Mountain Biking Santa Cruz County’s San Vicente Redwoods

Newish MTB-accessible trails wind through carefully protected wildlife habitat and thoughtful interpretive exhibits in the footprint of the CZU fire.

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By Bridget Lyons

June 11, 2024—A sea of purple lupines greeted me as I pulled into the San Vicente Redwoods’ huge parking lot. I’d just made the 30-minute drive up Empire Grade from Santa Cruz to check out the relatively new 5.5 miles of bikeable trails. I knew I’d be riding in terrain that had been burned in 2020’s CZU Lightning Complex Fire, but I didn’t realize that meant I’d be pedaling through a sea of flowers for much of the time.

The lupines were just the beginning; once I started riding, bright yellow bush poppies burst from the brush like little yellow suns. Alongside them were low walls of ceanothus—wild white and purple lilacs contributing color, pollen, and a sticky sweet smell to the ride. And towering over top of these plants were three- to six-foot high stalks of yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), with its light pinkish-purple flowers and blade-like leaves.

Yerba santa is one of the species of plants that grows vigorously in recently burned areas, sprouting from rhizomes in the soil. It is one of the gifts that have emerged from the CZU fires. Its dominance forced me to keep in mind the degree to which that event affected the landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains in general, and this property in particular.

San Vicente Redwoods, or “SVR,” as it is often called, is a unique parcel of land. Prior to 2011, it was owned by Cemex, the company whose factory in Davenport still stands skeleton-like by the side of Highway 1. In 2011, a consortium of non-profit organizations came together to purchase these 8,532 acres of previously mined and clear-cut land. Their objective was to preserve the area’s wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities and to create 27,000 acres of contiguous protected land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bordering SVR to the west lies what is now the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument; to the south is Wilder Ranch State Park, to the east is the Fall Creek unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and to the north is Big Basin.

San Vicente Redwoods is now a cutting-edge example of collaborative land management: the Peninsula Open Space Trust and Sempervirens Fund co-own the property, Save the Redwoods League oversees its easement, and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County manages the public trail system.

So far, 7.3 miles of this trail system have been built, and there are plans to create about 30 more miles over the next three to five years. The initial 7.3 miles were hard-earned: They were all laid out and ready for construction when the CZU fires started in August of 2020. Because nearly all of SVR was burned to some degree, trail construction instantly became more complicated. More than 1,200 trees had to be removed to make the area safe, and ongoing fuel reduction efforts continue. (In fact, I had to delay my visit up to SVR until the weekend because the trails had been closed for this kind of work during the week.) Some slopes became more unstable after the fires, and crews were forced to wear dust masks to contend with the ashy soil. Despite these setbacks, the trail system, built by the crew at Santa Cruz Mountain Trails Stewardship, opened in December of 2022.

In many ways, this trail system is as unique as the collaborative model that was formed to acquire the land. Quality recreation is a goal here, but it shares that status with habitat preservation and restoration, wildlife monitoring and data collection, and education. The trails were routed to ensure that all of these goals could be met, so they avoid both prime wildlife habitat and potential areas of erosion.

Multiple well-constructed bridges keep users out of the creek beds, wildlife cameras are mounted in a number of key locations, and interpretive kiosks ensure that people understand how the land is being managed and why. One of those kiosks explains that large dead trees (“snags”) have been left standing to provide perches, food storage, nesting sites, and habitat for fungi and lichens.

“Education is what bridges the gap between conservation and recreation,” Land Trust Access Assistant Evelyn Siguenza told me. “And this property is doing that. For most folks, this is their first time up here. If we can, we like to meet them and talk to them about what’s happening in the landscape and how access to it works.”

Because this is a parcel of private land, it has open hours of operation, and the gates are shut at other times of day. A trail pass is required to use the trails; you can get one either online before your visit or at a kiosk in the parking lot. Getting the pass requires providing an email address, making it possible for users to receive information about trail closures in the future.

Another aspect of the trails Evelyn and SVR’s two other Access Team members like to talk about with visitors is their naming system. Each of the five trails has an Awaswas name, chosen in partnership with the Amah Mutsun tribe. The 1-mile trail segment that allows dog walking is called the Hu’mis—great horned owl—Trail, for example.

I rode that segment, along with the other three that are open to bikes (the remaining one is hike and horse only; see the trail map here for specifics). Hu’mis, Ma-rus (panther), and Hai-min’ (lizard) are all perfect beginner or family trails with minimal obstacles. Their fairly wide tracks roll through the remains of recovering tanoak forest and are awash in color right now. The Rum-me’ (canyon) Trail is more challenging, with multiple rocky sections to navigate and a bit more up and down. The section offers multiple views out over the lower portions of the San Vicente Redwoods and the ocean below.

Intermediate or advanced riders should consider doing this loop in both directions to get a little more mileage and see the terrain from different perspectives. No matter how you choose to link up the four rideable loops, you’ll need a lot of water and some sunscreen. Remember, this is an ecosystem in which the majority of the canopy was burned; it’s hot and sunny up there, especially in the middle of the day, and taking breaks in the rare patches of shade is a good idea.

On one of these breaks, I traced the path of a black and yellow butterfly, a pale swallowtail, as it flitted around a young madrone tree. I must have seen at least ten of them during the course of my ride. When I got home, I learned that Papilo eurymedon loves yerba santa, both for its nectar and for the habitat it offers—making it another gift of the fire-transformed landscape.

“I feel optimistic when I imagine what this place will look like five years from now,” Evelyn said. After my afternoon on the trails, I do too.

For more information on San Vicente Redwoods, including hours of operation and free pass registration, visit: San Vicente Redwoods | Land Trust Santa Cruz

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