The other side of Año Nuevo
The Cascade Ranch Unit
Año Nuevo is well-known for its elephant seals. If you haven’t walked a docent-led tour to see these amazing animals, especially in February when males, females, and pups are all there, I recommend it. There is, however, literally another side to Año Nuevo.
On the east side of Highway 1 is a different world. It is a darker, quieter place of giant redwoods and oaks on steep slopes called the Cascade Ranch Unit. It is a difficult place to visit.
First, you have to find it. The unsigned entrance road, Whitehouse Road, is about 5.7 miles past Waddell Beach. You drive by the Año Nuevo Park entrance on the left, and the old Cascade Ranch gate on the right, then watch for a gravel road on the right. The only clue is a white triangle on a green board located on the north side of the road.
It isn’t much of a road. The rocks are big, and so are the potholes. The bottom of my little sports car often scraped the ground. I couldn’t drive more than five miles-per-hour over the washboarded rocky surface. You could drive a little faster in a pickup truck, Jeep®, or tank, but it would still be a rough ride for the entire 2.3-mile trip.
When you reach a wide place in the road, a tiny, unfriendly sign warns “no further public access past this point,” and a small marker on the right reads “trail.” You have arrived at the beginning.
The first few steps are a warning. You climb over rocks and up about 45 degrees on a barely discernable path through a dark, dense forest. At times, I wondered if this could be a trail. After going down through a stream bed that might be impassable in rainy weather, I followed an ever-upward path of redwood needles and oak leaves, with frequent stops to catch my breath. The switchbacks were long, and they offered little respite from the climb.
It was hard to believe that it was only 7/10 of a mile to the first viewpoint. When I got my breath back, I surveyed a beautiful foreground of green coastal terraces, and the blue background of the Pacific Ocean. To the south, I saw Año Nuevo Island. To the west, I could make out the buildings of the Costanoa Resort. And to the north was Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
After enjoying my lunch-with-a-view on my viewpoint perch, I was startled by a woman’s voice. I thought I was alone on this mountain trek. I was even more surprised when I discovered that my visitor was Morgan Dill, interpretive specialist at Rancho del Oso. We had met at the ranch’s visitor center a few weeks before. To compound the coincidence, she had received a copy of our magazine the morning of this hike.
After a brief conversation, she headed up to a higher viewpoint and to Chalks Road. I went back down to the trailhead. It was much easier walking down, but I realized that after a rain these same soft needles and leaves could be dangerously slippery. If I walk this trail in the winter, I’ll wear deep-tread boots, and bring two trekking poles.
The drive down the coast was fun. It was top-down weather, and I made several stops for photo opportunities. The only regret was the return to the traffic and what passes for civilization in Santa Cruz. (Sometime, I may try bypassing Santa Cruz by driving through Bonny Doon and Felton.)
If you are healthy, enjoy forest views, and want a hiking challenge in a primitive, uncrowded venue, this is a good hike. If you want an easy trail for a young family, usually avoid exercise, and like open spaces, a better choice might be walking the flat trails of Año Nuevo on the ocean side of Highway 1.
For general park information and a map, visit www.parks.ca.gov, then click on Visit a Park and select Año Nuevo.