Coast Dairies Tromp

A hike at Coast Dairies, subject of a new campaign for a Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument.

Story and photos by Traci Hukill

Jan. 15, 2015—Saturday morning, mid-December. Recent rain has turned the North Coast brilliant green and scrubbed the air clean of particulate, sharpening distant horizons. Under a sunny blue sky, a showoffey cloud display rolls through performing endless tricks.

I'm with my longtime friend and hiking buddy Tai. We've driven up from Santa Cruz this morn, forsaking prime beauty rest hours, for a shot at seeing what Coast Dairies is all about. For 16 years this off-limits, 5800-acre swath of land has had people wondering what lay behind the hills next to Highway 1 between Wilder Ranch State Park and Davenport. The property's 1998 purchase from development-minded landowners, with about $40 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, suggested something good for the public, but the handover to the Bureau of Land Management was slow. In April 2014 it was finally completed, and while The People do not yet freely frolic on Coast Dairies land, BLM is offering monthly guided hikes to give them a look-see. We are here for the first one.

Read At Last, Coast Dairies Transferred to BLM

We join the other cars parked across from Fambrini's farm stand, about a mile and a half south of Davenport. A quick jaunt back across the highway to the inland side and we're soon gathered with maybe 20 other people at the bottom of a long, gently sloping meadow, ready to begin our 4.2-mile round-trip hike into the heart of Coast Dairies—or, as it may one day be called, Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument. (Right?! Learn about the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument Campaign Kickoff Event on Feb. 12 at Kaiser Permanente Arena.)

Like everything north of Santa Cruz until you get to San Francisco, Coast Dairies is a showcase for marine terraces—former sea floors lifted up through tectonic activity and arranged like wide steps marching up from the coast. The one we are standing on, level with Highway 1, is the first marine terrace, reckoned at about 105,000 years old. The second is clearly delineated before us; not more than a few hundred yards away, it looks like a mesa capped with gentle mounds, edges eroding gracefully but abruptly.

Find a great explanation of marine terraces on Mobile Ranger.

All About Vastness

Our first climb, on a fire road that we'll follow for a good mile, takes us about 100 feet up in elevation. It's here that we get our first epic sense of this property.

Emerald hills and plateaus extend to the left and to the right, while in front of us the Pacific shimmers away in a viewshed that extends from the distant shores of Marina and Carmel Point, under the long slope of the Santa Lucia, then sweeps across the open ocean and back toward land, beyond the coast north of Davenport. We've seen these views before, but there's something different about this one.

Unlike nearby Wilder Ranch, where scrub has taken over virtually every hillside and plateau, Coast Dairies offers up clean grassland with few shrubs and fewer trees to obstruct the view and the sense of wide-open space. Especially after the winter rain, it allows the forms of the place to emerge very clearly—the horizontal expanses and neatly sculpted hills beneath the enormous sky. It's all about vastness here: big sky, huge views, and behind these sun-blasted hills, rich seams of redwoods lining streams and steep ravines, pulling up moisture to the crowns of the tallest trees on earth.

Our group lingers a while here, taking it all in, before continuing up the fire road toward the third terrace. This is a tougher haul, landing us at about 600 feet just a mile in (we started at 100 feet)—but the payoff is well worth it. The sky and the sea open up even more, and the plateau below adds a magical dimension to the sense of the place. Wildflower season here must be incredible. Even though most of the coastal terrace prairie (a now-rare ecosystem that once covered these slopes and terraces) at Coast Dairies is gone, some of it remains in the upper reaches of the property, above the Molino Creek, Liddell Creek and Yellow Bank Creek watersheds.

Redwood Beauty

Up on the mesa, we head directly inland. Our "fire road" soon peters out and we follow a rough footpath through a bit of chaparral dotted with strange-looking mushrooms that quickly gives way to a young redwood forest overlooking the Liddell Creek East Branch drainage to the northwest. This path, forged by the Santa Cruz Puma Project and used for years, grows narrow and somewhat steep, if manageable, as it heads back down to a clearing made for picnicking. (Note: The name of the drainage in this paragraph was corrected Jan. 26, 2015.)

We stop only briefly at the clearing, then plunge ahead into the dark cover of a redwood forest, down a very steep quarter-mile section of fire road. If the first part of the hike was sun-blasted—and it can be savagely hot up here—this section is a good 20 degrees cooler. It's all banana slugs, newts and towering redwoods on this side of things. At the bottom we stop next to Liddell Creek East Branch for snacks. This water, which feeds into the city of Santa Cruz's water system, is considered some of the most reliable on the North Coast, with a consistent flow and low turbidity. It flows from a spring a few miles off the property. The flow doesn't look like much from here, but those tremendous rains are already a week old, and as everyone knows, it's been a dry few years. (Note: This paragraph was edited Jan. 26 to correct the name of the creek and clarify its role in the city water supply.)

Here, in the cool of a redwood ravine, we've reached the end of our hike. We're 2.1 miles in from the coast and we've climbed 500 feet; all we have to do is climb back out of this ravine—another 300 feet, I'm going to guess—and go back the way we came.

As we pass landmarks we noticed going up on our way back down, we also notice that the light's changed. If anything, it's more appealing. The weather is perfect, the climbs are behind us and life is good. Can't wait til we can do this all the time.

Like the thought of Coast Dairies becoming a national monument? Attend the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument Campaign Kickoff Event at Kaiser Permanente Arena with former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on Feb. 12, 2015. It's free—just RSVP.

Editor's Note: The Feb. 8 hike is full, and the March 2015 Coast Dairies hike has not yet been scheduled. Check Hilltromper Events or like us on Facebook to find out when the next one happens.