Skyline to the Sea Trail may be the trail to perfection

The Sacramento BeeJuly 10, 2014 

DAVENPORT_The heat can be hallucinatory, they say, turning the mind to mush and leading to all sorts of wild and unbidden thoughts.

As I was staggering through the American River canyon in Auburn during that first brutal early June triple-digit temperature spell, running low on water and energy, I started fantasizing about what would be the perfect summer trail. Anything to take my mind off the sun searing my skin and another dusty uphill approaching.

OK, so this ideal trail would be, oh, say 14 miles. It would have to start and finish at the beach, because you'll want to begin with an ocean breeze at your back as you head through a marsh and finish with a refreshing plunge into the surf. It would feature a cool early section of single-track with a meadow canopied by trees - how about bay laurels and live oaks? - with a few mild switchbacks thrown in to shake things up.

Then there would be a meandering stretch of a fire road, just uphill enough to be challenging but not overly taxing, and make it parallel to a babbling creek. Not some dry, dusty and boring fire road, either. No, this one would be tamped down by leaves and decomposing bark, partially shaded by maples, Douglas firs and redwoods. All three, really? Sure, why not? As long as we're dreaming, let's throw in an alternate route off the main path that adds somewhat more of a vertical challenge to those so inclined, but that ultimately leads back to the fire road.

It's imperative that our idyllic trail turn more primeval as we progress. The second-growth redwoods (hey, even in a rich fantasy life, we know that loggers have chopped down all of the old-growth trees) will grow ever more stately. What say we line the trunks and branches with lichen, too? Nothing says primeval like lichen.

Now, we'll want to make a big splash at our turnaround point, something that would serve as motivation for all that gentle uphill trekking. How about a gorgeous waterfall, 50 feet (nah, make it 65 feet) of cascading water that would cover your sweaty corpus in a fine mist and refresh you for the return trip?

Normally, my dream trail would not be an out-and-back, because retracing one's steps offers no new sights. Not so in this fantasy. The gentle downhill return would let you watch the creek flow and, later, back on the single-track, afford unobstructed view of the beach framed between the waving tree branches.

And then, at last, the slap of the surf on tired legs.

Truly a great trek, right? Too bad we cannot cut and paste and Photoshop all of these natural splendors into one cohesive trail.

Well, dear reader, this trail exists. It's not a figment of my overheated imagination.

And it's got a name right out of the story books: Skyline to the Sea Trail.

Actually, what I have described is only the final portion of a 30-mile stretch on the Bay Area's peninsula that starts at Saratoga Gap and Castle Rock State Park, runs through the Santa Cruz Mountains and Big Basin State Park, past the luscious Berry Creek Falls and down to Waddell Beach.

If you want to spend three days on an overnight backpacking trip, using a car shuttle with one parked at the Gap and the other at the beach, have at it. For our purposes, though, the 14-mile beach-to-falls segment is a perfect way to escape the ceaseless swelter of a Sacramento summer.

You might think that a 150-mile drive is too long just to do a hike. What, you expected your fantasy trail to also be located in the Central Valley as well? Now you really are dreaming. Look at it this way: Leave early in the morning, return late at night and you miss a full day of Sacramento heat. Or you could stay the night. Nearby Santa Cruz has a lot of overpriced hotels and, for cheapskates, there's a hostel close by.

Whatever you do, though, make this journey. In the summer, you're liable even to be a little chilled if the fog persists, as is its seasonal wont.

From the start, wonders abound. Okay, first you need to dash across Highway 1 from the parking lot to the trailhead and make sure you're in the correct lot - the beach lot, not Rancho del Oso Nature and History Center's parking facility. But after you cross the street and pass through a locked gate, you immediately find yourself in nature.

It's the Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve, a freshwater marsh that's home to 150 species of birds. If you're in no rush to hit the trail, there are both self- and guided-nature hikes, about a mile in length.

The Skyline to Sea Trail itself begins as a paved road to the ranger station and Horse Camp, about 0.3 of a mile of asphalt. Yes, that's not ideal, but we live in the real world and rangers need easy access. But quicker than you can watch a heron bat its big wings and skirt across a marsh, you'll turn left onto a dirt single-track. If you stay to the right, you'll go on the fire road, which leads to the same place but isn't nearly as scenic.

You'll wend your way for a little more than a mile through Douglas fir, Redwood and alder trees, undulating until you hit Waddell Creek. That's when you meet up with the fire road that mountain bikers must use. Waddell Creek will be on your left as you head northeast on a steady but easily navigated uphill. Conifers vie for sunlight with natives such as laurels and buckeyes. You will have traveled 4 miles by the time you reach Camp Herbert and the first trail junction. If you wanted to add distance (about 3.5 miles) and elevation gain, you can veer right along the McCrary Ridge Trail and then take a left on the zig-zaggy Howard King Trail before meeting back up with the Skyline to Sea Trail. This detour lacks shade, but its payoff is great westerly views.

Those who've stayed the course on the Skyline to Sea will keep plugging upward (though there are a few minor downhills, too) over some wooden bridges until they reach a sign that prohibits mountain bikers from proceeding any farther. There are places to park the bike and hoof it up some rocky single-track that leads to the junction with the Berry Creek Falls Trail.

From there, it's only a few hundred yards to the Berry Creek Falls observation deck with a bench. But you'll want to get a closer look at the falls, so keep going. In fact, you might want to add a few more miles to your route and continue on to Silver and Golden Falls even farther up, thanks to some well-placed, but slippery, limestone stairs.

Take as long as you like soaking in the sights - and you might as well plunge in the creek, too - because the return trip beckons.

Guaranteed, you'll be fully dry well before you descend the switchbacks on the Skyline to Sea Trail and lope over to the ranger station and the marsh beyond. In minutes, you'll be doused again, this time by crashing surf that, even in summer, will chill you to the bone.

Remember that chill, cherish that sensation. Because, eventually, you're going to have to return to a Sacramento summer.

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