If you are looking for one of the best backpacking trips the Bay Area has to offer, look no further. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is 28 miles of awesome views, backcountry camping, old-growth Redwood trees, waterfalls, and more! This trail starts at the skyline of the Santa Cruz Mountains at Saratoga Gap and terminates at Waddell Beach near the Rancho Del Oso Ranger Station.
This hike can be done in a fast paced two day hike or a leisurely three days. Some hardcore thru hikers can do it in one day. However you choose to hike, there are camping options along the way so you can adjust your course accordingly.
The trail officially starts at Saratoga Gap where Highway 9 and Highway 35 intersect. There is a parking lot here, but no overnight parking. If you wish to leave a vehicle at the end of the trail, you can pay for a few nights of parking at Rancho Del Oso Ranger Station. There is also limited bus service from Waddell Creek to Santa Cruz.
If you are planning on camping along the way, you have to reserve a campsite ahead of time and obtain a free backcountry trail permit. Campsites are $15 a night, and an $8 reservation fee is also applied for each location. Keep in mind that all trails and campgrounds in Castle Rock and Big Basin State Parks follow a Leave No Trace policy.
This trail officially starts at Saratoga Gap just off the side of the road Hwy 9 on the northwest boundary of Castle Rock State Park. Saratoga Gap Trail and Toll Road Trail also start at this location, so keep an eye out for Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. An alternate route from Castle Rock State Park via Saratoga Gap trail is another option. From Castle Rock Trail Camp, continue on the Saratoga Gap Trail until it meets the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. You can also take a few side trails that will take you a few miles above Waterman Gap Trail Camp. Consult a state park map to pick what route you want to take to get there.
The first destination along this epic hike is Waterman Gap Trail Camp. Set 6.5 miles from the trailhead, this primitive camping site has six spaces to offer. Potable water and restrooms are available here as well. If you are headed to Big Basin Headquarters on the first day, this would be a good spot to rest and grab a bite to eat. If you are coming from Castle Rock State Park, you might want to consider staying here for the night.
The trail to Waterman Gap follows various sections of Highway 9 as well as other side roads. The trail crosses these roads quite often, and getting off track isn't an issue because the trail is well marked. Most of the time these roads are not visible, but you can hear an occasional car whizzing by. The trail is mostly shaded falls under the canopy of redwood and pine trees. Occasional breaks in the trees reveal stellar views of the sea and surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains. Waterman Gap marks the end of Castle Rock State Park and the beginning of Big Basin State Park.
Only 9.5 miles separates you and the headquarters at Big Basin State Park, and North China Grade Road is a notable halfway point. Trail conditions are fairly similar to the first 6.5 miles, but you will notice you are starting to get into bigger and much older redwood groves.
The only possible confusing part of the trail is 0.5 miles from North China Grade where East Ridge Trail meets Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. You will know you are at this spot when you see a bridge crossing a creek. Trail signs to this point denote North China Grade Road via Skyline-to-the-Sea; however, East Ridge Trail also goes to North China Grade Road. Follow the sign that says Highway 236 via Skyline-to-the-Sea.
The last 4.5 miles of this hike takes you from North China Grade Road to the Big Basin State Park Headquarters. The terrain starts off quite differently once you cross the road. The trail temporally leaves the redwoods behind and starts moving through pine trees, chaparral, and traverses over rocks. There are a few great spots to sit and catch a view along this section when you can just see over the tops of the pine trees.
The trail descends quite rapidly before eventually leveling off somewhat as it heads back into redwood trees. It is at this point you really start to notice the density of the forest and the much older trees. The trail continues through this thick forest and follows Opal Creek until the first road crossing since North China Grade. You'll find an informational kiosk and a picnic table, and it's only a mile to Big Basin Headquarters from here.
There are plenty of camping options at Big Basin State Park Headquarters if you did not reserve a site ahead of time. A small store, museum, and Ranger station are all centrally located near the parking lot. Dozens of other trails start from this point, so can check them out if you plan on staying here. Restrooms, coin-op showers, an amphitheater, and other amenities are available as well.
If you have the time and energy to hike further, the walk to Waddell Beach from Big Basin Headquarters is roughly 14 miles.