Our quick read of the trail map left us with high expectations. The sandstone formation was clearly marked in the center of a four-mile loop trail near the top of the open space preserve. Our minds boggled at what we might find. Bluffs? Dunes? Badlands?
In addition to the rocky intrigue, the tromp to the sandstone outcropping sounded way easier than hiking the preserve’s classic 10-mile loop to a stand of second-growth redwoods, which promised 2,500 feet of elevation to lose and regain. Oof. We decided to leave the redwood trek for another day.
Unfortunately, the leisurely four-mile sandstone hike and its 600-feet of elevation gain grew to eight miles and 1,400 feet because we secured parking in the wrong lot. With parking options dwindling on a busy summer weekend, we decided to keep our inconvenient spot and pack on the extra steps. A good parking space trumps slacking when exploring The Coastside and neighboring mountains.
We paralleled Skyline Boulevard northbound on the Sierra Moreno Trail for the first mile. Other than a bit of road noise, the trail was pleasant and both foot and bicycle traffic were light. The preserve is particularly popular with bicyclists, but MontaraManDan prefers cycling the flatlands along the Coastal Trail, and The Geek prefers bipedal exploration.
We made an obligatory stop at the 1,800-year-old Methuselah tree – the largest in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside of Big Basin Redwoods State Park – before dipping deeper into the woods on the trail of the same name.
The woods were lovely, with plenty of sun-dappled shade that kept us cool while spotlighting the colors along the trail – the layered luminescence of the peeling red-orange bark on twisted manzanita trees; the textured green of moss, ferns and splotches of mold on shaded rocks; and the browns, grays and deep greens of leaves and needles on the trail, spilled from the forest canopy overhead.
We would have missed the sandstone formation entirely had The Geek not suggested we take a 0.1-mile trail spur to an unnamed “overlook” shortly after we connected with our target loop.
Anticipating a view of the hills looking out toward the Pacific Ocean, instead we found a 35-foot-tall chunk of tafoni sandstone. Foreboding and fascinating, the formation resembled a giant skull, with eye and nose sockets and a long forehead leaning heavily forward onto a crushed jawbone.
The viewing platform gave us close-up views of columns, hollows and even honeycomb structures on the face of the formation. Not what we expected, but definitely worth the effort.
Overlook signage told us that this exposed piece of the Vaqueros sandstone geologic formation began forming 30 million years ago when the preserve rested in a deep marine basin. Silt from erosion on an ancient windswept shoreline above collected, compacted and cemented together to form the sandstone. The Methuselah tree was impossibly young by comparison.
As we continued our loop, we kept anticipating more sandstone thrills. Alas, we had to settle for the still beauty of the woods topped off with a bite to eat a few miles south on Skyline Boulevard at Alice’s Restaurant – exactly what you’d expect on a sunny August afternoon in the Santa Cruz Mountains high above The Coastside.