.Wilder Ranch State Park Hike

Wilder Ranch State Park is named after dairyman Delos D. Wilder, but just the word “wilder” as an adjective works for me. Henry David Thoreau nailed it with In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.

I performed a matinee standup comedy show at the most expensive fitness club in Palo Alto. They had valet parking. The rich will not walk to a treadmill. 

I was talking to a woman who was about to get on a treadmill. 

I said, “One can also walk to the gym.”

She said, “But this machine tells me my distance and speed, I can adjust the inclination for degree of difficulty.” 

I’m stunned by the supposition that nature is obsolete. I can’t wait to get out to where every surface is uneven, where I am not just an interloper, a sideways glance, but where I am part of it all. Sometimes I can only find my spirit when I’m lost in the middle of nowhere, and when I do it tells me that if we are going to preserve our world, it will be by keeping it wild. 

At least the treadmill lady is getting her steps in. The great news for Santa Cruzans is that we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of places to get your 3 to 4 miles in. We have the stunning Wilder Ranch State Park, just west of Santa Cruz on Highway 1. In just a few minutes you can drive north on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to throw off your cares and leave the business of your office behind.

I walk through windswept grasslands on the bluffs towering over the waves crashing onto the rocks below. The wind off the ocean here can be unyielding and bracing, but today the sundrenched park has a languid summer vibe. There is a tendency to saunter here; my path today has no hills. There is no struggle to climb anything. You can see far into the distance in all directions, and as the sun gets lower in the sky it lays a river of fire on top of the ocean. Couples seem to want to hold hands here.

In mid-June they had a groundbreaking celebration for the construction of a bike path that will run alongside the railroad tracks coming from Santa Cruz, but unless you walk those railroad crossties from Santa Cruz, for now you’ve got to drive or bike up Highway 1. I park alongside the highway in a long line of parked cars. Every 100 yards or so is a path up the steep bank that leads to Wilder Ranch. I park with them but walk north on Highway 1 to come in the main entrance.

Narrow path by a no-parking sign
You can avoid the ten dollars parking fee by parking along Highway 1 and scaling the steep little paths into the park. Or you can chip in $10 to support the park and use the lot. 

I walk by the attendant in the kiosk and into the parking lot where I meet two grizzled beer drinkers sitting on the tailgate of their pickup. They make a point that people ought to come in and pay the park $10 to park in the main lot: “The state park system is broke and this is a small way we can help.”

They gesture to a couple who had parked on the highway, climbed the bank alongside Highway 1 and are now walking across the field into the state park. I have always been one to park for free someplace and walk to the trailhead, but these two tailgate beer-swillers are making sense to me. If I’m going to pay for anything in this world, chipping in for Wilder Ranch State Park seems right.

The park does provide restrooms, and nothing feels better than to hike with intestinal clarity. This is good news because the night before had I indulged in Thai food, and for me that means acid reflux. No worries; two bowls of All Bran and I’m ready to strut my stuff again. But if ten dollars is an amount you don’t want to spend right now, no worries. Park along Highway 1, where you see all the cars and climb the bluff to enter the park.

The two red-eyed drinkers offer me beer but wanderlush is not my mission today. I pass on their suds and walk to the fire road that heads toward the ocean. 

Lover’s Lane

I meet more young couples on this walk than any trail I’ve walked in Santa Cruz County. Wilder Ranch does have an ethereal quality that might attract lovers to spoon and dream. Pretty cool that a hiking trail has become a Santa Cruz date choice. 

There are such beautiful short and level trails, Wilder Ranch State Park makes sense for a first date; it’s easy to do and you get a romantic backdrop. A sunset hiking date will let you witness the sun lowering in the sky, setting fire to the top of the water. You can see the ocean disappear from view, showing that the earth is round, and you can watch night approach.

Your must remember this 

A kiss is just a kiss

A sigh is just a sigh

The fundamental things apply

As time goes by

Couple cuddling on a bench with a beautiful ocean view in front of them
Wilder Ranch State Park can be a hike date. This couple appears to have broken the ice.

I walk along the edge of the bluff and my fear of heights kicks it. It is hard for me to get close to the edge of a cliff and the path is near enough to get my heartrate up to training level. I’m amazed to see people dozing on a blanket near the edge of the precipice.

People picnicking on a narrow patch of land on a cliff above the ocean
Don’t you people understand the gravity of the situation?

Park facts: Wilder Ranch State Park is just west of Santa Cruz along Highway 1. The climate is mild, but the weather can change quickly. It’s a good idea to go with layered clothing. Hikes here can be strenuous or easy, trails can range from 85 feet in elevation gain up to 1,860 feet. There are no campgrounds, and a day-use parking lot provides access to a park museum. No dogs are permitted on the trails, but on many trails you can ride bikes or horses.

How to get there: take Highway 1 North out of Santa Cruz; the entrance is on the left. 


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