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8 Great Trails for Rainy Day Running

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Don't let the rain stop you from trail running. Here are eight places around Santa Cruz you can run when it's wet outside.

Story and photos by Odile Bouchard

The rain has finally hit a parched California after four years of drought. El Niño, a game changer when it comes to weather, is bringing Wet and Cold back. These long-lost familiar faces of wintertime are friends to the banana slug but foe to outdoor recreationists… That is, until you learn how to do what you love regardless. Here, I talk about some of my favorite Santa Cruz trails that hold up for a good run during and after a rainy day.

Pogonip Trail Runs

Weaving through prairies, redwood forests and hillside creeks, these trails are multi-level and multi-use. The dense forest makes for some good coverage, whether it’s from heavy raindrops or thick mist. Pogonip also boasts some cool Santa Cruz history** that you can experience firsthand while running! Most trails are “hikers and joggers only,” so feel free to pop in those headphones and jog along to some groovy tunes to accompany the beautiful and diverse scenery here.

Spring Trail
3.2 miles (in-and-out), easy (to moderate if you take the Spring Box Trail*)
Park for free at the top of Spring Street and turn right at the trailhead. This trail is wide and somewhat flat—a nicely maintained service trail. The compact sand/dirt terrain absorbs rainwater so you shouldn’t come across too many large puddles. This in-and-out jog, with a slight incline on the way up, makes for a smooth sail back with gravity on your side!
Starting off across open meadows, the trail quickly runs into the shelter of the forest canopy. Oak, madrone and chaparral transform into redwood groves. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and bobcats in the forest and foxes, hawks and coyotes in the meadows. I nearly squished a hairy, scary wolf spider, so watch out for those…
*Halfway up the Spring Trail, you can take the Spring Box Trail off to the left and up. This slightly more strenuous trail climbs up to Lime Kiln Trail. At the top, you’ll reach the famous koi pond that sits near one of the park's four old-growth redwood trees. You’d never believe goldfish could fend off raccoons until you see them swimming around at ease, as if in their natural environment. Go right on Lime Kiln Trail and down, taking a sharp right, back onto Spring Trail. Follow this all the way back to where you started.

“A Taste of Pogonip”
4.1 miles, easy to moderate, 500 ft climbing
Budding off Spring Trail and across open meadows and diverse scenery is the Spring Trail - Brayshaw Trail - Golf Club Dr - Lookout Trail loop. This route features some thinner, rockier trails and demanding ups and downs. For example, as you merge right, off Spring Trail onto Brayshaw Trail, expect a short, steep downhill and some slippery eucalyptus leaves and seeds. You will run alongside the meadow edge and past the clubhouse. Eventually you will burst out into the open as you run down the paved Golf Club Drive until you see an informational kiosk. Take the leftmost leg of Pogonip Creek Nature Loop, which dips down into a ravine (there's a small wooden bridge to get you across Pogonip Creek) and then meets with Lookout Trail for a steep climb out of the ravine. The path here is narrow and rocky and requires careful footing, especially in muddier conditions. But don’t stress, it goes by quickly. At the top of the Lookout Trail you will again meet with Spring Trail. Turn left back towards Spring Street and your car.
**Take a second to check out the historical clubhouse while on the Brayshaw Trail. It looms dark and eerie (especially in this grey weather!) on the right of the trail, at the edge of the meadow. Once a social locale for Casa del Rey golfers in the early 1920s, it turned into the Pogonip Social and Polo Club in the 30s. World War II saw the club’s transformation into a rehabilitation center for service men and eventually the building’s demise into the dilapidated state its sits in today. Actually, the fenced-off cement vat on the right, starting down Brayshaw Trail, used to be the clubhouse pool!

The Emma McCrary Trail
4 miles, moderate, 460 ft climbing
Park at the small Golf Course Dr lot, off of Hwy 9 from downtown Santa Cruz. Take the Emma McCrary trail off to the right, directly after the entrance gate. This trail was opened in 2013 and designed to withstand heavy winter rains. This is a mountain biker’s favorite and the one Pogonip trail I suggest you run on sans music (and not on the weekends; it's jammed with cyclists then). You may even find you like the silence made by all the noise-buffering of thick vegetation around you. I felt like I was running through a silent wonderland. It gave my mind a sweet break away from all the hustle and bustle of urban life. The trail is narrow, winding uphill through a jungle of diverse forest vegetation covered in a mossy, green blanket. There are some muddy spots caused by the bikers that come down and some “spongy” spots between the foot bridges in the ravine. The trail runs parallel to the railroad at the beginning and parallel to Hwy 9 towards the end. It will hook up with Rincon Trail at the top, where you can turn left to get back on Spring Trail to Brayshaw Trail, past the Clubhouse and onto Lower Meadow Trail, which hooks you back up to Golf Course Drive.

Special note: This trail is very popular with bikers.

The Railroad Run
13 miles (to Felton and back); negligible climbing
Park for free at Costco in the Harvey West neighborhood. Follow Coral Street north, which turns into Limekiln Street and meets up with the railroad at Encinal. The train makes a once-or-twice-a-day trek along those tracks, so don’t stress about being flattened like a spoon at any given moment! You can run along the railroad shoulder or between the tracks — either way it is open, flat terrain that doesn’t get muddy and makes for an easy, mindless run through some beautiful scenery. I suggest wearing thick-soled shoes to avoid feeling the rough, rocky terrain underfoot. Along the trail, you’ll encounter a trestle that requires careful footing (or a scamper down the bank to follow the road for a bit instead; either way, be careful). Follow the tracks across Hwy 9. You will probably hear the San Lorenzo River roaring on your right. Keep your eyes out for a sign that says “No Diving” to know you’ve reached the Garden of Eden. I like to make a pitstop here, an inspiring, hidden and quiet thinking spot in rain or shine. It becomes a popular swimming hole during the summer. You can turn back whenever or head all the way up to Felton, just be aware that however far you go, you’ll be running that same distance back!

Special note: Do this in daylight hours only or with a friend, as the tracks near town are a thoroughfare for homeless people returning to their camps in the woods at day's end.

Wilder Ranch Trail Runs

The soft, rolling hills of Wilder Ranch State Park used to be the munching grounds for cattle of a local dairy farm. The trails stretch over these abandoned pastures and through shaded forests. The Pacific Ocean vistas set stunning backdrops along these trails. You’ll get a good sense of why Wilder Ranch is considered a multi-use haven by all! Watch out for cyclists and keep to the side of the fire road. These trails are ideal to run on after the rain — the compact, sandy ground soaks up water and maintains flat and even footing. You’ll come across the occasional puddles, but what can you expect, it’s winter! Park for $10 at the parking lot or for free on the side of Hwy 1, bearing in mind that break-ins are frequent here. Most trails start on the inland side of the road.

Engelsman Loop
4 miles, moderate; 550 ft. climbing
This trail boasts ocean lookouts throughout open meadows and oak, Douglas fir, madrone and shrub vegetation. Pass the horse corral, cross over the creek bridge and keep right onto Engelsman Loop. To start off you’ll need to conquer some initial lung-burning inclines. It’s OK if you need to take some walk breaks; no one is watching you! The trail flattens out, but more soft climbs pave the way ahead to amazing hilltop views that stick with you all the way down. This makes for a breezy and beautiful descent, especially after the rain. Watch out for some deep crevices dug out by the rain; if flowing with water, they might be prone to sudden erosion. Avoid these with careful footing and remember to direct your weight towards the back of your heels. Downhill trail running is hard on your knee cartilage, but can be fun and safe if done cautiously. The trail holds true to its “loop” status and will spit you out right where you started.

Coastal Bluff Trail
10 miles (in-an-out); flat
Close-up ocean views accompany you along the flat and compact dirt paths between farmland and the coastal bluffs. This trail makes for an ideal and easy “after the storm” run with minimal puddling, except in a few spots near the complex. Avoid the few large puddles by running on the trail shoulder. Starting at the visitor parking or the side of Hwy 1, head towards the ocean, across the train tracks and onto the Old Cove Landing Trail. You’ll hit the railroad and, if you decide you haven’t yet satiated your need for speed and cliffside views, follow the railroads and turn left for a continued run on a similar trail all the way to Four-mile Beach. The Brussel sprouts- and manure-infused salty ocean breeze and birds flying overhead will keep you on track. You can turn around whenever you want.

De Laveaga Park

A park to please the masses with a golf course, disc golf course and archery range and some mellow, multi-use trails. Park at the end of Park Way for a free “in” to the trail network.

“La Corona” Trail to the "Top of the World"
5.5 miles, moderate to hard; approx. 500 ft climbing
A large portion of this route is on minimally muddy, paved road sweeping under thick tree coverage that protects you from the rain. Starting on Park Way, turn right onto the Old Vineyard Trail. Houses line the right side of the fenced, compacted, dirt trail - avoid peeping into backyards! Follow the signage to the archery range along Brookwood, watching out for cars. Run past the archery range, around a curve that continues up a steep hill to the disc golf course. Arriving at fork in the road, avoid the white-gated road and take the left road up. You will come upon the famous disc golf hole #27, or “Top of the World.” The setting holds true to the name and makes those killer uphill strides now worthwhile! Follow the narrow, dirt Branciforte Creek Trail downhill, being cautious of rocks, roots and branches amidst uneven footing. Keep an eye out for mountain bikers. You will drop down into De Laveaga Park. Continue down on Branciforte Drive back into the residential area, left on Goss Ave and right onto De Laveaga Park Dr. This eventually turns into Prospect Heights. Turn left up Park Way to your car. Let your tired legs slump into your car and remember to stretch!

Upper Campus Trails

Chinquapin Trail
6.1 miles, easy to moderate
On your way up to campus via Coolidge Drive you’ll see why students are attracted to UCSC and why it is so hard for them to leave. There is meter paid parking at Crown College; give yourself about 1.5-2 hours. Passing by a Dumpster, the start of the trial might look like a dead end, but give it a chance. Take the Fuel Break Road up to Chinquapin Road. Redwoods loom above, canceling out some rain drops while fallen pine leaves lay down a soft floor coating. You’ll pop out into open, upper elevation meadows on a mild incline up the service road. Thick-soled shoes are a necessity to bear the chunky gravel terrain. Pick up your feet and try to run lightly to make the ground easier on your body. You’ll hit Empire Grade at the end of Chinquapin Road, at which point you can turn around. Heading downhill, turn right on West Road and left on Fuel Break Road back to the parking lot. Watch out not to step on an endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, you wouldn’t want some UCSC environmental studies major coming after you!

Tips for Rainy Trail Running

• Tell someone where you are going!

• Stick to wide, flat roads such as service roads — they are meant to keep up even during the rains.

• Use careful footing; trails may be slippery or muddy. We’ve all run over what we thought was solid ground only for it to unexpectedly give way, oozing under and around our feet.

• Wear clothing and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty or washing.

• Wear lightweight apparel, ideally made from wicking material, which absorbs water off your skin.

• Rub lube on places likely to cause friction to avoid chafing.

• Strip out of wet clothes and into dry ones, or take a warm shower, immediately after your run. You can run in the rain, but it won’t be fun if you get sick after!

• Lastly, dry out your shoes. Try shoving balled-up newspaper in them. Direct heat will dry out all the fancy materials shoes are made of to make running more comfy and safe.

• Don’t forget to have fun and give yourself a part on the back for venturing out into the rain to do what you love!

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