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122. Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail (05/30/99)

Hikers (5): Eugene, Gina, Jamie, Peter, Steve
Distance: 32 miles
Rating: 5 difficulty, 9 beauty
Park info: Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Write-up by Peter

Following in the annual summer torture-test tradition of the 22-mile Mississippi Lake hike in May `97, and the 30-mile Ohlone Wilderness hike in June `98, a brave group of INCH hikers set out on the 32-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.

This is one of the Bay Area's most famous trails, starting from Castle Rock Open Space Preserve in the hills above Saratoga, leading through Big Basin Redwoods State Park and ending up on Waddell Beach, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. It's listed as a Level 3 hike when done over the course of three days. Since we're doing it in one day, we bump it up to a Level 5. Let's do it!

We met at the ungodly hour of 5:00 a.m., but no sign of Eugene. After waiting for over half an hour, we finally gave up and headed out. As we were leaving, we saw him sitting in front of the wrong garage (we had changed the meeting place for this hike because the usual garage was closed). Read the email, dumb-ass!!! Strike One to Eugene!

We finally hit the road at 5:45 ... Gina was kind enough to "volunteer" to give us a ride to Castle Rock, thus saving us the hassle of having to go back there to pick up a car at the end of the day. If there was a special INCH Gold Leaf of Honor, we would certainly give one to Gina for that!

1, 2, 3, ... INCH!

Castle Rock was deserted (even the parking lot was closed and we had to park outside the gates) as we set out on the trail. I think we were all pretty much still half-asleep and we walked along in silence most of the way. The trail we took through this OSP was the same one we had taken on our previous trips. Looking off and down to Big Basin, the entire valley was covered in mist, making it seem like we were walking above the clouds. Very beautiful and serene -- kinda makes you want to do more 5:00 a.m. hikes, huh? Well, maybe not.

As we approached the Trail Camp, we saw Esteban walking back towards us saying that the trail had hit a dead end. Great! Less than 3 miles into the hike, and we had screwed up already! The first dissension in the ranks reared its ugly head as I started being accused of leading everyone on the road to hell. We did not have a good map of this park, but by piecing together bits and pieces of information from different write-ups, maps of adjacent parks, etc. I managed to convince the group that Esteban was full of it and we forged ahead anyway. Sure enough, a few yards up the trail was a big sign marking the continuation of the trail. Strike One to Esteban!

A little further up, we arrived at the Ranger Station near Highway 9. From here, we said goodbye to Gina and left her to fend for herself amongst the wild beasts that inhabit the woods (actually, Jamie gave her some pepper spray and we sent her walking along the highway back to the car). And then there were four ...

The rest of us continued along the Saratoga Gap Trail. About a half-mile down the road, the trail forked. I was at the tail end of the pack at this point and I called out to the gang that they had taken the wrong fork. Everyone started to abuse Esteban about being a crappy trail guide. Was this Strike Two for Esteban? No! Just as Jamie was starting to say that she felt like we were walking in circles, we looked up ahead and saw Esteban flapping his arms like some sort of giant ostrich in the mist. We had ended up back at the Ranger Station! The original fork Esteban had chosen had been right. Strike One to Peter! Oh well, we're walking 32 miles, so what's one additional mile?

We started back down the Saratoga Gap Trail again. The next few miles to the Waterman Gap were pretty much all downhill. We passed through some beautiful redwood forests with scenic overlooks, babbling brooks, and sparkling waterfalls. Very nice! The woods were nice and peaceful, the footing was good (mostly hikers-only trail, with soft dirt), and the air was cool and crisp -- a perfect hike!

As we continued along, we found ourselves walking parallel to Highway 9. It's not exactly a rustic backcountry experience when you hear a car or motorcycle going by every few minutes, but after a while you start to tune it out. I guess in the back of your mind it is good to know that you're pretty close to a highway in case anything should go wrong, but I should say that judging from the two cars we saw in the woods, the greatest danger we faced on this hike was that some car would go screeching off the road and land on top of us!

We were starting to get spread out now. Esteban was way up front, as usual. Eugene was starting to drag, so I stayed back to make sure he didn't miss any of the forks and Jamie kept going. Eugene and I arrived at the Waterman Gap at the 3-hour mark. We were making good time. We had covered 10 miles (just under one-third of the hike) faster than I had expected. Eugene was already starting to complain about leg cramps, so I figured he wouldn't be able to do the whole 32 miles. I told him to walk slowly to Big Basin (another 10 miles) and call Taylor to pick him up there. And then there were three ...

The next few miles were not very exciting. The trail kept zig-zagging back and forth along Highway 9 and Highway 236 towards Big Basin. It was virtually all downhill, so I figured I must be making good time. I passed groups of people (the Indian backpackers and the tick people) that we would later all talk about. It felt like one big party in the woods!

Eventually, the trail emerged from the redwoods and led out into the open. This part was not very pleasant -- hot and buggy! Taylor would not have been happy. The only real nice thing I can say about this part of the trail were the funky moon-like rock formations that we had to walk across. Very "X-File"-ish!

Thankfully it was not long before the trail ended up in the woods again and it began to feel more like Big Basin with the giant redwoods towering overhead. After crossing a couple of beautiful streams, I found myself on a paved road with about two miles to go to Park Headquarters. At this point, I was feeling pretty tired (I'd covered about 18 miles so far) and wanted to sit down and rest for a few minutes, but I convinced myself to keep going until Park HQ.

The good news was that the hiking trail soon split off from the paved road, saving my knees from having to put up with the concrete and also allowing me to avoid most of the crowds at Big Basin. By the way, can someone please explain to me why kids always find it necessary to scream everything they want to say?

I arrived at Park HQ just after 1 o'clock. 20 miles in six and a half hours. Only 12 miles to go. Not bad at all! I called up Taylor to let her know that she needed to pick up Eugene at Big Basin and the rest of us were ahead of schedule. I could afford to take a long break now. I peeled off my boots and sat there enjoying lunch while looking at the throngs of people milling about and reminiscing about where it all began: INCH Hike Numero Uno, right here in Big Basin.

After about half an hour, I finally dragged myself off the bench and headed out. I wanted to rest longer, but I had told Taylor to meet us at 5:30, and with 12 miles to go, this meant I had to do 3 miles an hour the rest of the way to stay on schedule.

Getting started again was tough. It reminded me a lot of a similar situation at Sunol at the two-thirds point of the Ohlone hike. My back and legs were starting to feel sore -- not a good sign. After a few steps I wanted to stop again but I had to force myself to keep going in order to prevent from stiffening up completely.

The next few miles to Berry Creek Falls were beautiful as always, but I was in too much discomfort to appreciate the beauty. My back pain had gone and my legs were pretty much numb, but now it was my feet that were starting to ache. I was now in the state of mind that I just wanted to get this thing over with as soon as possible.

It took me an hour and half to get to the falls. As usual, there were tens of people milling about there, taking pictures, laughing, and having a great time, but I was oblivious to it all. I just collapsed on the platform and ate my bagel in silence. An older couple saw me and asked where I'd come from (I guess they could tell from my sorry shape that I had to have come further than just from Park HQ). When I told them we'd set out from Castle Rock that morning and were heading to Waddell Beach, the lady laughed and said, "What? Are you crazy or something?". I guess that sums up the whole hike pretty well!

It turned out that they has just come from Waddell Beach and they told me that I had less than 6 miles to go and it was pretty much flat the rest of the way. All right!!!

Side Note #1: They looked remarkably fresh for an older couple that had just walked 6 miles.

Side Note #2: There's something wrong with the distances marked on various trail markers on this hike. The distances marked on various segments do not seem to add up to the total marked distances. This is true both in Castle Rock and Big Basin.

After about 15 minutes at the falls, during which time I took photos of two groups of overly-exuberant high school kids, I headed out. Seeing as I had just about 2 hours to go, I dumped out most of my water to lighten my load. Boy, that felt better!

The next portion was beautiful. I had caught my second wind and was cruising on auto-pilot. The trail was a wide, flat, shaded fire road that just went along the side of Waddell Creek. Nice views, cool breeze .... I was feeling good about hiking again!

About a mile up the road, the older couple I had talked to earlier passed me by. They were on bikes! No wonder they looked so fresh! I told them they were cheating and they laughed and waved as they went by. This part of the trail was really enjoyable. It seemed that the only people in this part of the park were the Santa Cruz locals, who on the whole are much, much nicer than the Silicon Valley types.

About 4 miles to go .... the good feeling was once again starting to wear off and the various aches and pains had returned. Once again, I just wanted to get this thing over with! The other thing I remember was that I really needed to go to the bathroom and it was almost impossible to take care of business with all the mountain bikes whizzing by (pun intended) every few seconds.

Mission finally accomplished, I set out on the final stretch. There was not much farther to go. With 1.3 miles to go to Waddell Beach, the trail split. The sign urged "Bikers, Equestrians, and Handicapped" to stay on the wide fire road, and "Hikers Only" to take the narrow path. In keeping with my code of taking the hikers-only trail wherever possible, I left the fire road. After all, I figured both roads would just go parallel to one another, right?

Wrong! The trail led through some overgrown brush, then across the creek, and before I knew it I found myself halfway up the side of a mountain! I looked down and could see the fire road hundreds of feet below! What the .....????? Not only that, the trails seemed to be diverging and this one was leading me around the side of the mountain. I cursed myself for not taking the Bikers, Equestrians, and Handicapped trail!!

I was exhausted and sore all over. I just sat down in the middle of the trail and ate my last bagel. I was thinking that I had read the sign incorrectly. I decided to go forward a few more yards on this trail and if the trails continued to diverge, then I would go back and take the fire road.

As I rounded the next corner, I got instant relief! There it was -- Waddell Beach! I could see Highway 1 and beyond it, the mighty Pacific Ocean! Hallelujah! It was one of the happiest moments of my life. What a beautiful sight! For a brief instant, all the torture seemed worth it.

I picked up the pace and started heading downhill. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Every footstep was torture, but I didn't care anymore. I arrived at the Ranger Station at the bottom and looked around. No sign of any of the other INCHers. The beach was still about half a mile away, so I figured they had to be there. I stopped at a phone to check my messages and found that Jamie had gotten lost on trail and had ended up staying with Eugene at Big Basin. Strike One to Jamie! We were all even now!

I dragged myself to beach (arriving at exactly 5:30) and found Esteban sitting there reading Ayn Rand and holding his bloodied socks. Apparently I wasn't the only one who'd had a rough day. I peeled off my boots and rubbed my blistered feet. We exchanged hike stories (we both agreed that the last mile was the toughest part of the whole hike) and cursed the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. High five!

Taylor arrived less than 5 minutes after I did. Great timing! An INCH Gold Leaf of Honor also goes to her for picking us up. Now it was time to go home for a hot shower and a well-earned rest!



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