Open Space or Battleground?
Travel on Soquel Avenue is slow and noisy as hundreds of drivers attempt to escape traffic jams on Highway 1, but a turn south on South Park Way, just west of Capitola Road, would take them to a quiet, green oasis called Arana Gulch open space preserve.
It is much more than a gulch. It is a 67.7-acre greenbelt of prairie grasslands with a slim belt of oak, bay, and eucalyptus trees, riparian corridors along Hageman and Arana Creeks, and both fresh and brackish wetlands.
There are two main “unimproved” trails. The primary trail runs through the center of a large meadow between Agnes Street and the upper Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. This half-mile trail is open to hikers and bicyclists. A second walkers-only footpath follows around the western border of the meadow.
The open meadow is a nice place to walk, especially in sunny but cool weather. The terrain is reasonably flat, the trail is easy to follow, and the sun feels good on your back. I saw a few bicyclists, but most people I met on the trail were walking their dogs. The meadow views are pleasant if not exciting, but are more interesting at the south end when you can look down on the yacht harbor.
The walk around the south and west side of the preserve discloses some lovely old oaks and eucalyptus trees. You can lengthen your walk by continuing down to the yacht harbor, perhaps with a visit to The Crow’s Nest for lunch or a libation.
Arana Gulch is also a battlefield, an area that displays a contest between development and environment, transportation versus contemplation, bicyclists versus walkers, and the City of Santa Cruz versus the Coastal Commission.
At the center of the controversy is a little sunflower called the Santa Cruz Tarplant. It is an endangered plant species that grows naturally in only a few areas of Santa Cruz County.
To its credit, the City of Santa Cruz has worked with the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Native Plant Society, the Friends of Arana Gulch, The Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and a host of other volunteers to successfully recover the tarplant.
But there is another side to the story. Traffic-impacted Santa Cruz and the Regional Transportation Commission are encouraging the use of bicycles rather than automobiles.
A paved trail across the meadow of Arana Gulch and a bridge at the end of Broadway street over Hagemann Gulch would enable bicyclists and wheelchair users to cross from Broadway on the east to Brommer Street on the west, opening a safe connection between Live Oak and Santa Cruz. It would also improve access to the preserve from the east and west.
The city, bicycle groups such as People Power, and representatives of the Santa Cruz Seniors Commission and the Santa Cruz County Commission on Disabilities favor the Broadway-Brommer trail. People Power claims the new trail would disturb only 1.5 to 2.5 percent of the potential tarplant habitat of Arana Gulch. They suggest that the tarplant will survive if grazing and other mitigation measures such as burning, mowing, and scraping are used.
I don’t know who is right, but perhaps an improved but non-paved trail would be a good compromise. In the meantime, Arana Gulch is a good place to walk or ride your bike. See you on the trail.