin HQ, and finished at Waddell Beach 3pm. Soft ground, mostly downhill, well-marked trail, and spectacular scenery make this long day feel relatively easy. The most difficult part of this trail is the shuttle required. I highly recommend this trip to those who want to do it in a single day.

For those looking for a multi-day backpacking experience, this one will have limited appeal. The first third of the trip feels like you are slipping into the wilderness of the Santa Cruz mountains until the middle third when you are within eyesight or earshot of highway 9 or 236. The final third is beautiful but crowded with day-hikers and casual bicyclists. This trail may be among the best within 1 hour of the bay area but lacks much sense of a wilderness experience.

Visited on Feb 20, 2016

by tke999 on Feb 29, 2016
Very underwhelming. You're in the trees 99% of the time. There are only a few views during the entire 3 day hike and none of them are very pretty. The trail ends at a parking lot a mile uphill of the ocean which is also the first and only time you see the ocean the entire time. The only reason to do this trail is if you live in the South Bay and you need to train for something else or want to test out gear. It is not worth doing for the hike for its own sake.
Visited on Dec 28, 2015

by Ltdanp21 on Jan 01, 2016
Very, very interesting place for every user here.
Visited on May 07, 2014

by Praska on Sep 11, 2015
I did this hike in Aug 2015 and was a lot of fun. I would recommend to anyone who enjoys being in the nature, is reasonably fit - physically, so that you can carry about 30lbs of weight and walk for 10 miles a day.
We started from Castle Rock State park, first night stayed at Waterman gap and second day at Jay Camp ( near Big Basin HQ). Each day we were on the trail by 10:30/11 am and reach our destination by 4/4:30 pm. Then lot of time to sit, relax, chat and enjoy the surroundings.
We dropped a car at Rancho Del Oso State park on Friday night, and had a friend drop us at Castle Rock State park on Saturday morning. Started our hike at 11 am.
We did the hike with trail mix, protein bars and water. Pasta/Noodles for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast. No water till you reach your campsite ( do confirm it has drinking water available), so carry enough, although for me 2 liters was enough, while walking.

Every pound counts. It might seem very light when you pick an item, you plan to carry. Would highly recommend to do a practice hike with the weight you plan to carry prior to the hike, to get an idea how much you can really carry and for how long.
Pit toilets. I found it to be much cleaner than couple of my prior experience, but still these are NOT flush toilets. Since you are ready for backpacking , hopefully you would be willing to tolerate it.
No benches at the camping site. Almost all car camping sites have wooden benches where you can sit/cook and eat. None on the sites we stayed, and you realize how important these are only after 6 hrs of strenuous workout, and the reach your destination, looking for space to sit.
Would highly recommend carrying sleeping pads: For me a good night sleep is more important than a delicious dinner. Found it difficult to find a flat surface to camp in Jay Camp for 2. You realize if its really flat only after you lie flat on the ground.
Mosquitoes: Do carry Mosquitoe repellent.
If you do not have strong knees, atleast one hiking stick is helpful.

End of the day if you enjoy nature and have a good company, you will enjoy the experience. I did, and would recommend to all enthusiasts.
Lastly Berry creek fall had water, although not a lot.

Visited on Aug 08, 2015

by afalcar on Aug 17, 2015
Excellent training day-hike for ultralight backpackers like myself. Easily finished the whole 31 miles (from Castle Rock) in 11.5 hours and ready for more. I've done this route as a day-hike twice before and every time it was a great workout. Go get some!

Beginners should skip my review and carefully read what other backpackers wrote about this hike.

Advanced hikers/runners who did something similar in the past should skip my review as well - just figure out transportation situation and go, do your thing ;)

Intermediate hikers, who wants to test their endurance and get into long-distance hiking... should probably look for some tips on sites like Andrew Skurka's (
To avoid injury, do a few shorter hikes (15-20 miles) a week or two before this one. Wear comfortable shoes and good socks. Make sure you have enough fuel - there is a store at Big Basin HQ, but I would call them before the trip to make sure they will be open if you plan on getting food there. Same goes for water - after some rains, you can easily find and filter water along the trail, but during the dry season, you might be out of luck. Check with the rangers before your hike to get an idea about the conditions on the trail. Hiking poles are a good idea - you can do it without the poles, but your knees might not like it.

Here's the way I usually do this hike:
Meet one of my buddies at Waddell Beach and leave one car there. Drive to Castle Rock and start hiking. At the end, we pick up the car from the beach and drive back to CR for the second car. Go home and take a shower.

I prefer to wear:
light trail-running shoes with Wrightsocks (built-in liner), runner shorts, light synthetic t-shirt.

I like to bring my Exos 48 backpack and carry:
headlamp, down jacket (MH Ghost Whisperer), light warm hat, sun hat, water filter (Sawyer Mini), Camelbak (3L), hiking poles (Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork), and my poncho-tarp if it's raining. Oh, you might want to bring some moleskin just in case a blister sneaks up on you (unless you don't mind them).

I did this trail once entirely on fresh fruits (bananas, apples, strawberries, etc.). Feels great, but a bit of a hassle. Protein bars, gel shots, electrolyte powders are much easier to deal with. You should know what works for you though.

That's about it. Have fun and share your experience with others!

Visited on Mar 14, 2015

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Visited on Mar 15, 2015

by singaqq on Mar 15, 2015
u need very comfortable shoes.... quite a difficult hike

by inqueba on Jul 17, 2014
i visted with my wife... it was a wonderful experience

by hairtransplant on Jul 17, 2014
I was really amazing place
Visited on Mar 04, 2010

by centrums on May 13, 2014
Great thanks for info, i want to going their

by inizchetan on Feb 26, 2014
This was my first backpacking trip over 25 miles as an adult. It was really cool and very diverse. Me and 2 male friends hiked from Castle Rock to Waddell Beach over 3 days/2 nights. Mostly downhill with some good uphill sections too. The first day 2 days are a mix of downhill and level, with the random uphill section. Day 3 from Big Basin to Waddell starts with 2 miles of climbing steadily (not hard) and then is a gradual downhill for the rest of the day. One of the other reviewers here said it's steep downhill, which it isn't. Maybe a few very small parts, but it's a super easy last day along the creek, past some farms, and out to the beach. Don't bother bringing anything to filter water. I took a liter gatorade bottle of water for each day and was fine. You can refill at Waterman and Jay camps. Nice hike. Would definitely do it again. Probably the longest structured thru-hike you can do in the bay area.
Visited on Oct 26, 2013

by StevenDavisPhoto on Nov 05, 2013
like information, i wait strip
Visited on Dec 18, 1991

by trunganh12 on Oct 23, 2013
This was my first backpacking trip and I went with an inexperienced friend. It’s definitely doable for beginners if you’re a bit adventurous and reasonably fit!

If you’re doing backcountry camping (not car camping), you must call to reserve your spot (no online reservations). They take reservations up to 2 months in advance:

We paid an $8 reservation fee. Once we arrived, we paid $15 per night of camping, and since we had more than one car, we paid an additional $10 per night. We left all of our cash payments in a fee box at the parking lots (the Park will send you instructions on this). Bring exact change!

We booked Waterman Gap for night one, and Jay Camp for night two. Both have potable water. There is also the option of staying at Sunset Camp on the second night. It is more rustic, and there is no potable water, but the Ranger recommended it to us, as you get pass three waterfalls on this trail. We opted for Jay since it’s next to Park Headquarters (A general store! Water! Showers!), and this was our first trip.

Day One
We parked one car at Waddell Beach, and drove the second up to Castle Rock State Park. We brought a really basic map printed from my computer, thinking we’d pick up a more detailed map at one of the parking lots. But there were none left! The basic map was adequate, but we had to guess which way to turn at a few trails. Luckily, we made the right decisions, but spoke to a few campers who went 5 miles out of the way after a wrong turn! I would recommend getting a detailed map from the park ahead of time (I believe you can call to place an order). And bring a compass!

Really great views shortly after starting your Day One hike. You’ll pass potable water a few miles in, at Castle Rock camp. We stayed at Waterman Gap the first night.

Day Two
The Skyline to the Sea hike is sometimes referred to as “all downhill.” Don’t be fooled! Day two starts with a few miles of uphill hiking. Get a good breakfast in before starting! You’ll need your energy! I found Day Two to be the most physically strenuous. You’ll start to see the beautiful Redwoods, and you’ll get some more great views of the Santa Cruz mountains. We even saw a few mountain lions!

We followed the trail to Big Basin Headquarters, and stocked up on goodies at the general store. It closed at 4pm on the day we arrived. We got there just in time to get some beer, some jerky, some more trail mix, and some pastries! They’ve also got an outdoor store, where you can pick up other camping supplies if needed. We were also able to pick up a detailed trail map for our third day of hiking.

They have hot showers with the highest water pressure I’ve ever felt. It was glorious! Bring quarters. It was 25 cents for two minutes of water.

Day Three
We were pretty sore this day. All the hiking with 20 pounds on our backs caught up with us. We also had blisters. I would definitely recommend bringing moleskin or something comparable.

There was a bit of uphill on day three as well. Although this trail was supposed to be longer (about 2 or 3 miles longer than the previous two days), we completed it in about the same amount of time- 5 hours. The trails through the redwoods near the river are really beautiful. Lots of beautiful spots to pause for a snack. And you’ll pass a waterfall!

We eventually made it back to where we parked, near the ocean. We were disappointed to find that there were no ocean views on our trip at all. Perhaps there are if you venture off of Skyline to the Sea at all?

All in all, it was a great trip for beginners! I’ll pack slightly differently next time (I need a camel pack, versus water bottles), and thicker hiking socks! Pack as lightly as possible, and have fun!!

Visited on Oct 18, 2013

by stephaniet on Oct 21, 2013
This was my first backpacking trip and I had an amazing time! The terrain is very diverse which keeps the hike very interesting. It has some great views of the santa cruz mountains and berry creek falls was beautiful! I do find it a bit misleading when people say that this hike is mainly downhill. It definitely has its share of uphill climbs. But anyways, you must experience this excellent trail!
Visited on Aug 15, 2013

by park088 on Aug 23, 2013
Two of us are doing the trail from 9/22 to 9/25 - we only have one car so if anyone else is hiking those days and is willing to carpool, please email me at keelssd(at)gmail(dot)com. If anyone has any suggestions on how to get a ride back, that would be greatly appreciated also!
Visited on Aug 06, 2013

by SunnySD on Aug 06, 2013
Great info, i cant wait to start this trip.

by DavidHTa on Mar 28, 2013
I only hiked from the top of Big Basin in Boulder Creek Down to Waddell Creek at the ocean. It takes one longish day and it's very steep downhill. Tough on your knees if you rush. Don't! You can take the bus to the top and leave your car at Waddell Creek for the end of the hike. Very Nice Views. Constantly changing weather.
Visited on May 09, 1996

by 650b2 on May 17, 2012
I've done this trail a number of times over the last 5 years. Each time, I start at Castle Rock State Park and return, making it a 6 day hike. It's a great early season hike when the Sierras have too much snow.
Visited on Mar 04, 2012

by stirlnjo on Mar 04, 2012
I've done the full trail once and most of the trail a second time. It's a great 3 day trip and fairly easy (slight downhill the whole way). You pass a variety of scenery and terrain (rocky and dry to forests with creeks, all the way to the ocean). You feel far away from people most of the hike, but can still stop at the Big Basin headquarters if you want to pick some stuff up (like marshmallows...). Great hike, nice scenery, very highly recommend it!
Visited on Jul 08, 2005

by chris on Feb 02, 2012
A must for BA hikers. Not sure if anyone else does this but My friend in I conquered the trail in 1 day insteadof three! read about it on my blog and follow it if you like it!

Visited on Jun 06, 2011

by RakeHellHiker on Jun 07, 2011
Anyone want to share waterman gap trail on Sunday the 5th or Jay Camp on Monday the 6th?
I'm doing a solo trek so I won't need an entire campsite

by lov2bikenrock on Sep 03, 2010
I am hoping to do this trip sometime in September, but we only have 1 car. Anyone else planning to go who would be willing to coordinate a ride from the end of the trail back to the trailhead? if so, please get in touch at ellen(dot)margaret(dot)love(at)gmail(dot)com!

by emlove on Aug 23, 2010
I am thinking of doing this hike later this month or in Aug. Can someone post the major GPS waypoints or post this into Google Earth. I am new to the GPS world and I have an Oregon 450 with 24K California Topo maps. I imagine I would stop at Waterman Campground on Night 1 and Jay Trail or Sunset on Night 2. Excellent overview of the hike - the best source of info for this hike online.

by funkadelicLV on Jul 05, 2010
Weatherwise it'd be a fine time. Rainy season often arrives early in mid- to late October, so you'd want to keep that in mind. Also, lots of Boy Scout troops do outings at this time of year, so you could have plenty of company.

by tommangan on Jun 30, 2010
Would love to hike the skyline to the sea trail at some point... trying to find the time! Would Oct / Nov be a good time to do it?

by joost on Mar 27, 2010

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