Most tourists know Santa Cruz for its beach boardwalk or world-famous surf culture, but take a poll of why residents love it, and another gem emerges: easy access to nature. Within a couple of minutes’ drive of almost anywhere in town, you can meander down coastal bluffs or wind through redwoods and meadows.
Many of the trails that enrich our lives feel like they’ve always been there, but digging a little deeper reveals careful engineering and thousands of hours of hard work. Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship (SCMTS) is one of the organizations responsible for designing and maintaining those natural spaces. The nonprofit is hosting trail cleanup days after the storms, dig days at new parks, teen events and classes for those who want to learn advanced trail-building skills.
As new trails open and old ones get resurrected from fire and flooding, Good Times sat down—or rather hiked around—with the volunteer-focused group to explore the science behind trails.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
A well-built trail looks and feels like part of the landscape as if it emerged just as organically as the vegetation surrounding it. A good trail is also built to last. A little maintenance here and there is expected, but it needs to hold up to long-term foot traffic, water and erosion.
It should be scenic without disturbing sensitive environments or native wildlife. Efficient without being overly strenuous or dangerous.
The ingredients quickly add up, and suddenly the recipe for a good path through the woods feels complicated. But trail designers start simple.
“We always start with the desires of the users: who’s going to use it and where are they trying to go,” says Drew Perkins, the SCMTS trail planning director.
Perkins was the first employee at the trail stewardship. He’s worked in Pogonip, Wilder Ranch, the Soquel Demonstration Forest and Glenwood Open Space Preserve, to name a few. SCMTS works with local land managers as consultants and partners.
The nonprofit recently finished building multi-use trails for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County at San Vicente Redwoods. The trail system, which includes seven and a half miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horses, opened to the public in December.
Eventually, the land trust envisions 30 more miles and a connection to Coast Dairies National Monument—another of SCMTS ’s projects.
The beginnings of these projects involve lots of bushwhacking and measuring grades. Planners might start by considering 100-foot-wide corridors that connect points of interest.
They then consider “fatal flaws” that could kill the project, such as property lines, bridge crossings, archaeological sites or endangered species and habitats. In a few recent projects, mountain lion usage helped determine trail placements.
Of all the considerations that go into mapping a trail, how water will move across the landscape is one of the most important.
“You have to look into the future,” says Perkins. “We’re building it forever.”
His background in hydrology and forestry helps him predict how trails will change with time. Nearby plants give him hints about what the soil is like, and soil hints at how the area will erode and handle water.
“A lot of trails are just managing water and erosion,” he says. One popular technique for forcing water off a path is to create short, alternating inclining and declining sections of trail, called grade reversals.
But water is not the only thing trail designers try to manage. A little bit of psychology makes its way into trail science too.
“People are always going for the most efficient route,” says Perkins. “Bikers going uphill are always looking for the smoothest line, and they’ll go wider and wider around something to find the smoothest spot.”
Land managers try to predict where people naturally want to go to prevent people from cutting switchbacks and creating their own trails.
DOWN TO EARTH
Once the trail is mapped, and the permitting is in place, trail crews dig in. They clear vegetation and rocks out of the way, tackling poison oak, blackberry brambles and occasionally discarded household appliances. With the help of shovels, elbow grease and the occasional mini-excavator, a path begins to take form.
At SCMTS, volunteers do a lot of this work. The organization hosts dig days weekly, and sometimes as many as 100 participants show up to excavate together. Even some of the bridges are volunteer-built.
“The community shows up with skills and knowledge and engagement and care when they are given the chance,” says Perkins.
And the trail stewardship gives that chance often. Recently, in addition to dig days, the organization has hosted trail cleanup days. About 25 volunteers showed up to a Saturday trail restoration day at Pogonip State Park to create runoff ditches and clear trees from the storms.
“It’s a bit of work, but it’s also super rewarding,” says Camille Padilla, a first-time volunteer with the organization. “Seeing your handiwork on the trails is fantastic.”
She adds that it’s a great way to meet new people, a sentiment shared by long-time SCMTS volunteer Erin Simons-Brown.
“It’s a great way to give back to the land that is part of why we all love Santa Cruz,” Simons-Brown says. “And it’s always really fun going back to those trails and knowing that you’ve been a part of helping maintain and keep these trail systems working.”
The organization’s next restoration days are Friday, Jan. 27, and Saturday, Jan. 28, at DeLaveaga Park. After the cleanup, the She Adventures Film Tour at the Rio Theatre on Jan. 28 will showcase independent films about women in outdoor adventures worldwide. A portion of the proceeds will benefit SCMTS. For those who can’t get enough and want to learn more, the nonprofit hosts a “trail academy.” Starting in February, participants can get their hands dirty with trail science classes and chainsaw training.
One of the most notable trail systems the nonprofit is working on is the 5,800-acre Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument in Davenport. The plan to open trails on the land ruffled some feathers locally. Perkins says most of the disapproval was over the proposed parking lots and not the trails themselves.
The Bureau of Land Management—the federal agency in charge of the area—pressed on, partnering with SCMTS to construct eight and a half miles of new trails. About half of that is completed, and the nonprofit expects to complete the work this summer.
The group is also working in Big Basin State Park, removing hazardous trees left behind by the 2020 CZU fire and recent storms.
By the time they’re done, no one will notice they were there in the first place, says Perkins.
“The best trail work no one can see,” he says.
Visit santacruztrails.org to learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities.