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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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 (48 votes, 19 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

map

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.
map

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.
map

Park HQ

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

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.
Parking
map

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
Reviews
inqueba
u need very comfortable shoes.... quite a difficult hike

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

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

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

by inizchetan on Feb 26, 2014
StevenDavisPhoto
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
trunganh12
like information, i wait strip
Visited on Dec 18, 1991

by trunganh12 on Oct 23, 2013
stephaniet
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: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26658.

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
park088
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
SunnySD
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
DavidHTa
Great info, i cant wait to start this trip.

by DavidHTa on Mar 28, 2013
650b2
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
stirlnjo
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
chris
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
RakeHellHiker
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!

http://markhertzler.tumblr.com/

Visited on Jun 06, 2011

by RakeHellHiker on Jun 07, 2011
lov2bikenrock
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
lov2bikenrock@gmail.com


by lov2bikenrock on Sep 03, 2010
emlove
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
funkadelicLV
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
tommangan
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
joost
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

Skyline to the Sea Trail Trail Map


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