Sun seekers will enjoy these spirit lifting outdoor offerings in the Santa Cruz Mountains throughout the winter months as means to shake the dark, cold, and damp.
Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve
This sunny reserve located between San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Several rare and endangered plant and animal species are protected within the 552 acre site. Portions of the reserve were damaged in both the 2008 Martin Fire and the 2020 CZU Fire.
Approximately five miles of easy to moderate trail wind through mostly low scrub. The burned forest is spare and spiky with an abundance of fresh green growth flourishing more than three months after the CZU Fire. Laguna Creek runs through the preserve with its own treasures to reveal, though it is guarded from view by overgrowth unless you know where to look. You’ll have the place to yourself. The Santa Margarita sandstone outcroppings within the reserve known as Moon Rocks are closed to the public.
An easy drive from San Lorenzo Valley over Alba Road or Felton Empire to Pine Flat Road and then to Martin Road. Or from Hwy 1, take Bonny Doon Road east and turn right on Martin Road. Also accessible from Santa Cruz via Bay Street to High and then to Empire Grade and left on Pine Flat. Park near the fire station. The trail head is across the street.
Grey Whale Ranch
Grey Whale Ranch is part of Wilder Ranch State Park and most hikers access the area from Empire Grade Road near upper UC. The hike from Empire Grade slopes gently to the sea, while the hike back up is more strenuous. Rolling oak lands, redwood ravines, and the rare Sandhills ecosystem. Bring your bicycle, hike, or go by horseback. Foot traffic is light in a wide open, sun-drenched expanse.
Street park along Empire Grade 3.3 miles northwest of the western entrance to the UC Santa Cruz campus. The Chinquapin Trail takes you into Grey Whale Ranch. To reach another Gray Whale entrance, continue up Empire Grade and turn left on Smith Grade (3.7 miles past the western entrance to the University). Go 0.9 mile and park on the right, across the road from the head of Woodcutter’s Trail.
Quail Hollow Ranch Regional Park
A sun-filled oak meadow welcomes visitors to this gem of the San Lorenzo Valley’s Sandhills. Miles of open trail through 15 plant communities including mixed evergreen, ponderosa pine, willow riparian, and coast live oak offer a mix of sun and shade and a number of hiking options from easy to moderate. Bursting with mushrooms after a rain, Quail Hollow is where locals go to thaw out in winter sunshine.
For those who saunter and want to soak up the most of the sun’s warmth, stick to the Chaparral Loop or the very gently sloped Discovery Loop that takes you past the old ranch house, its corrals and barns, and encircles several acres of meadow and a pond. For a more vigorous hike, try the Italian trail to the Sunset trail, which takes you past several overlooks on the ascent, some with picnic benches, through a rare dwarf redwood forest, and then dead ends at an overlook of the valley below. Or veer right from the Sunset Trail onto the Woodrat trail, an approximately 3.5 mile loop back to the ranch with sweeping views of the valley. Located at 800 Quail Hollow Road, Felton.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park – Fall Creek Unit
Portions of this peaceful, fern-lined park have reopened after the CZU Fire. The lower portion of Fall Creek and the parking lot off Felton Empire Road reopened in November.
Open trails include Bennett Creek, High School, Kiln Fire Road, South Fork, Truck, North Fall Creek (between Cape Horn trail and Bennett Creek Trail.)
The following trails remain closed for the public’s protection due to fire damage: Lost Empire, Pine Flat, Sunlit, Tan Oak, Big Ben, Ridge, S-Cape, North Fall Creek (between Cape Horn Trail and Big Ben Trail.)
Photos by JJ Maughn