Although the Santa Cruz Mountains is blessed with trails, a short drive down to Monterey County can give you a one-day mini-vacation, especially if you are looking for a new hiking experience close to home.
A good place to start is Garland Ranch. This park offers hikers, joggers, dog walkers, and equestrians more than fifty miles of trails through 3,464 acres. You can amble through riparian woodlands of willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores along a bubbling stream, explore dark redwood- and maple-forested canyons, discover beautiful old oaks, see trees hung with lace lichen, or climb hills of chaparral to enjoy spectacular vistas of Carmel Valley, Los Padres Forest, and the Pacific Ocean. Although bicyclists have access to fewer miles of trail, they can ride over the 144-acre Cooper Ranch addition.
You can choose your hike’s elevation, length, and difficulty. Elevation varies from 200 to 2030 feet. Many loops are available; some with a round trip of less than a mile and a half. Others may involve more challenges, with steep climbs up to 30 percent, round trips of five to ten miles, and hiking over rocky, unshaded terrain.
Young hikers may enjoy the Buckeye nature trail. Its narrow single track takes you through heavily shaded forest, complete with interpretive signs describing local plants and natural history.
Other special destinations are Rumsen Indian grinding rocks, several vista points, a homestead site, an old barn with farm implements, a seasonal waterfall, ponds, a visitor center, and a small museum that features stuffed mammals and birds. Maps are available at the visitor center and online at the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District website—www.mprpd.org.
I entered the park from one of the largest parking lots I’ve ever seen in a local park. And that’s good, because on a pleasant weekend, cars numbering in the hundreds need the space
I crossed over the Carmel River, a fast, shallow, and wide rocky stream, on a little footbridge. It was a short walk to the Visitor Center. I found maps, brochures, and flyers providing information related to nature, park services, and special programs.
Waterfalls present many photographic opportunities, so I walked along the Carmel River on the Waterfall Trail. Along the valley floor the trail was wide, sandy, and a little soft—perfect for casual hiking. Then the trail climbed up along the canyon wall. The trail got rockier and steeper. Steps made the going easy, but there were many, many steps. Fortunately, there were also many reasons to stop for pictures. The rock formations were dramatic and interesting. That made the climb worthwhile even though I never saw a waterfall. Perhaps I’ll try it again during the rainy season. Although the last section had grades of more than 10 percent, I still recommend it for hikers in good shape who aren’t afraid of heights.
As the trail passed through a gate, the climb moderated. It was easy going all the way to the Mesa Trail, where I met a large group. The leader was telling them “more walking, less talking.” Ah, that’s why I like to walk alone.
I followed the group at a safe distance, taking many wildflower pictures and enjoying the views. The trail was shady, broad, and downhill, the best kind for a warm afternoon. I turned off the trail to see the Indian grinding rocks, and then double-backed a short way to pick up the Buckeye nature trail, a nice single-tracker through mixed forest.
I was walking behind a family when the woman shouted, “Snake! Snake!” Although she was afraid, the children and I clustered around the snake. It was about three feet long, but it didn’t rattle. Instead, it slithered off the trail into the brush. The children and I were disappointed, but the woman was glad to see it go.
I passed through a gate, and then turned right through another gate at the intersection with Lupine Loop to go west to the ranger station and museum. I enjoyed seeing our local animals up close and personal, even if they were stuffed.
A good place to hike, Garland Ranch offers a wide variety of ecological environments and landscapes. It is a park you can visit many times. I hope to return.
Garland Ranch is 8.6 miles east of Highway 1 on Carmel Valley Road. The trip takes about ninety minutes via highways 17 and 1. For an interesting detour home, drive G20 over the hill to Highway 68. From there, you can take Highway 68 to G17 and Marina, and then north on Highway 1.
The park is open year-round from sunrise to half an hour after sunset, seven days a week. Docents lead hikes and other programs. Entry and parking are free. Dogs must be leashed or under immediate control at all times. Fishing in the Carmel River is permitted in season, generally November through February. For more information, visit www.mprpd.org.