Skyline to the Sea

2004 February

Skyline to the Sea Trail

(by Casey, to read Pa's version scroll to the end)

Around 4 pm Emily came home from work and we hit the road at bit later. It was Valentines Day and soon we were eating Vietnamese sandwiches in route to Castle Rock State Park. By the time we arrived at the parking lot it was 7 pm and very dark. Hiking in the park after dark is strictly forbidden, as it should be, but I chose to ignore this little detail and after Emily pulled away I was left alone in the lot. With the adrenaline and excitement that comes with doing something that you are not supposed to do (and that also is a bit scary) I set off on the 2.8 mile hike to the Castle Rock Trail Camp.

During the hike it came back to me that I had been on the trail before several years back, although at night, as expected, it was a totally different experience. Lights twinkled in the distance, way down in the watershed, indicating human activity that could never be seen during the day. Areas where the trail was cut through the sandstone presented a unique challenge, or at least caused me to slow down. At one point I heard rustling in the bushes and froze, quickly realizing that was a pretty stupid thing to do since I had a headlamp beaming brightly on my forehead.

After an hour I arrived at the Frog Flat Camp and found a group with teenage kids making a lot of noise around a campfire. Kids will be kids so I moved on to the Main Camp and the loop consisting of sites 18 through 25. Here I found one site occupied with a serene group of older hikers but still decided to move onto the other loop of the Main Camp. It was vacant and I slept in site #11. Although the sites were pleasant, with fire pits and picnic tables, I can not imagine and reason to warrant going back for the night.

The next morning I awoke and was pleased to find that my Cloudburst Tarptent was dry both inside and out. By 7 am I was on the move for I had to hike 3.1 miles up the Saratoga Gap Trail to where I would meet my parents at the intersection Highways 9 and 35.

An early morning view of the fog shrouded San Lorenzo Valley watershed somewhere between Castle Rock Trail Camp and Saratoga Gap. I found the scenery especially inspiring since it is the upper end of the valley I grew up in.

Shortly after the above picture was taken the trail, or rather a fire road, entered private property and then the road became paved and remained that way almost all the way up to the gap. I met my parents in the parking lot, ate a few egg sandwiches my Mom made (thanks Mom!), edited (threw some stuff out of) my Dad's pack, and by 8:30 am we were on the trail.

I arrived at Saratoga Gap a few minutes before 8 am and found my parents waiting for me. My Dad had 4 liters of water (about 10 pounds) in his pack so I made him get rid of half of it.

Oh, did I mention Scoobie was with them. He sure was sad to see us go.

For the rest of the day I set the pace and my Pop followed along. Although I tried, I couldn't lose the 60-year old man! Actually, I was walking at close to 3 miles/hour and he had no problems keeping up. Normally, I don't hike that fast but most of the terrain was enclosed forest, just like I grew up in, so I saw no need to prolong the experience. It is also worth mentioning that all the way from Saratoga Gap to Big Basin Headquarters the trail follows the road, first Highway 9 then 236. As this was Sunday morning we had the sounds and sights of motorcycles racing along the road to keep us company, along with the shots from a firing range echoing through the valley.

In addition to the noise was pollution of another kind, litter. Since the trail was so close to the road (sometimes below, other times above, often to the left, and even to the right) trash from cars was evident. The trail itself was spotless but at times refuse abounded only feet away.

Here is one of the many places that the trail crosses the road, Highway 9 in this case. Some of the best views, maybe "the best" views of the entire trail occur where the trail crosses the road.

This picture is taken just seconds from the previous picture, but on the other side of the road. If you want to come here please note that there is a parking lot 20 feet to the left.

This picture is a better representation of the trail. Next time try to remember to use the parking brake.

And another representation of the trail. 90% of the time you are hiking in conditions shown in this and the previous picture. Better make that 95%.

Around noon we started to look for a lunch spot and Pop joked that maybe we would find a bench. Lo and behold, a few minutes later we did!

And after lunch we rested. After the trail started following Highway 236 we had about an hour of continuous uphill climbing. Nothing to steep, but quite a bit more than one would expect on a net downhill route. This lunch/rest spot was after the climb.

After lunch and shortly after crossing China Grade we began to encounter large blocks of sandstone that very much remind one of Sierra Nevada granite. This was by far the largest.

Here the trail has been cut through the sandstone.

Around 3:30 pm we arrived in Big Basin, having walked 15.3 miles, all of it following roads. Although the day had started out sunny it was now overcast and occasionally I would feel drops of water on my arms. As usual, the last few miles seemed to go on forever although seeing day hikers in pristine clothes let us know that we were close.

At the park headquarters I inquired about the availability of tent cabins, on the off chance one was available. Both my Dad and I had brought tents and I had made a reservation for Jay Camp but with rain likely a cabin seemed a reasonable luxury. Although I didn't tell my Dad at the time, I also wanted one for my own personal well being as I had been walking most of the day with an extremely sore right Achilles tendon. A few were available and after plunking down $49 (seems like an awful lot) we were headed to them, "towards Boulder Creek" the girl told us, "then a sign will tell you where to turn left".

After 3/4 of a mile we did reach the sign and went left, but by that time our spirits had begun to sag. We didn't want to walk any further at all, much less 3/4 mile. Additionally, we were headed in the wrong direction so all of the distance would have to be backtracked tomorrow. I confessed my injury to my Dad and he responded with a hip ailment. Ahead of us, the road showed nothing but more road, and it was straight so we could see fairly far. I took out some of my aggression on a bush with my hiking sticks. To keep up spirits, I told my Dad that we would have hot showers at the tent cabins (we could also have had these at Jay Camp) but my mind then turned to my parents hot tub and I told him so. Still walking, he reasoned that if Mom picked us up now we would save her quite a bit of driving, after all home to Big Basin was about 30 minutes while home to Waddell Beach was over an hour.

Still walking and talking we developed our excuses even further. We had both been on the remaining bit of the trail before, seen the falls, etc. Cutting it short would mean missing nothing, except a good nights sleep at home. We could drive to Waddell Beach anytime and ride bikes, lock them up, then walk the rest of the way to the falls (I have done this before and recommend it over any other method to see the falls). The trail was just a walk through the redwoods, no different than a walk around the house. By this time it didn't matter who said what, the other agreed.

Finally we made another turn and the tent cabins came into view but our minds were made up and we were looking not for our cabin but a pay phone. The camp host didn't have one and someone camped at another cabin told us we would have to go back to the park headquarters. The look on my poor Dad's face was more than I could bear. He had been a perfect trooper, but now we had to walk all the way back. I sat him down at a picnic table, made him some Gatorade, and told him to rest and walk back when he was ready. Then I took off and made a bee line for the phones.

On the second ring my Mom picked up (I don't believe in God, but "Thank God"). Seconds later the situation was explained and she was on her way. With that out of the way I went to get a refund for the tent cabin but found the gift shop closed. What the f**k, it wasn't even after 5 pm yet. I also wanted to have an espresso waiting for my Dad but the snack shop was closed as well. Sh*t!

And here we are in Big Basin! Ready to pile in the car and go home instead of hiking to the sea the following day.

Not much later Pa showed up and within 20 minutes my Mom arrived, with Scoobie of course. I had to know, so we drove from the headquarters to the tent cabin and back to headquarters. Would you believe it was 4 miles?, we didn't. That means we had covered 19.3 miles that day. All of it either within 20 yards of a road or on a road, plus, I had gone an extra 3.1 miles before meeting my parents.

To summarize, before ever going on this hike I suspected I wouldn't like it. I only went because it was a three day weekend and Emily had to work the entire time (plus, my Mom volunteered to pick me up so a car shuttle was not required). As I expected the trail was uninspiring, but I you must realize I grew up in a log cabin surrounded by a redwood forest so it was not in the least bit exotic. Castle Rock is nice, and so is Big Basin, as is Waddell Creek, but for me they are day destinations. Sleeping in a tent in the redwoods (and paying for it) when I could be sleeping in the redwoods in my parents house just doesn't make sense to me; it's like someone from Hawaii vacationing in the Caribbean. Of course, the next day I wished I hadn't given up, but only because when I set goals I like to keep them, even if they are a bit stupid in the first place.

(by Pa)


My son Casey asked over the phone Saturday night if I was perhaps nearing my patented panic phase. This is when I back out of hiking engagements, like I did when the family Mt Whitney enterprise was ready to lift off. No, no, I'm good for the tour this time.

He was brushing his teeth when we first saw him at the parking lot, Saratoga Gap, at the conjunction of highways 9 and 35 (Skyline). He just walked up unobserved like an injun. Then he began going through my bag like US customs along the Rio Bravo. Tossing excess items into the Rolls for Niki J and Scoob to carry on home.

The objective is the Skyline to the Sea Trail.

I watch Scoob sitting and gazing longingly as me and Casey move off down the trail with some anxiety. I would have some eight and ½ hours for contemplation.

Casey is disappearing into the trees. I hurry to keep up. Before we began, I was self-conscious. What if I'm not able to do this? Always I can be that way. When I would commute by bicycle over hill and dale some sixty miles a day, I would be nervous every single day before I pushed off. And I had done the journey hundreds of times. Still I was unnerved by the prospect.

It follows along the roadways, Highway 9 and then 237 in Big Basin Park. It's almost like a Disneyland ride; a golly-gee real woodsy trail just off the midway, sort of like the Great Frontierland Keelboat Race in which you row with a piddly plastic play paddle while the cable under the hold drags the phony boat through the synthetic Disneyworld swamp.

Casey moves at a brisk pace. At first there is me setting out. My pack is excellently engineered and it is a part of me. We carry bedrolls and tents and clothes and grub and water and extra emergency gear. Then there is one who is hiking. Then there is only the hiking.

I lapse back to watch me sometimes. I think, I'm in the second phase. There are essentially three. One is starting out, and you might strain and draw wind. Then you have burst into the floating realm, and you are tired but you know you will not be beaten at this pace. Then you dissolve into the process and there is nothing left but the hiking.

But you don't remember the names of the pretty bushes.


Off to the left maybe a third of a mile from the parking lot at Saratoga Gap lie the headwaters of the San Lorenzo. This is the river we live by now. Once it was the Red, and the crossing of the Rio Bravo, these were my rivers. Now it is the San Lorenzo which, as rivers go, is pretty dry and weedy come midsummer.

Melba looks up on Bourbon Street, says to her companion, "Well, I do declare, Christian, it's that three-river gambling mayan." She meant the Cincinnati Kid. All are known by their rivers.

You'd think they'd forget sometimes, but every time I was with them and the front tires whumped up onto the bridge, here would go Reloj and Chico together bursting into the Marty Robbins tune, "We crossed the Brazos at Waco…"

Fannin County was dry, which meant no booze of any sort, and so the River was a rite of passage in our town. There were so many ceremonial exits from downtown to the River; at first nobody really wanted to go, and then they couldn't help going. This is everyone's autobiography from back home, them as didn't leave.

But we will not cross the river this trip. We don't even see it, although the effects in a break in the trees with a view across the valley a couple of places may be said to have been caused by it. Instead we cross the road. Several times. Like children asserting independence but not too much, we come toddling back to the street over and over. (The plan originally was to connect Castle Rock and Big Basin, neighboring parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the trail engineer in 1915 noted the original Turnpike wagon route still owned by the State Parks was 200 feet in width, whereas Highway 9 was only 50, which meant the State Parks could form a trail along land they already owned. We came across several surveyor stakes along the way.)

There are noble means of travel. On a river. By a railroad. Hiking in the hills. But when you're on the roadway, you're only walking.

The distance from Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap is 6.5 miles, and the way there winds through fir and redwood and oak dropping soft cover for the path. There's a trail camp at Waterman Gap, and water, but we carry our water. Casey says, if you pack the right amount, you arrive slightly thirsty, and that's just how we are at Big Basin.

Here, we only cup cold to splash on our heads and head out once more through the tall trees.

We are moving south, and below Waterman Gap we turn west. Now we're heading for the sea. Casey calls a halt every hour, and we unhook and lay with our feet high. It's amazing how refreshing that can be. Daughter Emily says it will drain some 30% of the lactic acid buildup.

The weather is excellent well, Valentine's Day 2004, with just enough sun to add a glow and no heat. We're inside Big Basin park now, and we climb up off the road, Highway 236, which runs through it. We're looking for an interesting lunch site.

Sometime after noon we stop where it looks like nothing will lead us much higher, and there is a low stump like a bench. We have peanut butter and jelly, mine with cheese. We can rest now until 1:00, says Casey. It's maybe twenty minutes from now. He sets his watch alarm and we try and nap.

The clouds close off the sun. We're cold now. We have during the morning removed cover so we're in T-shirt and shorts. Maybe it's because we stopped moving. We head off into the woods. It doesn't warm much. The day has changed.

I have had two sandwiches and part of one of Casey's and an apple. Casey glances back along the trail. I'm munching on a powerbar. "I can't believe you're still eating!" I take in lots.

Somewhere just inside the boundaries of Big Basin (the oldest state park in California) we edge out onto 236, the roadway running through it, as it fishhooks, and just to our right, out of sight to the north, is the origin of Boulder Creek, another notable waterway in my Santa Cruz County history. We are at the beginning this day.

We come out of the trees briefly onto China Grade Road. This is the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains on our track, and you can see that's just what it is. Over there is the wind down to the sea. On this side of the range there are sandstone talus, except they are solid. My feet begin to take a beating on this trail. I am trying to keep up with Casey but sometimes he moves away from me while I'm trying to softshoe down a rocky path. (I have, from Grand Canyon and Skyline to the Sea, four purple-to-black toenails.)

From China Grade, it's 4.5 miles to Park Headquarters, the end of this day's venture. We consult. There is a half liter of water left. I say, we can make it go. The alternative is to scoop from some running brook and treat it for drinks, but we agree to press on.

The sandstone talus below the ridge of China Grade, a panorama:

There are some pretty little dells with wood bridges now. We sit at one and share the last of the water. Then it's off to Headquarters. The last few miles are always the slowest. We are encouraged, the way sailors are to see shorebirds, by the well-dressed tourists from the park. The fatter the better, for the less far-ranging they be. It can't be far now, judging from these shorebirds.


The rain is coming. We can feel it coming. We want tent cabins for the night, although we've carried tents all day. The clerk says, down that way. We head off down the road. And down. The. Road.

We are discouraged now. Casey swipes his trekking pole against the branches. We were set to stop and now we're still going. I drift back. It is two long miles to our campsite, and that's two long miles we'll have to recover in the morning to start for the sea.

It's the day changing flavor, the nature of the air going out of it. This would be exciting for strangers to this land, even with the rain and the hike when hiking should be done. We grind along the road with our packs. I am not angry. I am never angry. I am, however, disheartened.

I'm glad Casey has the gumption to call off a losing game. You have to remember, we live in woods like these. This scenery is similar to what I see right now looking out the windows of our cabin. With hikes in the Sierras, Grand Canyon, Big Sur, this is not really on that level as an experience.

"We're so close to our hot tub," says Casey. He was raised in these woods. This is his native country.

Okay. He says, I'll head back to Headquarters. We'll ask for a refund on the cabin. I'll call Mom. That's what he does. I follow, but slowly. My right hip is aching. Bursitis maybe. And Casey says, just above his left Achilles' is very sore.

"You can blame it on me," he says. "And I'll blame it on you."

We call it off before the 11 miles to the sea. That would have been the easiest portion of the trail; we've hiked that one before. But in the morning when I listened to the falling rain, smiling, I knew we had made the right choice. Casey had traveled some 24 miles and I had done maybe 19 and we had done it in full pack, and we did it with a right good pace, 8 ½ hours from Saratoga Gap. We were both a bit ginger on leaving the Rolls once we were home. But it was a grand hike, for me, because it showed me I could do it. Hey, I'm thinking, I can play this game.