by Garrett McAuliffe
Just off the slow grind of traffic winding east out of Santa Cruz along Soquel Avenue lies a quiet belt of amber and green. Arana Gulch is one of the last pockets of California’s coastal terrace prairie, a small sanctuary for native plants and critters amidst the city’s sprawl. Ancient oak trees stud the trail, and tall bunchgrass, thistles and wild plantain reach shoulder height, swaying in the summer breeze. In spring wildflowers appear in mini bursts of white, pink and purple.
The vast meadow that dominates this preserve is largely open to the sun and ringed in part with fragrant eucalyptus. Kestrels and meadowlark pace the air, chirped melodies mingling with the barks and clangs from nearby yards. Most come here to run or bike or walk their dog, skimming along the hard-packed dirt trails. But if you’re just here to wander, the occasional coast live oak offers shade for a picnic and thick, gnarled branches to climb and lounge in.
Two main trails cut through the 68-acre greenbelt. The primary route runs between the two entrances, a half-mile path from Agnes Street on the north side to the upper Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor on the south. At the southern end, a picturesque footpath circles the prairie and skirts the park’s western boundary.
Near the head of the yacht harbor, an unmarked side trail drops down into the floodplain of Arana Creek, where you can seek out natural treasures along the muddy banks. (Fun fact: Arana Creek once flowed into Woods Lagoon, the natural marsh where construction on the harbor began in 1962. Together, Woods Lagoon and neighboring Schwan Lagoon formed the “Twin Lakes” for which the popular nearby state beach is named. Read an article about it in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.)
Extend your walk by continuing a mile south along the harbor’s western edge, past swinging Seabright Beach and out along the jetty to the lighthouse. Read more.
JUST GRAND FOR easy hikes, commuting by bike (someday, anyway), running sweatily along with your panting pup, botanical snooping, birdwatching and stargazing. It’s one of the few spots in Santa Cruz where you can catch sight of the Milky Way or a shower of shooting stars (it’s technically closed at night, but …). Midwinter the moon sets sweetly over Santa Cruz from the high prairie.
THE AUTHORITIES ARE FULLY PREPARED TO ISSUE CITATIONS FOR smoking, fires, camping, alcohol, dogs off leash and secret stargazing.
BE WISE AND slather on some sunscreen before and check yourself for ticks after wading around in all that grassland. Also be aware that in 2011 a jogger encountered a mountain lion on a trail here (without incident, but still).
CREATURE COMFORTS are confined to a slightly fishy bathroom and water fountain just outside of the harbor entrance to Arana Gulch along the docks.
FILL YOUR BELLY Follow the harbor’s west side down to Aldo’s Harbor Restaurant or head to the Crow’s Nest, just off the east side of the harbor. Both have lavish views over the water, outdoor seating and some tasty seafood and bar grub.
Upper Harbor Access: From 7th Avenue, turn west into the Upper Harbor entrance at Brommer (between Capitola Road and Eaton Street). Park at one of the meters on the left and walk to the back end of the harbor to find several trails leading into Arana Gulch.
From Agnes Street: Follow Soquel Avenue east, away from downtown Santa Cruz. Shortly after passing Frederick Street, turn right on Mentel Avenue or Park Way and follow a short block to Agnes Street. Park, obeying the signs.
Agnes St, Santa Cruz, CA, 95062. Learn more at the city of Santa Cruz blog on the Arana Gulch multi-use pathway, open in January 2015.