Five Fall Santa Cruz Mountain Hikes

Enjoy the changing colors of the leaves and the serenity of hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Oh, and a chai recipe to warm you up!

Sep.20, 2023—As the weather cools down and many of us enter a quieter period of the year, a hike on one of the many local trails seems like a great way to welcome in fall. For me, an idyllic autumn weekend begins with a midmorning hike through a heavily forested path rewarded with a warm beverage back at home. Here are some trails in Santa Cruz that showcase the beauty of fall. Keep in mind that you may not see color change until mid-October and November. Read to the end for my chai recipe, the perfect comforting warm spicy beverage to follow a cold, damp hike. 

Land of the Medicine Buddha Loop at Nisene Marks
Location: Up the mountains between Aptos and Soquel
Length and difficulty: 5.8 miles, 2.5 hours; moderate

There is something very calming about walking through a redwood-shaded winding path. The trail is on a 108-acre Buddhist spiritual site. In the first stretch of the hike, you will encounter prayer flags, plaques with Buddhist teachings, and shrines. As you get deeper into the forest, you will come across some banana slugs and fallen logs with mushrooms emerging from the damp wood. 

Fall Creek Unit in Henry Cowell State Park
Location: Felton
Trails range from .2 to 4.8 miles and from easy to moderate

With almost twenty miles of connecting trails, there is much to explore in this northern section of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The oak and laurel trees that cover the creekside trails turn golden in the fall, making for a magical hiking experience. The 2.75 mile Ridge Trail-Fall Creek Trail is one of the many trails to immerse yourself in the autumnal atmosphere. For a more challenging route, hikers and trail runners can enjoy the 9.4 mile Fall Creek and Lost Empire Trail Loop, climbing the ridges and winding through redwood forests. 

Lookout Loop Trail in Pogonip Open Space Preserve
Location: near Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz campus
Length and difficulty: 3.1 miles, moderate 

For any Santa Cruz local, Pogonip is a go-to park. The Lookout Loop Trail is as stunning in the fall as it is in warmer months. Starting at Harvey West Park or from the Spring Trailhead, the trail takes you through meadows, forest, and wide ocean views all in just over an hour. While fall may not be the best time for a beach day, ocean views can be enjoyed year-round on hikes like this one. As a short alternate or add-on, the city just reopened the 1/2-mile Sycamore Grove Nature Loop Trail!

Hoover Trail at Rancho del Oso
Location: Just north of Davenport
Length and difficulty: 0.7 miles; 40 minutes; easy-moderate

Enjoy more ocean views in Rancho del Oso, the Pacific-facing side of Big Basin State Park. The quick out-and-back trail provides views of the Waddel Marsh, Waddel Beach, and the Pacific Ocean. Along the trail are beautiful coastal plants including the recovering Monterey Pine forest. Psst, camping is available now too!

La Corona Trail in DeLaveaga Park 
Location: Santa Cruz
Length and difficulty: 3.6 miles; 1 hour 30 minutes, easy 

Starting at the main parking lot, you’ll meander through redwoods to reach what locals call the “Top of the World"—a viewpoint with a couple of benches that looks over a world-class disc golf course and fall foliage. Keep your eyes out for banana slugs and poison oak as you hike up to the peak!

Naomi’s Chai Recipe
Makes 2 servings (or one large mug full to sip while reading a good story)

1 cup water
1 cup milk (I prefer whole milk, but any type of milk works)
About 8 cloves
About 8 green cardamom pods
About 4-6 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
A nub of fresh ginger
2-4 tsp of looseleaf Assam tea or 2-4 Assam tea bags
Sugar or sweetener of choice (honey is highly recommended))

Use a mortar and pestle to crush the spices into smaller pieces and to release the flavor. Add the ginger to the mortar at the end of the crushing process. *If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can put the spices in a small resealable bag and use a small pot or heavy item to crush the spices and ginger. 

Add the spices to a small pot and cover with water and milk. 

Bring to a boil and add your Assam tea. Bring the heat down to low and let the chai come to a rolling boil. 

Once the chai is golden brown and smells fragrant, drain into a mug. Tea strainers work well.

Stir in enough sugar, honey, or other sweetener of choice to your liking. I like to add about a teaspoon to my chai.