.The Secrets of UCSC’s Trail System

You don’t have to be a slimy yellow hermaphroditic mollusk to take advantage of one of the finest features of UCSC—its natural beauty. UCSC’s campus covers a whopping 2,000 acres of hilly terrain, and there are miles and miles of hiking trails weaving in and out of the redwoods.

Why more non-slugs don’t visit the City on a Hill is a question that has confounded UCSC admissions officer Dianne Brumbach for almost a decade. “It’s like visiting a national park,” she says. “It’s an underutilized, underappreciated gem of natural beauty and amazing, sublime resources.”

For visitors to the university, finding paths and trails around campus isn’t hard. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful paths clearly visible to the general public, but in order to reach the good stuff—the crème de la crème of hikes on UCSC’s campus—you need to be in the know. In the interest of keeping things manageable, as there is seemingly no end to the trail possibilities, we’ll focus on two of the largest and coolest areas, the Pogonip and Upper Campus.

Explore, have fun, and watch out for the banana slugs—they’re slow and can’t get out of your way.


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Probably best known to the general population among UCSC’s natural gifts is the splendid 640-acre natural reserve known as Pogonip. Both town and gown types have long used the eight miles of trails that weave through Pogonip’s ancient redwoods, oaken woodlands, grasslands, and prairies as an escape—a stress-free place for exercise, retreat and relaxation. The “nip’s” lush city greenbelt and mind-bending ocean views make it a prime hiking destination for the general public, but there are spots that are lesser-known to the public outside of Slugdom.

Getting to Pogonip from UCSC is a piece of cake since the park hugs the entire left half of UCSC. You’ll want to park your car and enter the park at Stevenson College, and then make your way to McLaughlin Drive. Follow McLaughlin Drive from Stevenson and the entry to Pogonip will be on your left. This is the Lime Kiln Trail, a path that, while not labeled, is pretty noticeable and clear from the road. It will lead you into Pogonip and eventually connect you to every major trail system in the park. Navigating the complicated system of paths and trails can be frustrating without a guide. Luckily, there is a pretty amazing online map of all of the trails in Pogonip—one that even includes miles and ranks the difficulty of each and every trail—at cityofsantacruz.com.  

If you intend to spend a day in Pogonip, print out the map and then use the guide below to navigate the park and reach every secret spot.

Koi Pond

hiking ucsc campus pogonip koi pond
REFLECTING POOL The Koi Pond or ‘Buddha Pool’ is Pogonip. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Much cooler than the one at Porter College, a natural spring feeds this small, peaceful koi pond where small fish dart in and out of the clear water under a canopy of trees. Colorful prayer flags that weave in and out of the majestic greenery signal that you have arrived at your destination. Also called “the Buddha Pool” or the “Spring Box,” there is a tranquility and holiness to this place that is impossible to ignore. Tufa rock, formed by calcium carbonate from the area’s limestone-rich rocks, lines the perimeter of the pond. Students and hikers use the koi pond as a place of meditation and introspection. It’s a relatively easy hike that is well worth it in the end. The fish here may look small, but they will grow larger—legend says they swim upstream and become dragons. It’s pretty easy to find this little piece of paradise, just a few minutes from campus. Enter the Lime Kiln Trail from McLaughlin Drive and walk until you see a trail on your right. The Spring Box Trail leads to the stream that flows into the Koi Pond, and inner peace. Twenty feet from the koi pond is another UCSC legend: the 1500-year-old tree. No one really knows the tree’s true age, but students have long stood at the foot of this ancient redwood, marveling at its twisted limbs and huge bulbous growths. It’s one of four old-growth redwoods living in Pogonip—spared the axe by loggers in the mid-1880s.

Lime Kilns

In the 1880s, Santa Cruz was lime central. Abandoned lime kilns and quarry sites are scattered throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, especially in Pogonip and around the campus of UCSC. Ferns and mosses now shroud the walls of most of the kilns, and it takes a keen eye and an adventurous spirit to find them all. Reach the Lime Kilns by crossing McLaughlin Drive and entering Pogonip through the Lime Kiln Trail. Walk around a half-mile until you see a stone wall and wooden fence on your left. There is a haunting beauty here that is hard to describe, and really must be experienced firsthand.

Rock Garden

There is a special place near the Lime Kilns where students make “birdies”—impossible little rock stacks—and sculptures. This is a secret and revered site, where scores of carefully executed rock formations are placed among towering trees and ferns and moss-covered cliffs. Art and craft are respected here, and students and visitors are encouraged to add their own rock masterpiece, without disturbing other people’s creations. To reach the Rock Garden from the Lime Kilns, leave the trail and walk toward the mountain. With a little sleuthing, you should find what you’re looking for.

Big Rock Hole

It’s a legend, a mystery, and a state of mind. It’s fake! Big Rock Hole, also known as the “Student Garden of Eden” or the “Fake Garden of Eden,” is a famous swimming hole on the San Lorenzo River. Surrounded by stunning redwood panoramas, it’s extremely popular with the UCSC crowd, who often confuse it with the real Garden of Eden spot further down the river. This locale is all about recreation—a slightly scary rope swing tied to a large tree provides the necessary equipment for a fun day of cannonballs and flips. On hot days and weekends, the trail to Big Rock Hole gets crowded with adventure-seeking Slugs in need of escape and a place to cool off. If there are too many partying college hooligans for you, walk a ways down the river and claim a quieter spot of your own. To reach UCSC’s top-secret recreation destination, park around Stevenson College, cross McLaughlin Drive and enter Pogonip through the Lime Kiln Trail. On a hot day, the whoops and hollers of students will guide you to Big Rock Hole, but just to be safe, print a map to guide you on your journey. (This hike will take a while, so wear your walking shoes and bring water and caloric fuel.) After a short jaunt down the Lime Kiln Trail, you’ll see the Rincon Trail tailing left. Take it, then veer left onto the Rincon Connector Trail. Follow that to the Rincon Fire Road, a trail that meanders downhill through the redwood forest. Once you reach the bottom of the hill, walk past the signs (no lifeguard on duty) and down a relatively steep sandy path to the riverbank. Keep your eyes out for the unassuming path on the other side of the river. When you see a fallen tree, step across the rocks or wade over to the opposite bank and follow a narrow, sandy footpath. Soon, you’ll enter a glorious meadow and encounter a sand-lined section of the river. You’ve done it! Through the branches of trees, Big Rock Hole should be visible.

Other Pogonip trails of note:

Brayshaw Trail (0.5 mi.), Moderate, unpaved service road with steep climb near Spring Trail. Fern Trail (0.8 mi.), Moderate to difficult, trail not improved or well-marked in vicinity of Redwood Creek.

Lime Kiln Trail (0.3 mi.), Easy to moderate.

Lower Meadow, (0.4 mi.)

Easy Ohlone Trail (0.3 mi.), Moderate, some steep climbs.

Prairie Trail (0.3 mi.)

Easy Rincon Trail (0.7 mi.) Moderate, unpaved service road, hiking only between Coolidge Drive and U-Con Trail.

Spring Trail (1.6 mi.), Easy, unpaved service road Spring Box Trail.


Upper Campus

At the top of UCSC’s campus—and on the top of most students’ lists of favorite hiking and chill-out spots—is Upper Campus, also known as North Campus. It’s a beautiful place complete with rolling meadows, vibrant and fragrant chaparral, fern-filled gullies, and ancient redwoods. Funky places like the Cat Shrine, the Buddha Hut, and the Graffiti Tanks make incredible hiking destinations, and worthy additions to any Slug Hike bucket list.

Getting to Upper Campus is pretty basic—park at College 9, College 10, or Crown and walk north, away from the buildings and toward the forest. West Road, Fuel Break Road, and Red Hill Road are probably the easiest entry points, but walk a while anywhere in Upper Campus and you’re sure to find yourself back on a main path or road eventually. Navigating it is difficult without a map, but if you print one, you should be able to find your way through the network of trails and roads and have a great time.

Buddha Hut

Definitely one of the coolest and most spellbinding parts of Upper Campus, the Buddha Hut, or Buddha Pit, has been captivating wandering Slugs for many years. An incredible series of structures, the Buddha Hut is actually a giant fort built with thousands of intertwined manzanita trees, sticks, and branches. Hard to find, but completely recognizable once you happen upon it, the Buddha Hut is a go-to destination for those seeking a peaceful place to meditate, ruminate, or peacefully congregate. Dreamcatchers, Buddha statues, trinkets, and ornaments are woven in and out of the branches and sit in the corners of individual “rooms.” The serene oasis in the woods is respected and revered by UCSC students and other visitors who visit and revisit the “Hut” for spiritual enrichment and inner peace. No one takes the valuable Buddhas that are left behind for other seekers. Leaving an “offering” of good heart is an unwritten law of the Buddha Hut, and one of the coolest parts of visiting this Upper Campus gem is seeing the gifts others have left behind. It’s hard to find—some students spend days looking for the Buddha Hut and never find it. Take Fuel Break Road behind College 9 and 10, and when the trail widens, follow a small trail to your right. With a bit of exploring, and some luck you’ll come across it.

Graffiti Tanks

Rogue UCSC art students have long used the gigantic abandoned water and fuel tanks that dot Upper Campus to create Banksy-esque masterworks. These aren’t random tag signs and rushed monochrome scrawls. Painted and repainted, the water and fuel tanks that line Fuel Break Road have become artistic showcases, and go-to destinations for street and guerilla art enthusiasts. To reach the series of Graffiti Tanks in Upper Campus, follow Fuel Break Road from the top of Merrill and Crown colleges.

Cat’s Cradle and Caer Ellillon

Freaky. Dark. Mysterious. Haunted? The series of sacred circles that lies deep within the dense forest of Upper Campus has long captivated, enthralled, and scared the bejeebers out of hiking UCSC students. The carefully orchestrated ritual sites and pet cemetery to the north of campus are actually products of a small Wiccan coven that called UCSC home more than 25 years ago. Since then, the legend of the “weirdness in the woods” has grown steadily, and generations of wandering Slugs have given the funky, creepy, circular redwood rings many names: Cat’s Cradle, the Cat Shrine, the Pagan Circle, Caer Ellillon, the Cat Graveyard … But each meticulously planned site has a real name, says Dany, who, as a key member of Coven Coil Sidhe (Elven Wood), helped create the Wiccan wonderland we see today. Dany and her coven built two distinct sacred areas in Upper Campus: Caer Ellillon and Cat’s Cradle. Because they are relatively close together and follow the same circular pattern, she says that there’s a common misconception that they are one and the same.

Cat’s Cradle began as a simple burial site for Dany’s cat Andy, and quickly blossomed into a full-on pet cemetery. Walls of intertwined redwood branches create two connected circles, which overlap and create the two distinct areas of the Cradle. In the middle of the smaller circle is a waterproof box containing a journal and art supplies. Visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts, memories, pictures, and prayers; over the years, seven complete volumes have been filled with amazing artwork and heartwarming/breaking stories. The keepers of Cat’s Cradle save every journal and eventually intend to make PDFs and put them online for posterity.

Steps from Cat’s Cradle stands Caer Ellillon, a ritual circle built by Coven Coil Sidhe more than two decades ago. The perfect circle stands alone, in a clearing bordered by a thick wall of fallen redwood branches, under an odd, seemingly out-of-place totem pole. For the sacred circle’s creators, Caer Ellillon was a place of seriousness, wisdom, and magic. It was also a sanctuary. The carefully placed redwood walls held the coven’s secrets and sheltered it from the outside world. “Caer” literally means stronghold or fortress in Old Welsh, and that’s exactly what the founders created in the Upper Campus of UCSC. Four stumps serve as altars in the cardinal directions and the circle holds just as much power now as it did back when it was created.

To get to Caer Ellillon and Cat’s Cradle, enter Chinquapin Road at the access point to Upper Campus near the top of Crown College and Merrill College. After a moderate hike on Chinquapin Road, you should be able to see Cat’s Cradle from the trail, on your right.


  1. Pogonip only “hugs the entire left half of UCSC” if you’re looking south (perhaps from Stevenson back toward town). If you’re driving up to campus from town, it’s on your right. Maybe better to say it hugs the entire east side of UCSC.

  2. I loved hiking UCSC when I went there for school. However, I hike there way less frequently now — not because it’s not convenient (it’s still the closest good hiking to where I live), but because it costs a pretty penny to park on campus, even on weekends, which is something that this article doesn’t mention. If you’re planning to go up to UCSC for a hike, bring a tenner, or take the bus up.

  3. I’m confused, and it honestly sounds like this editor is too… Are you folks suggesting that Pogonip is somehow part of UCSC? Because you write, “Probably best known to the general population among UCSC’s natural gifts is the splendid 640-acre natural reserve known as Pogonip.” OK, so they are one in the same—got it. But then, you go on to say that “Getting to Pogonip from UCSC is a piece of cake since the park hugs the entire left half of UCSC.” Meaning two separate areas?

    Honestly, EVERY local knows that Pogonip is a city park, not part of the campus. Also, Big Rock Hole is in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, not Pogonip. Another obvious tidbit to anyone who’s ever been there. Or looked at a map.

    So just to recap, Big Rock Hole is not part of Pogonip, which is not part of UC Santa Cruz.


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