Breaking Ground on the North Coast Rail Trail

Segment 5 of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (aka Coastal Rail Trail) will connect Wilder Ranch to the town of Davenport.

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By Bridget Lyons

June 18, 2024—Rail and Trail projects are easy to get behind. That’s because when you combine rail transportation with active transportation you get the best of both worlds in an already graded corridor. As a result, tens of thousands of miles of rail trail exist in the United States.

Here in Santa Cruz, we are in the process of contributing to this vast and vital network. The Santa Cruz County Coastal Rail Trail is a proposed 32-mile rail trail that’s been in the works for over 20 years. The planning and construction of this portion of the larger Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (MBSST) has been a complex and collaborative effort. It has involved multiple governmental agencies and been supported by Friends of the Rail & Trail, a local non-profit whose mission is to advocate for the Coastal Trail and its affiliated rail system. Friends of the Rail & Trail has been at this since 2002, showing up at every public meeting related to the trail’s planning and construction and writing countless emails and letters to make sure this project is prioritized at the county level. When a milestone is reached, there’s cause for celebration.

One of those milestones is fast approaching, and there will, in fact, be a celebration! On June 20 at Wilder Ranch State Park, ground will be broken on Segment 5 of the Coastal Rail Trail. This 7.5-mile section, also referred to as the North Coast Rail Trail, will connect Wilder Ranch State Park to the town of Davenport, and it promises to be a gem. For starters, it will run through breathtakingly beautiful terrain, offering views of the Pacific Ocean and the bluffs, beaches, hills, and fields that abut the water. Just think: Instead of driving Highway 1 and risking life and limb to pull over and gape at pounding surf, pocket beaches, breaching whales, and brussels sprouts, you’ll be able to walk, run, skate, ride a horse, ride a mountain bike, or wheel a chair at whatever pace you desire through this landscape, pausing whenever you wish to let it all soak in. The main path will be paved and striped, and a dirt path and shoulder will run parallel to it. “This segment has been in the works for a really long time,” said Friends of the Rail & Trail Board Member Faina Segal. “It was the first segment to be approved. I think it’s going to be huge for safety and recreation, and it will be a big boost for the town of Davenport.”

In addition to being a resource unto itself, this segment of the trail will also enable access to the new Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument. Currently, 19 miles of backcountry trails—hiking, biking, horseback riding, and ADA-accessible—are under construction there. Segment 5 will make it possible to get to these trails either directly from the city of Santa Cruz (from the already built Westside Rail Trail) or by parking at one of the two new lots slated to be included in this phase of construction. One of the lots will be in Davenport; it will offer restrooms and access to a new pedestrian crossing of Highway 1. The other, which will be located 2.1 miles southeast of Davenport at Yellowbank Beach, will include restrooms and beach access. Improved access to Bonny Doon Beach is another aspect of this segment’s development. Funding for Segment 5 and all of these associated improvements has already been secured, and the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) and Federal Highway Administration are tasked with construction.

Segment 5 is just one of 20 planned segments of the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail. If you recreate in our area, there’s a good chance you’re already a Rail Trail fan and have enjoyed riding the trail through Wilder Ranch and on the Westside of Santa Cruz. Many residents and visitors use the trail through Wilder Ranch to access the backcountry network on the north side of Highway 1, the coastal paths on the south side of the road, and the historic buildings in the park. The Westside Rail Trail opened in December of 2020. This is the fabulous new 1.4-mile stretch of paved pathway that runs from Natural Bridges Drive to the intersection of Bay and California Streets. As a designated, ADA-compliant foot and wheel path, it’s been a godsend to West Side residents, and data from the City of Santa Cruz indicate that about 800 people per day are using it to easily and safely traverse neighborhoods.

Segment 7b, which will connect the Bay/California intersection with the Santa Cruz Wharf is under construction and expected to open this fall. If you’ve been anywhere near the old depot or the Beach Street trestle bridge recently, you’ve seen the vast array of heavy machinery and equipment being used to create this important link in the chain. While this section is only .8 miles long, it’s an important connector that will offer the only graded, car-free link between Beach Flats and the schools up on the hill, including Bay View Elementary. “We’re really looking forward to segment 7b opening later this year,” Faina said. “It will be a key connector joining the East and West Sides of Santa Cruz while also linking key schools and neighborhoods.”

Looking a little further into the future, work on Segments 8 and 9, which will connect the Wharf/Boardwalk to 17th Avenue, should begin in 2026. And, planning for the Aptos to Watsonville portions of the trail is getting underway right now. If you’re interested in keeping this momentum rolling, you can register to receive updates from Friends of the Rail & Trail on their website, These updates let you know about public meetings and other input opportunities related to the Rail Trail so that you can help advocate for its progress, either in person or in writing.

The groundbreaking ceremony being held on June 20 from 12 to 1:30pm at Wilder Ranch State Park is open to the public. At it, Friends of the Rail & Trail will be presenting awards to two local officials who have been instrumental in making the North Coast Rail Trail a reality. Whether you attend that day or simply visit Wilder in the coming weeks and look to the north with eyes full of expectation, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the gift that’s coming our way. It’s also worth taking a moment to be grateful for—and, hopefully, support—those who have helped to facilitate this visionary project.

Bridget Lyons is a writer and editor living in Santa Cruz. To learn more about her work and explorations, visit