Twin Oaks Tromp

Spring wildflowers galore on hiker- and biker-friendly Twin Oaks Trail in Wilder Ranch State Park north of Santa Cruz.

by Traci Hukill

April 30, 2014—I set out yesterday evening on a bike ride at Wilder, determined to be halfway in shape for the May 18 Girls Gone Wilder ride to the park, or at least not wheezing and faint like last time.

Without a lot of time, I headed for a good steep hill: Wilder Ridge Loop Trail toward the Overlook. This route, which heads sharply up and to the left just after the horse corral, takes you from about 120 feet elevation at the parking lot to about 500 feet within a little over 2 miles. It's one short climb just past the corral, a long steady pull through gorgeous oak grassland and then a steep half-mile before the overlook, which offers a spectacular sightline across the Bay to Carmel. It's a good workout for hikers and mountain bikers alike.

I didn't intend for this outing to turn into another wildflower gawking session, but the first thing I noticed on that first short climb along Wilder Ridge Loop was the California poppies dotting the hill overlooking Highway 1. A lot of people are noticing the number of poppies this year, and even though the pros are skeptical about there actually being more of these annuals than usual (pointing out that they may just be more visible or that they might all be blooming at once), public opinion seems to be tipping in favor of this being a big poppy year. Parts of Wilder are now awash in them, the hillsides dabbed with gold. We've noticed them in profusion at Rancho del Oso, Star Creek Ranch and along a lot of county roads as well.

This route passes a marsh within the first mile, now either dry or very low. Shortly after that, the trail forks (the two branches form the actual Wilder Ridge Loop). The branch to the right gets to the overlook first; that's the one I took. About a quarter-mile before the overlook I turned onto Twin Oaks Trail, a single-track trail popular with mountain bikers but also used by hikers.

This is where the wildflower fun really begins. Along Twin Oaks Trail stood thick stands of blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium), a member of the lily family with small (3/4") violet flowers and yellow centers on a grasslike stalk. There was the occasional vetch on its curling vine-like stem, pert pink checkerblooms (Sidalcea) dotting the trailside and, maybe best of all, sky lupine (Lupinus nanus). These showy members of the legume family have bluish-purple and white (sometimes purple, white and magenta) blooms. The ones in Wilder seem particularly lovely, or maybe I'm just a sucker for all things Wilder. Toward the junction where the twin oaks once stood (one is now fallen) was also some purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta), a relative of the Indian paintbrush that, like its cousin, makes part of its living as a parasite, sending a fungus into its neighbors' roots to extract carbon.

As far as I can tell, some of these—the checkerbloom, lupine and owl's clover—are indicator species of coastal terrace prairie, considered endangered by the California Native Plant Society.

After reaching the juncture of Twin Oaks Trail and Wilder Ranch Loop, now at about 600 feet elevation, I turned left along the Loop and began heading east again. A mountain biker with more time (or skill, which makes it all faster) might choose to take Zane Grey Cutoff down the bluff, but I passed it by and continued on to the Overlook—though not before noticing that California poppies were covering the hills and fields all around. They're mixed in with long grasses, so it's not just a big smear of orange, but it's pretty spectacular.

After pausing at the Overlook I continued on Wilder Ridge Loop, passing the turnoff to Twin Oaks and continuing back the way I came. If you're thinking of going to see the flowers, go soon—they won't last forever in this heat.

Wilder Ridge Loop to Twin Oaks Trail
5 miles RT from Wilder Ranch State Park parking lot. 500 feet elev. gain. 2.5 hours on foot, 1.5 on bike.