Friday, September 11, 2009

Skyline to the Sea Trail

In 1976 a feat of fairly enormous proportions was accomplished by a loose knit alliance of highly spirited individuals in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Their efforts didn’t have any commercial, technological, or political value, so it didn’t get a lot of press. But the result of their combined enthusiasm and volunteerism was a gift of lasting value worthy of tribute from any rambling soul. So what am I talking about here? The 29.5 mile long Skyline to the Sea trail, which was completed all in one weekend during the inaugural year of the SCMTA. Other participating groups included the Sierra Club, and hundreds of local Boy Scouts. Portions of the trail were already there, but had never been connected. When I was a volunteer working with the SCMTA I spent many hours helping with maintenance and repair work on the Big Basin trail crew, and also the Skyline to the Sea crew. During that time I had become very familiar with the trail focusing on one small section at a time. I had also hiked the various sections time and time again both for enjoyment as well as trail reconnaissance. Discrete sections of it help facilitate some of my favorite hiking routes. But I had never hiked the entire distance of the trail all at once until Labor Day 2009. I was thinking about doing something kind of special for the holiday weekend so I decided that hiking the Skyline to the Sea would be a good personal tribute for Labor Day, and to finally add the full end to end trek to my trail log. There are other possible routes for getting out to the coast from skyline, but I wanted to stick to the official Skyline to the Sea Trail as my salute to the trail builders.

Many hikers do the trail as a backpacking trip. There are several trail camps along the way to facilitate that kind of hike. But if you want to hike the trail as a single day trek, you need to set up some kind of car shuttle, or arrange to be picked up. Since my wife was going to spend the day working on personal projects, I persuaded her to help me out. She would follow me to Waddell Beach so I could park my car, then shuttle me up to the trail head at Saratoga Gap. Of course this meant getting up at 5:00 am and driving for over 2 hours on a holiday morning. But she not only agreed to do it, but encouraged me. I knew there was a reason I married that woman. So we finally made it up to skyline, and I hit the trail at about 7:40 am.

I had hoped it would be cool, even foggy, but all indications were that it was a beautiful morning with clear skies, and potentially quite warm. I began hiking, already down to a single wicking layer even though the trail is under thick tree cover, but I was prepared for anything. I was feeling great and set my mind to savoring the day’s experience. My goal was to average at least 3 miles per hour including any resting time and lunch, and had planned to refill my water supply at Big Basin headquarters. As it turned out, it didn’t get very hot the whole day. Actually the weather couldn’t have been better. I was having fun just putting in trail miles, and checking out spots along the trail where I remembered doing repairs. It was great to see how well our sweat equity had held up over the years. Soon I came to the first good viewpoint at Sempervirens Point. This view out to Ben Lomond Ridge, and weather permitting, out to Monterey Bay, is great in the early morning. There are usually misty shrouds of fog furrowed amongst the tree lined ridges as the sun casts a subdued yellowish glow. There was no one there, and no cars passing on the highway to disturb the quiet display. I felt like it belonged to me.

Not lingering too long I continued on making up time on the mostly downhill section. The entire upper section stays pretty close to the road. It is after all the state owned easement for the highway that made it possible to build the trail. Most of the property along here is privately owned. The trail stays far enough from the road so it doesn’t become a constant distraction though. At several points the trail crosses the highway, and is sometimes above, and sometimes below it. There is still one short section, maybe less than ¼ of a mile, where you have to hike along the paved highway to the next gate. After passing Waterman Gap you begin gradually climbing uphill and the whole section between there and China Grade is mostly uphill, and still in close proximity to the road. There is one curving switchback along this section where I remembered spending almost an entire day manicuring the trail tread to running standards, and carefully grading to the recommended 7 degrees of slope for runoff. I made me proud to see my handiwork still holding up and in good shape. I hiked up and over China Grade Road and headed down toward park headquarters. I still had not seen any other hikers until then. A little ways down I passed some people hiking up, and happened to recognize someone; none other than Al Lisin of the SCMTA. Al is the crew leader of the Skyline to the Sea Trail volunteer crew, and a member of SCMTA since the 60s. I spoke with him, his wife, and a companion for a little while before continuing on, and like a dummy, forgetting to take a photo. Another great view opportunity is available along this section of trail before you descend into the tall conifers you pass along a lot of sandstone slick-rock and outcroppings which provide a nice vantage point through the sparse knobcone pines. If you have some binoculars you can pick out features like Eagle Peak along Ben Lomond Ridge. Once under the thick canopy of the basin you keep descending all the way down to Opal Creek. In springtime you can find lots of Tiger Lilies along this creek, but it’s really pretty any time. I began to encounter lots of people as I was approaching park headquarters, but this is normal for such a nice day.

I refilled my water supply even though I was not using as much as I anticipated. Bought a chocolate protein shake at the store and ate some lunch relaxing in the shade. I was right on schedule but still didn’t want to waste much time, so off I went at about 1:10 pm headed up to Middle Ridge. This trail had been blocked last winter, but repairs have been carried out. Really the whole trail has been surprisingly free of problems. The volunteer trail crew has been doing a fantastic job even though the parks budget is in constant peril. This is the last uphill section except for incidental nuances in the trail, and it passes by some really awesome ancient trees. After the crossing at the fire road it’s back to downhill for the run down along Kelly Creek and West Waddell Creek. Countless people have picked this section of Big Basin as the best hike in the Bay Area, and I have to agree. With the hillsides thick with ferns, sorrel, and assorted green ground cover, the awesome trees, murmuring creeks, and cool moist air, it’s very storybook like. When the falls are running that’s a huge bonus too, but this late in the year it’s just a trickle. The rest of the way out to the coast seemed really long as I began to feel my legs and feet beginning to tire. I began slowing my pace a little, but was still making enough headway to be within my schedule. I wanted to reach Waddell by no later than 5:00, and I just did make under that. There were a lot of people on the beach flying kites and a few windsurfers out. I was really tempted to jump in the water, but wasn’t sure I had enough energy left.

Clich here to see my pictures on flickr

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