Shut down for months by the pandemic, we thrilled at stepping back onto the trail last week deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ticks lurked. Covid-19 loomed. Poison oak loitered in the underbrush. It was glorious!
We’ve stayed pretty close to home since San Mateo County issued its initial “shelter in place” order on March 17, confining our hiking to the streets of Montara and occasional short jaunts into state and national parkland near the house. We weren’t sure what we’d find as we added masks and hand sanitizer to our day pack, left our Covid-19 comfort zone and headed for Pescadero Creek Park.
Lots of San Francisco Peninsula dwellers had found the beach on this warm, sunny day. Shoreline parking lots were packed as we drove south on Highway 1. But the traffic thinned as we turned into the mountains toward La Honda and the temperature and elevation rose. Arriving at the Tarwater Trailhead shortly before noon, our car was one of just five in the lot. Social distancing would not be an issue.
Trail access was another matter. While the county park was open, neighboring Portola Redwoods State Park and the back half of the multi-trail Pescadero Creek Loop mapped out by the Peninsula Open Space Trust was closed. It didn’t matter. Much. We were so happy to be back on the trail that we shrugged and headed off to enjoy the five mile out-and-back trek down the county park’s Shingle Mill Trail.
Pandemic anxieties quickly shifted to the more immediate threat of poison oak loitering among blackberry brambles that edged the narrow single track. The Geek led the way, wielding her trekking pole like a laser pointer to enthusiastically warn MontaraManDan of venomous plants in our path. It worked. No one erupted into an itchy mess the next day.
Ticks also were a concern, as the trail passed through several stands of tall grass. We had read cautions online specific to this trail, but we didn’t bring any ticks home. Perhaps they had shared the pleasure of their company with an earlier group of hikers. Sometimes it pays to dawdle all morning and arrive at the trail head midday.
Further along the steady downgrade we found cool stands of redwoods reborn from clear-cutting more than 100 years ago, with the occasional old growth giant punctuating what might have been. We spotted one giant stump peering at us from the shadows like a sawed-off Ent.
The state park boundary was marked with a chain wrapped in crumpled yellow caution tape and strung across the trail, so we turned around before reaching the shingle mill, the creek and what we suspect would have been the nicest part of the hike.
We had our only encounter with other hikers in the shade of a redwood stand on the 2.5-mile trudge back up the trail to the car. We all donned face coverings, exchanged pleasantries and gave each other wide berth as we passed. Easy.
Other than the occasional distant raptor in the sky and songbird in the brush, our only wildlife encounters were an incredibly noisy squirrel and a very accommodating San Francisco garter snake. The squirrel made a series of alarming trail side scrambling and clunking sounds before emerging atop the trunk of a felled tree to taunt us. The snake had been sunning itself on the trail and showed ambassadorial grace and dignity by generously posing for pictures before slithering into the weeds.
As trails go, Shingle Mill is OK. We found no vistas or babbling brooks. No whimsical rock formations or crashing waterfalls. And we’ve certainly seen more impressive stands of redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But on this day, it didn’t matter. We were back on the trail, exploring new terrain and having an adventure – social distancing the way nature intended.