Wilder Ranch State Park

The Milder Wilder
Neil Wiley

Wilder Ranch is best known as a living-history farm site and for 5,000 acres of backcountry. Over thirty miles of multi-use trails take you up marine terraces, over rolling hills, and through giant meadows and small forests. When the fog burns off, the ocean views are beautiful.

If you are visiting the farm with children or want to learn some local history, it’s best to arrange for a docent-led walk or visit on an event day where you may see horses, tour the buildings, and see demonstrations of a working farm. July 4 is special with an old-fashioned picnic, complete with horse-drawn wagon rides, a brass band, homemade foods, and an impromptu parade. It’s great fun. (For more event information, call 831-423-9703 or 831-426-0505.)

Avid hikers, equestrians, and dirt bike riders love the wide open spaces of the country behind the barn and through the tunnel to the north of Highway 1. The typical climb is about 600 feet, but it comes in easy stages. Most of the trails are single-track and easy to follow. Choose from several six- to nine-mile loops, or take the Chinquapin Trail all the way to Henry Cowell State Park.

With enough time and energy, these trails are fine, but I found a milder Wilder on my last hike. Instead of crossing Highway 1 and walking uphill, I turned toward the coast on the Old Cove Landing Trail to Ohlone Bluff Trail. The distance: 2.5 miles, and mostly flat.

The first half-mile doesn’t display much in the way of scenic views, but if you look closely to the sides of the trail, you may see many small birds, some interesting flowers, and the occasional rabbit.

It gets more interesting when you reach a scenic overlook above Wilder Beach. You walk along on top of a series of bluffs. Looking ahead reveals the bluffs as a series of promontories. They look like giant ships of rock heading out into the ocean. Looking down, you learn that their high walls protect small coves and hidden beaches. Further along the trail, a sign indicates the Old Cove Landing, once an anchorage for schooners in the 1800s.

In the distance are two small, low islands. I call one bird island, the other seal island. On the day that I was there, several hundred quiet cormorants, a few gabby gulls, and several scruffy pelicans shared bird island. A short distance up the coast, perhaps fifty or so harbor seals had hauled out on seal island to get some sun. Otters sometimes join them.

As you round another bend in the trail, watch for a path down to Fern Grotto Beach. The path down the bluff is surprisingly easy, but be careful for wet, slippery spots. At the bottom, a turn to the right takes you to a lovely fern-covered cave-like grotto. After a fog, the ferns may drip, but the walk is short and relatively safe.

Turning your back on the grotto shows a nice hidden beach and the ocean. The day I was there, Fern Grotto Beach was inhabited by a busload of boys and girls. They came prepared, and stripped down to bathing suits to frolic in the surf. They were having fun, but it looked cold.

After you climb up to the main trail, you can double back, or continue on the trail north and east. After reaching the railroad track, the trail turns right to return to the parking lot. You could also turn left after the railroad track to continue up the coast. Walking the rails to Davenport is possible, but it doesn’t sound like fun.

A better alternative might be to drive up to Davenport or Año Nuevo. Even better, have lunch at the Costanoa resort.

Wilder Ranch is a short drive out of Santa Cruz, less than two miles west of Western Avenue on Highway 1. Turn left when you see the Wilder Ranch sign. Parking is $10. Seniors pay $9.