Vernal Ridge Trail

A Santa Cruz hiking trail with views of Monterey Bay and plenty of solitude at the west edge of town.

2.5 miles; 1 hour 15 min; easy to moderate
From Meder Street entrance: East Meadow Trail to Moore Creek Trail to Prairie View Trail to Vernal Ridge Trail to Terrace Loop Trail and back via More Creek Trail

by Traci Hukill

When you're in the mood for some killer views but don't feel like busting your arse for it, Vernal Ridge Trail from the Meder Street entrance is your friend. This sweet little 2.5-mile route gives you a taste of all the goodness this underappreciated greenbelt has to offer—a lush riparian zone, chaparral, shaded mixed forest and open grassland—with gradual elevation gains totaling just a couple hundred feet. It's also a primo place to see some amazing coast live oak specimens.

Start at the park entrance found at the very end of Meder Street (you'll need to park near Western Drive; find directions on the Moore Creek Preserve page). A sign points you to Moore Creek Trail via East Meadow Trail; follow that to the intersection with Moore Creek Trail. Here you have the option to follow East Meadow Trail a scant quarter-mile farther to the edge of the preserve, where you may pay your respects to the truly mighty oak at the fence, which we've nicknamed Hercules. You'll see chaparral off to your left.

Taking Moore Creek Trail, you'll pass a gate and leave the open fields for a shady zone of small oaks, bay laurel, California hazelnut, sticky monkeyflower and, yes, poison oak. The west branch of Moore Creek is to your right and below. You may have to step/climb over a fallen tree as the path descends on its parallel track with the creek, but nothing dramatic. To your left you'll notice little cave-like formations in the bluffs above, something any self-respecting neighborhood teenager would know all about.

After about a third of a mile you'll cross the creek on a wooden bridge and start back up toward the terrace on the other side. Great horned beasts—some call them cows—are sometimes seen grazing in this area. (A restoration technique called "conservation grazing" uses ungulates, historically found on California's coastal prairies, to restore these ecosystems.)

Turn right at the signpost marking the Prairie View Trail, then shortly afterward turn left to follow Prairie View (rather than Terrace Loop) over to the property line and up alongside it. This is where the fantastic views of Monterey Bay come into play, and they get better the higher you go. Follow Prairie View to Vernal Ridge Trail, a small B-shaped loop that passes a couple of gorgeous old oak trees on its way to skirt a ravine where Douglas firs sink their roots before heading for the sky, and oaks perform acrobatic feats of balance and flexibility as they strain to get some foliage in front of the sunlight.

Vernal Ridge rejoins Prairie View for the briefest of moments before you are offered another way via the Terrace Loop Trail, which heads off to the left. The views are the same as on Prairie View—it just navigates a different section of the meadow. Close the loop with Prairie View and take Moore Creek Trail back the way you came.

For a longer (by about 1.5 miles) and more challenging excursion, follow Prairie View Trail another half-mile down to Highway 1, get yourself over to Western Drive (Mission Street extension is by far the most pleasant way to do this) and walk up that steep section of suburban street back to your car. You'll eventually get nice views of Moore Creek Preserve off to your left and see some very grand eucalyptus trees in the process.

This is a hiking-only joint, so leave the dogs and bikes at home this time.

Back to Moore Creek Preserve.