Hiking Butano State Park
Neil Wiley

Butano isn’t as dramatically beautiful as other local parks. The trees are big, but not as big as at Henry Cowell or Big Basin. The waterfalls are smaller. So are the nearby mountains. And the ocean views are distant and rare. But like the girl next door, Butano is so nice, so personable and so comfortable that you discover that you may like her more than the flashy superstars. O.K., let’s end the analogy. Butano is simply a great place to hike.

Although I hiked through Butano State Park on one of July’s hottest days, this fogbound canyon was cool. It was also the quietest park I’ve visited. And with this serenity and solitude, the Little Butano Canyon displayed an interesting variety of ecosystems—coastal grasslands, alder woodlands, oak woodlands, stands of giant Douglas fir and redwood, vernal wetlands and dry chaparral. The trails were pleasant paths, mostly in shade with few steep grades. And I’ve never been to a park with so many ferns—a sure sign of water, shade and coolness.

Driving to Butano is a bit of a chore. You have to make a giant 47-mile loop, driving down to Santa Cruz, then north on Highway 1 about twenty miles to Gazos Creek Road, then a left turn on Cloverdale Road, then a right into the park. Although getting through Santa Cruz numbs the mind, the drive up the coast past Wilder Ranch, Waddell Beach and Año Nuevo clears lungs and brain. And because Butano is well hidden and off the beaten track, it is uncrowded, clean and peaceful.

If you are day hiking, park near the entrance kiosk and visitor center. Cost is $3.00. If you are camping overnight, you can drive up to the campground. For camping reservations from Memorial Day to Labor Day, call 1-800-444-PARK (7275).

If you want a short walk, go to the left of the entrance, and take Jackson Flats Trail to Mill Ox Trail. Turn right down a steep trail to the park’s main paved road. Turn left up the road for a few hundred yards, then look for the Creek Trail on the left. This trail is an easy, relatively flat creekside trail. When you reach the end, you can simply double back or walk down to the road to the entrance. (The road is less safe because of car traffic from the campground.)

Here’s a more challenging trail. Following the recommendations of master trail guide Tom Taber, I chose to make a loop around the park. The Año Nuevo Trail begins on the right side of the entrance, next to a small but interesting nature center. Follow this trail, turn left on Goat Hill Trail, then right on Doe Ridge Trail to Olmo Fire Road. Go left and up a steep hill for about one hundred yards, then take Indian Trail to Canyon Trail. Turn left when you reach Jackson Flats Trail. Take this trail back to the entrance, where you’ll emerge on the left side of the kiosk parking lot. The total loop is between ten and eleven miles.

This loop has lots of variety. My walk began in light mixed forest and open meadows. As I headed up the canyon, the forest became darker and the trees bigger. Even in July, the air was damp and cool. I enjoyed the soft duff of the trail that cushioned my boots. For almost two miles, I followed the Doe Ridge Trail at an elevation of about 1000 feet, looking down on forest.

When I emerged on Olmo Creek Road, I was surprised by the height of the ridge and the heat. I could see views south to the ocean and north to the abandoned landing field. Fortunately, my hot climb was only about one hundred yards long before I could slip back into the relative coolness of Indian Trail, a path so subtle and narrow that it made me feel like an Ohlone hunter.

Next came my least favorite trail—Canyon. It was hotter, rockier, and the big trees gave way to manzanitas, knobcone pines and chinquapin. Skittering lizards made me jump. I worried about falling off the many cliffs and rocks. And worst of all, as I was climbing a particularly rough and precarious section, two women passed me like I was standing still. In fact, I looked at my feet to see if they were still moving. Later, I shared a break with them, but they soon left me in their dust. They were the only hikers I saw all day.

Fortunately, I had unknowingly saved the best for last. Jackson Flats Trail lived up to its name. It was smooth and relatively flat. It also passed through the biggest redwoods and most interesting terrain of the day, with generous carpets of ferns and oxalis under the shade of redwoods and firs. Next came little catwalks through low, marshy areas filled with a wild profusion of colorful flowers and birds. On a wetter day, I might have seen salamanders and California newts, but I was well satisfied. It was an interesting and refreshing walk. I recommend it to all hikers. (The trails are not open to bikers, horses or dogs.)

After spending most of the day in shade, I pulled off Highway 1 at the Franklin Point trailhead of Año Nuevo Park and Reserve to enjoy a little sun and surf before returning home to what we laughingly call “the real world.”

If you would like to trade your “real world” for cool, quiet solitude, visit Butano State Park.

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