From the San Jose Mercury News, June 2007

You can walk along California’s ragged coast and wander the fringes of a redwood forest all in the same afternoon at Wilder Ranch State Park.

Park profile

Pacific Coast

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Acres: 7,000-plus

Miles of trails: 34

Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset. Visitors center open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday most months

Limitations: No dogs

Parking: $6

Driving directions: Take Highway 17 to the Highway 1 north exit in Santa Cruz. Take Highway 1 out of town and watch for the Wilder Ranch sign a couple of miles past the city limits. Turn left into the park.

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A couple of miles from Santa Cruz on north Highway 1, Wilder Ranch is bisected by the highway (tunnels under the road link its two halves). The coast side is the obvious choice: cool breezes, spectacular views and a “cultural preserve” with Victorian-era houses, vehicles and farm implements plus and few 21st-century goats, horses and chickens.

The backcountry side is perhaps more rewarding for hiking purists: fewer people, delightful meadows and reasonably gentle grades leading up into hills that brush against forests of redwood and Douglas fir beyond the park’s borders.

At first glance, the backcountry looks empty and treeless, but there’s much to see while you hike through it. The wide expanses of grasses dotted with wildflowers reminded me of Tuolumne Meadows at Yosemite National Park.

Ocean breezes keep things reasonably cool, despite a lack of shade. Initially, you’ll have to dodge mountain bikers, though they become scarce deeper in the park.

Standard precautions:
Bring sunscreen and a windbreaker. Watch for ticks if you wander into the tall grass. Stay away from cliff edges: A fall will be fatal. Buy a map at the visitors center in the cultural preserve, if it’s open.

Hike suggestions

Easy: The flat Old Cove Landing Trail from
the park headquarters tracks the coastline for about a mile and a half. Don’t miss the fern grotto on one of the beaches about a mile out.

Moderate: The park’s best meadow hike is on the backcountry side of Highway 1: Take the Engelsman Loop Trail to the Long Meadow Trail, and return for an out-and-back of about eight miles.

Hard: A 15-mile counterclockwise loop along the park’s perimeter takes in everything: coast, meadows, cultural preserve. Do the backcountry side first, so you can walk the coast with the stiff Pacific breezes at your back. Trails: Engelsman Loop, Long Meadow, Chinquapin, Eucalyptus Loop, Enchanted Loop, Baldwin Loop, Ohlone Bluffs, Old Cove Landing.

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