Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail to Meteor Trail to Middle Ridge Fire Road to Sunset Trail
4.5 miles; 3 hours; moderate; 700 feet elev. gain
As redwood hikes in Santa Cruz County go, this is one of the most manageable and varied. The trail from Big Basin park headquarters to Ocean View Summit leads past massive redwoods, a jewel of a creek, a patch of sun-blasted chaparral with a sightline to the sea and graceful stands of Douglas fir before easing back down into the cool of an old-growth redwood forest. It’s an enchanting way to see what this magnificent park has to offer without signing up for the skeeters, blisters and general exertion of the whole Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail enchilada. The hike starts at 1000 feet and climbs to almost 1700 feet, peaking at Ocean View Summit.
Start at park headquarters and cross Opal Creek, either on the Skyline to the Sea Trail bridge or, if you’re parked in the northern part of the park, the Gazos Creek Road bridge (if you take the latter, note the combo of giant redwood on the left and giant Douglas fir on the right, kind of an interspecies welcoming gate. It’s a theme.). Turn north on Skyline to the Sea Trail right on the other side of the bridge. It follows beautiful Opal Creek for about 1.5 miles, passing old-growth redwoods and firs, lots of bracken fern and a tangle of tanoak understory. The creek itself is a sight, strangely milky and a lovely shade of aquamarine with golden- and reddish-brown sunlit shallows. Pass the Maddock Cabin site and continue until you reach Meteor Trail, which heads left and up the hill, following Rodgers Creek.
Meteor Trail climbs steadily for about ¾ of a mile through classic Santa Cruz Mountains redwood forest: ferns, sorrel, cool moisture in the air and soft duff underfoot. Late winter will bring a few shade-loving wildflowers like milk-maids. When you pop out into dappled sunshine on the ridge, it feels like walking into a party. Follow that party to your destination by going left on Middle Ridge Fire Road, which you’ll follow for the next 1.5 miles. Blessed with plenty of light and sure footing, the trees up here on the ridge are spectacular; even tanoaks, usually scrubby and leggy in the presence of redwoods, have a chance to become beautiful here. Glimpses through the trees of the view to the right give you a sense of the treat you’re in for.
About .5 miles after turning onto Middle Ridge Road you’ll notice the terrain changes abruptly from mixed evergreen forest to chaparral. (At the border of these two biomes is a lovely stand of wild iris lining the road; look for it to bloom mid-March through mid-May.) Manzanita, sticky monkeyflower, yerba santa and knobcone pine rule the world now, and it’s very sunny and probably hot (very hot if it’s summer). Soon you arrive at Ocean View Summit, with views all the way to Waddell Beach at the park’s far end. It’s a nice spot for lunch.
Leaving Ocean View Summit behind, you’ll pass a gorgeous stand of Douglas firs, not especially old but very beautiful, and a number of nice oak and madrones. Around the intersection with Dool Trail, the Middle Ridge Fire Road’s downhill grade steepens. Here you’ll see some gobsmacking old-growth redwoods if you stop and take a look. A trio of massive flattops off to the left is worth looking out for.
Poor park signage makes the next part a little tricky. Middle Ridge Fire Road intersects with Gazos Creek Fire Road, a perfectly respectable way to head back to park HQ if you’ve had enough grandeur for one day. But we prefer to jog right on Gazos Creek Fire Road, pick up the continuation of Middle Ridge Fire Road at the top of a slight incline, turn left and immediately start watching for the Sunset Trail. Turn left again and follow the trail another mile or so to headquarters. This cool, pleasant path eases you through a whole pie shop’s worth of huckleberry and leads past some nice big trees. It hooks up with Skyline to the Sea Trail to lead you back to the parking lot.
Back to Big Basin Redwoods State Park.