More than a walk
Rancho del Oso
Neil Wiley

I like solitude, but sometimes a hike with the right person is more than a walk. I tested that thesis when I joined a docent-led hike through Rancho del Oso. Docent Scott Peden led our five-person group on a short two-hour amble around the Nature and History Center, and then along 7/10 of a mile on Marsh Trail. I didn’t expect much. Aren’t wildflowers a spring thing? What can you see mid-day in September?

Well, you can see a lot when you have a knowledgeable and interesting teacher.
Yes, the hike was short measured in distance, but in terms of learning-per-hour it was long on experience. Every few steps, we discovered more about flora and fauna. We identified almost a hundred flowers, bushes, and trees. We found insects smaller than a pencil point, took hundreds of pictures, and looked at our docent’s in-camera macro photos that disclosed insect faces that gave new meaning to the word “bug eye.” We investigated small-animal scat, found edible plants we were afraid to touch, and smelled pungent smells. All this on a narrow single-track path through the marsh.

Sometimes it’s good to take a chance. I wanted a cool hike on a hot day, but I thought traffic would be heavy to Santa Cruz on a Sunday. Even worse, a triathlon was scheduled for Santa Cruz, with Highway 1 the route for the bicycle run and a turnaround at Waddell Beach, across the road from Rancho del Oso.

I took a chance. Even though it was warm on Summit, traffic was light. Perhaps would-be beach-goers saw the fog reports. As always, it was slow through west Santa Cruz, and I saw more than a hundred bicyclists on Highway 1, but they kept to the shoulder except when passing other racers.

To reach Rancho del Oso, drive 16.4 miles north on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz. Turn right before the bridge and the Waddell Beach parking lot. Watch for the sign on the right marked Rancho del Oso Nature and History Center. Follow the signs to the parking area. It’s a short walk up the hill to the center. At the center, you’ll find an informative exhibit hall of local natural and cultural history, a shop selling books and maps, and offering free brochures, newsletters, and scheduled-event calendars. Picnic tables on the deck provide good views with your snacks or lunch. Bathroom facilities and water are available.

Before you go, be sure to visit the website (, or call 831-427-2288. Although you can enjoy the park from sunrise to sunset, the visitor center is open only from noon to 4 p.m., Saturdays through Mondays, September to December, and Thursdays through Sundays, June through August. The center may be closed in other months. The Marsh Trail is usually closed during the rainy season.
Docent-led tour schedules may change with weather and volunteer availability. These tours vary in distance and focus. While in the area, you may want to enjoy Waddell Beach for windsurfing, kite surfing, board surfing, boogie boarding, or simply walking along the beach.

In addition to the Marsh Trail, a self-guided one-mile nature trail loops through the Monterey pine forest. If you are interested in a longer trail, you can hike, bike, or ride your horse up the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, through Big Basin to Berry Creek Falls, on a relatively level road and trail. (The last mile is for hiking only.) It’s about seven miles to the falls. You can hike beyond the falls to the Big Basin visitor center, or up through Castle Rock Park to Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) for 33 miles, but only if you are a seasoned hiker. If you take these longer hikes, be sure you get a Big Basin map (, and are well-supplied with camping gear and water.

Dogs are not allowed on Big Basin trails or within Rancho del Oso.