Trail Running in Santa Cruz County

Jogging around a neighborhood or city park is fine as long as your knees hold up and you don’t get bored. But when it’s time to cushion the cartilage and vary the scenery, head for the hills. They’re full of duff-carpeted trails and fire roads lined with postcard-worthy optics—not to mention freshly oxygenated air and near-mystical powers to wash the day clean.

River Trail, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Alive with bird calls and stunning in springtime, this gorgeous running trail in Henry Cowell starts at the park entrance, just off Highway 9, and meanders along the San Lorenzo River beneath western sycamore and box-elder before opening into a sandier, more sparsely vegetated riverside section. Shade keeps this cushy pathway from drying out and getting too hard; the sandy sections, while they can be tricky for an ankle, are nothing if not soft. A straight in-and-out to the trail junction with Pipeline Road is a little under 2 miles. Extend it by staying on River Trail to Cable Car Beach, and vary it on the way back by cutting through the old-growth trees on Redwood Grove Loop. Dart behind the park store and stay on the service road to pick up half-mile-long Meadow Trail back to Highway 9.

Aptos Creek Fire Road, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
No discussion of trail running in Santa Cruz County would be complete without a mention of Nisene Marks. Like Nike-shod filings to a giant magnet, runners are drawn here from all over the county, lured by the shade and peace of the redwoods, a huge network of trails and the sense of vastness which is this park’s hallmark. While mountain goat types will find joy darting over roots and up inclines along Terrace Trail, Vienna Woods and the like, domesticated joggers will head for the fire road. This stalwart has the advantage of being basically flat for the first three miles, shaded and somewhat variable. Bored with the 2-mile stretch from the entrance kiosk to Porter Picnic Area? Park at the Steel Bridge and go to the Bottom of the Incline. Heroes may go the distance up to Sand Point Overlook (about 6 miles in; elev. 1600 feet) or up to Santa Rosalia Peak (about 10 miles in; elev. 2529 feet). Whatever you do, this is an unparalleled place to jog in awe.

Emma McCrary Trail, Pogonip
This new 2.2-mile multi-use trail is a dirt runner’s dream. Best for those in good shape (or those who don’t mind stopping and walking), the newest trail in Pogonip climbs several hundred feet through mixed evergreen forest on the shady side of the hill. It was also designed, and is primarily used, by mountain bikers, so watch for riders ahead. Look for the Celery Tree, an unusually shaped redwood, near the top of the trail. Turn around for a 4.4-mile round trip or take a left at the junction with Rincon and continue on to flat Spring Trail to come down steep (walk!) Brayshaw Trail. The Emma McCrary trailhead is at the Golf Club Drive entrance to Pogonip, off Highway 9.

Schwan Lake Park, Twin Lakes State Beach
It’s short and surprisingly hilly, but the trail on this little-known patch of state park land tucked behind Simpkins Swim Center is so pretty we couldn’t resist including it. Along its edges are huge, spreading oaks and sunlight-dappled views of Schwan Lagoon, one of the county’s best places to see waterbirds on the wing. The hard-packed trail forms a large “B” shape, with each of the loops roughly ¾ of a mile long. You’ll have to make a few rounds to get your miles in, but there are worse fates. This is also a dog-friendly park (but keep Rex on a leash). Entrance is at the back of the parking lot behind Simpkins Swim Center, off 17th Avenue in Live Oak.

Oh, and one more thing ... If you become a regular at our area state parks, consider supporting them with the purchase of a Golden Poppy Parks Pass ($125, available at parks entrance kiosks) or a membership to Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks ($50, available at Friends stores; for locations, visit We promise you'll feel grand.

The Emma McCrary Trail Rocks

Photo by Hilltromper.