Skyline-to-Sea Trail

Skyline-to-Sea Trail


The Skyline-to-the-Sea-Trail
by Alan Vanderhoff, Assistant Scout Master, Boy Scout Troop 362, El Cajon, CA

The Skyline to the Sea Trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a fabulous backpacking trip for Spring Break. It is a challenging four-day hike through spectacular Redwood forests. The trail itself is like something right out of Lord of the Rings. There are huge trees, ferns and moss everywhere. The trail begins on the ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains and ends at the ocean 35 miles later. The overall trip is six days, including travel time and is relatively inexpensive (about $125 per person).

It is about a 9-hour drive from San Diego to Santa Cruz. We left on a Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. On Monday night we car-camped in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, California. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights we spent on the trail. Friday night we camped in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in Big Sur, California. We drove down Highway 1 and arrived home on Saturday evening.

The ideal time for this trip is in the spring. The Santa Cruz Mountains get over 10 inches of rainfall per month during the winter months and no rain at all in the Summer. It is hot and dry (and not very lush) in the summer, very rainy in the Winter, and perfect in the spring. The average rainfall for the month of April is about 3 inches. The crew should be prepared for sustained rain. However, when we went, it only rained one night. The temperature in April is ideal hiking weather. It averaged in the high 60s and low 70s during the day and did not go below the mid 40s at night.

This is not a beginner-backpacking trip. The hike is a challenging one and is appropriate for experienced backpackers who are at least 13 years old. The age range of the scouts on our trip was 14 to 17 years old. My son Brian was 15 years old on this trip and was a strong hiker. However, he and I were both completely tapped-out at the end of the hiking on a couple of the days.

The number of people who can go on this trip is limited by a couple of factors.
My personal philosophy is that a large number of people on a backpacking trip
destroys the wilderness experience. It is not possible to be alone in the wilderness
with 30 people. We had 14 people on our trip and I think that was pushing the
limits of impacting the experience. This would be an ideal trip for 8 to 12 people.

Another limitation is that, due to the arrangements for dropping off and picking up vehicles, it is necessary to be able to drop off one vehicle at the end of the trail and still fit all of the people and their gear in the remaining vehicles. We had two 7-passenger mini vans and a Honda Accord. We dropped the Accord at the end of the trail and could still fit all 14 people in the mini vans (we put most of the gear on the roofs of the mini vans).

Each trail camp has six campsites, which can accommodate six people each. We reserved three campsites at each trail camp. When the campsites are reserved, only 2 sites can be reserved under one name. We reserved the third site under another adult name. Another reason for limiting the size is that it would be inconsiderate for our Troop to monopolize more than half of the sites during
spring break which is the prime season for doing this hike. We need to leave space for other people.

A national tour permit is not required because the destination is less than 500 miles away (barely). You do need to get a local tour permit, Class 2 medical forms, and a permission slip. I also prepared a handout for the parents which contained a full itinerary with phone numbers for Big Basin, the cell phone numbers of the adults on the trip, and an emergency phone number of someone at
home who we could communicate through.

Reservations can be made up to 2 months prior to the reserved dates. To be on the safe side, it is good to calendar the 2-month date and call on that date. The number to call is (831)338-8861. Attached to this memo is a copy of the trail camp information from Big Basin State Park’s website. The website is

There are a number of different trail camps. You need to decide on what camps you want to be at for each night before you make the reservations. The following link has a list of the trail camps and the distance between the camps: Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail Camp Information

Our itinerary worked out perfectly and I recommend that you use the same itinerary. The first night on the trail we stayed in the Waterman Gap trail camp. The second night we were at Jay camp. The third and last night on the trail we stayed at Sunset camp. We hiked, on average, eight to nine miles per day.

Reservations for Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park can be made through

You can obtain maps for the trail from Mountain Parks Foundation. You can order them by phone. The contact information and the recommended maps are on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail Camp Information sheet. You will need maps for both Big Basin State Park and Castle Rock State Park.

The total distance to Santa Cruz is about 500 miles. Take Interstate 5 north to Highway 152 west. Go west on 152 until it ends. You need to get to Highway 1. Follow the signs to Gilroy, Watsonville and/or Highway 1. Once you get on Highway 1, go north into Santa Cruz. Go north on Highway 17. Get off on Mt. Hermon Road (it should be the first or second exit). Take Mt. Hermon Road until it ends. Turn left on Graham Hill Road. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a mile or two up on the left hand side. We stayed in communication with each other on the drive up by using our cell phones. We rendezvoused on Highway 152 and drove in a convoy from there.

We went to a pizza restaurant for dinner on the first night which was included in the price of the trip. We went to Redwood Pizza Company located at 6285 Highway 9. They have a private room that they prefer to put groups in. The pizza is good and it was a lot of fun. To get there, turn left onto Graham Hill Road (same direction you came from). Take it to Highway 9 (just past Mt. Herman Road). Turn left on Highway 9. It is on the left hand side.

Henry Cowell has one of the best stands of old growth Redwood trees in the state which should not be missed. We got there early enough that we were able to do a short hike through the trees before it got dark on the first day. After we set up camp, we checked out the trees, and then went out for pizza.

There are two entrances to Henry Cowell. The campsites are on Graham Hill Rd., but the main entrance is on Highway 9. If you have enough time, you can take a very nice trail from the campsites to the main entrance area where the big trees are. It is about 1 ½ miles each way. Otherwise, you can get in the cars and drive around on the roads. Turn left on Graham Hill Rd., take it to Highway 9, and turn
left on Highway 9. The main entrance to the park headquarters is about a mile or so down Highway 9 on the left hand side.

The trail is one way. Therefore you have to drop a car at the other end. We dropped the car off while the boys were setting up camp on the first night. It is about a 45-minute drive to where the car needs to be dropped off. It is also about a 45 minute drive in the opposite direction to the trailhead. It is not practical to drop people at the trailhead and then drop the car off because it is a 3 hour round trip
by car between the trailhead and the end of the trail and there is nothing for the boys to do at the trailhead. Also, it is a good idea to get an early start hiking.

Turn right on Graham Hill Rd. (the opposite direction from which you came). Take Graham Hill Rd. to Highway 1. Go north on Highway 1. You will be dropping the car off at Rancho Del Oso which is right across the highway from Waddell Beach. My recollection is that it is about 8 to 10 miles north of

We reserved two sites at Henry Cowell. It is a nice park. For simplicity sake, we provided breakfast the following morning and included it in the cost of the trip. It consisted of muffins, pastries, oatmeal, and orange juice which be bought at Costco. We also brought a Coleman stove and one large pot for boiling water while we were in Henry Cowell and Pfeiffer.

It is a long, winding road to get to the trailhead. It is a good paved road. It is just long and very winding. I recommend that you bring an ample supply of motion sickness medicine and offer it to anyone who wants it.

Turn left on Graham Hill Rd. and take it to Highway 9. Turn right on Highway 9 and take it to the junction of Highway 9 and Highway 35. Turn right on Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). The entrance to Castle Rock State Park is about 2 ½ miles south of Highway 9 on the right hand side. The total driving time from Henry Cowell to the trailhead will be about 45 minutes.

Be sure to bring a check for the camping fees. There is no ranger station at the trail head. You need to deposit the fee in an “iron ranger.”

The facilities on this trail are great. Most of the camps have potable water and pit toilets. We only had to filter water at Sunset camp. The Jay trail camp (second night on the trail) is right next to the Big Basin headquarters and has hot showers! (Bring a towel and some quarters). All of the camps are beautiful and secluded (even the one next to the park headquarters).

The trail from the trailhead in the parking lot to Waterman Gap is a little tricky. There are several trails criss-crossing through the area and some of the signs are misleading. Just be sure to review the map carefully.

The first night that we spent on the trail was at the Waterman Gap camp.

On the trail to Waterman Gap. It is downhill, but rugged.
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Waterman Gap campsite No. 5
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

The trail crosses some county roads through the first and second days. It is usually
easy to see where the trail picks up on the other side of the road. On the second
day of hiking, you will reach the area of the park headquarters. The trail will
intersect one of the park roads. At this point, we had a hard time figuring out
where the trail picked up again. Several of the boys wanted to hike the last couple
of miles on the paved park road. I insisted that we stay on the trail. I was glad that
I did because it was one of the most spectacular parts of the trail.

Finding the trail? You come out of the woods next to a stream. The map says that the trail continues on the same side of the stream. There is a faint remnant of a trail there, but it looks unused. Turn right on the road, cross over the stream, and the trail is on the right. It looks like it is going back in the direction that you just came from, but it is the right trail.

On the trail
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Do not expect to get very many good pictures on this trip. The Redwood trees are so tall and the valleys so deep that the lighting is very dim. Most of the photos in this memo were taken with a tripod at very slow shutter speeds.

Jay Camp. Hard to believe that hot showers are just five minutes away.
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Near park headquarters
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Big Basin also has an outstanding grove of big trees near the headquarters. Be sure to walk over to the short loop trail that goes through the big trees. Some of them are amazing! The loop trail is only about a 5 to 10 minute walk from Jay camp.

Banana Slug
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Berry Creek Falls
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

The hike to Berry Creek Falls is one of the most beautiful on the trip. It is only about 5 miles from Jay camp to Sunset camp above Berry Creek Falls. However, it is uphill the whole way and is just as hard as the previous days when we were hiking 8 to 9 miles downhill.

After Berry Creek Falls, the hiking gets much easier. The trail to the sea gets flatter and wider. It is a good idea to get an early start on the fourth day. It is a fairly long hike (8 to 9 miles). It will take about 3 hours to get the cars and another 1 to 2 hours to get to Big Sur.

On the trail to the sea
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

Waddell Beach
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

It takes about 3 hours to get the cars. It also requires all of the drivers. We had 17-year-old scouts with us and felt comfortable leaving them in charge of the boys while we got the cars. However, we left strict orders that no one was allowed to go in the water above their ankles. Warning: The waters on the coast above Santa Cruz are notoriously treacherous. The waves are often big and there are often bad rip currents. There are no lifeguards at Waddell Beach. Do not let the boys swim.

To get the cars, go south on Highway 1 back to Graham Hill Rd. Take it up to Highway 9 and back up to Castle Rock parking area. You will see a sign on Highway 1 for Highway 9, but it is better to take Graham Hill Rd. because it is a lot less winding.

Note: the wind on Waddell Beach really picks up in the afternoon. When we left the boys there to get the cars, it was warm, calm, and deserted. When we got back 3 hours later, it was windy, cold, and jam-packed with wind surfers. Make sure the boys wear sun screen. Some of our boys purposely did not wear sunscreen because they wanted to get a “tan.” They came back looking like lobsters. So it

Getting to Big Sur from Santa Cruz is easy. Drive south on Highway 1 for 70 miles. It should take about 1-½ hours from Santa Cruz. We stopped at a grocery store on the way and picked up hot dogs, chips, and milk for dinner that we prepared in camp with our Coleman stove and large pot. We also picked up muffins, Danish, and juice for breakfast the next morning (included in the cost of the trip).

We stayed in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It was a bit of a culture shock with hundreds of SUVs, Coleman lanterns, and the general crush of humanity. But it was convenient. An alternative would be to stay at Andrew Molera State Park. Andrew Molera is a walk-in campground about 5 miles north of Pfeiffer. You will see signs for it a few miles before you come into the town of Big Sur. The campsites are about a quarter-mile from the parking area and are very nice. I do not think that reservations are necessary, but you would want to check on that.

There is nice, short hike to a waterfall in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park that is worth doing while you are in Pfeiffer.

On the road to Big Sur
Photo by Alan Vanderhoff

We drove the Highway 1 through the spectacular Big Sur coastline. There is a beach 7.7 miles north of San Simeon called Piedras Blancas which has Elephant Seals on it in the spring. You will be driving right by it and it is worth a stop. We continued to drive south on Highway 1 and connected with Interstate 101 near Pismo Beach. From there we took the 101 to the 405 to the 73 toll road (well
worth the toll, believe me) to the 5, and then home.

Everyone on the trip agreed that it was the best backpacking trip they had ever been on. This trip gets a 5-star rating!

Click here for a gear review for this trip.

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