Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Butano State Park

The first time I ever visited Butano State Park it was almost an accident. That is; at the time neither I nor my companions had ever heard of Butano, or realized that a state park even existed there. I won’t say how many years ago that was, but I was 17 then, and my friends and I were on a back packing trip exploring the fire road system of the Santa Cruz Mountains on an Easter break from high school. We were supposed to be camping in nearby Big Basin. At least that’s the story we gave our parents. After a few days of hiking, which included some brush busting, we thought we had stumbled into poison oak in the dark. Someone had heard that bathing in sea water could minimize poison oak rash. I don’t know if that’s really true, but we decided to head for the coast lest we break out and go crazy with itching. We pushed over a ridge top and found a dirt road which appeared to lead down toward the seacoast, and decided to follow it. We wound up in Butano.

The namesake of this park is somewhat of a mystery. I have heard that Butano is of Native American origin, pronounced "Boot-ah-no", meaning "a gathering place for friendly visits". However, this origin really cannot be verified. It is usually attributed to “Native American lore”, whosoever that may be. In the book "California Place names”, The Origin and Etymology of current Geographical names by Erwin G Gudde, other possibilities are presented. The book points out Spanish land grants of the 1830s and 1840s called “El Butano”. Translated directly into Spanish the word butano means “butane” (gas). Huh? The book also contains an obscure reference to some kind of drinking cup made from the horn of a bull. Also the recognition that “an Indian origin is possible but not established”. Confused yet? Me too, so enough of this meandering. Sounds like one big horn of bull to me. Don’t even get me started on Mt Diablo.

Most of the other hike write-ups that I have read focus on the trails within the canyon and along the creek. These trails are really nice, but you wouldn’t want to hike Butano expecting to see stately examples of old growth redwood. The forested areas here, while very pretty and peaceful, do not possess the same inspirational quality provided by some other bay area parks. Hiking the Butano Creek Trail is a great stroll in hot weather. The dense tree canopy, and riparian nature of the route, make it seem as though there were some immense air conditioner running somewhere. With the parks proximity to the ocean beaches, this would be a great place for a family campout. The interior of the park certainly facilitates that nicely. But there is another side to Butano. I love the ridgelines that surround the canyon just as much. On clear days, you don’t have to do much uphill to enjoy beautiful sweeping views along the long loop consisting of the Butano Fire Road and the Olmo Fire Road. The high point of the route is only just over 1700 feet, and you don’t get the same kind of roller coaster action like the horse trails of Big Basin just to the south. You can also combine some of the interior trails to make some interesting loop, or semi-loop hikes.

On our last hike we began on the Jackson Flats Trail, hiking through the forests along the northern side of the canyon. We followed the Jackson past the Mill Ox cutoff and through to the un-named connector heading up to the Butano Fire Road. Hiking this trail uphill you transition from dense arboreal canopy into open ridge top terrain. It looks a lot like the area around Chalk Mountain. Arid and scrubby, with shale-like rocky soil. Here you exchange cool shady forest for exposure and view possibilities, and you trade the aroma of redwood and fir for sea air to keep you senses interested. This area is notorious for coastal fog, so take your chances on that score. The fire road loops around to an abandoned air strip in the northernmost and highest section of the park. Interesting views are provided out to sea in places, and down to the conifer habitat that rolls for miles. I always pack a small pair of binoculars for scenic viewing, or perhaps birding. After leaving the airstrip you are once again into the tree cover and soon arrive at the junction for the trail camp. Campsites can be reserved for backpackers here. In order to maintain our altitude, we bypassed this junction and continued on around to the Olmo Fire Road. The Olmo begins a gradual mostly downhill section leading back into open exposure again with views from the southern ridge top this time. We then turned on Doe Ridge Trail to get back under the trees once more. Loosing altitude gradually we then turned onto Goat Hill Trail and looped around to Butano Creek Trail and into the air conditioner. This is an excellent section for native plant lovers. These interior trails are vastly busier than the inviting quiet and solitude of the more remote sections. Here you get the groups of casual strollers talking up a storm, being heard by any form of wildlife for miles. In springtime, watch where you step lest you inadvertently murder countless newts and banana slugs. Below are some photo links.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr
Click here to see Dave's pictures (

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