Weekly hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains have been a highlight of our socially distant summer. Sadly, our recent tromp at Wilder Ranch State Park will be our last for a while as the CZU August Lightning Complex fires rip through this coastal range.
NOTE: As of Aug. 22, 2020, all of the parks named in this blog and many others are within the CZU August Lightning Complex evacuation zone and have either burned or are under threat from fires. Please do not enter or even approach parks in this region until the evacuation lifts and individual parks are able to safely reopen.
We began our weekly hikes in late June, seeking a bit of relief from the pandemic lock-down. Among the open space terrain we visited …
- The oak woodlands at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve;
- The mountaintop grasslands at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve;
- The waterfalls and tall trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park;
- A forest reborn along Fall Creek at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park;
- The sun-dappled trails of Pescadero Creek Park.
We decided to hike Wilder Ranch to change it up. AllTrails reviews of the Wilder Ridge and Zane Gray Cutoff Loop promised a 6.2-mile walk through chaparral-laden foothills and ocean vistas – 4.5 stars!
Truth be told, the trail was not a highlight of our summertime excursions. But then it’s difficult for coastal scrub adjacent to a noisy landfill and sand quarry to compete with tranquil redwood forests and babbling mountain streams.
The loop begins with a walk past historic ranch buildings that feature flower gardens, antique farm equipment, a fair number of swallow nests and a flock of chickens. (Indoor cultural exhibits are closed due to the pandemic.)
A pedestrian tunnel beneath Highway 1 connects the ranch headquarters to most of the park’s 35 miles of trails. The Wilder Ranch cabin, with its beautiful stone chimney, greets hikers on the other side.
The first part of the loop winds through dusty chapparal reminiscent of the Coastside foothills 50 miles to the north near our home in Montara.
The wide path makes it easy to spot any tendrils of poison oak lurking in occasional stands of live oak and to avoid ticks in tall grass. Most days, clouds and the ocean breezes keep hikers cool.
We were surprised to have the Wilder Ridge Trail pretty much to ourselves as we climbed a couple of moderate grades that peak at an ocean overlook with a picnic table.
The overlook also provides a glimpse of the working landfill, accompanied by requisite beeps and rumbles from the heavy equipment.
A mile later we hit the Zane Gray Cutoff. The single track into grassy terrain put us uncomfortably close to the poison oak and ticks. We could smell the landfill.
And then we spotted something completely different – Shiny black wasps with long dangling legs and bright orange wings cruising the grassland. They were fascinating. Our post-hike research identified them as tarantula hawks – spider wasps that coax tarantulas from their dens, sting them with a barb that measures one-third of an inch and then drag the paralyzed prey to a burrow as living larva food. Fascinating.
Fortunately, the wasps are not aggressive with humans. Stings are rare but excruciatingly painful, ranking second on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, just behind bullet ants. Justin Schmidt himself is quoted as describing the tarantula hawk sting as “blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric.” (Our findings made MontaraManDan’s encounter with a sweat bee the previous week at the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods seem pretty tame.)
The cutoff winds back to the main trail across the top of the sand quarry, which is discretely hidden from view by trees. More poison oak. More tall grass. More live oaks, More beeping. More tarantula hawks. Yadda yadda yadda.
We are certain there are better hikes through coastal chaparral. We’ve hiked them. But we won’t condemn an entire a state park because we didn’t enjoy a half dozen of the park’s 35 miles of trails.
Worth 4.5 stars? No, not this trail. But the tarantula hawks were kinda cool. And we hope weather conditions and California’s heroic firefighters will prevail to protect this piece of open space so we can try out a different stretch of trail at Wilder Ranch someday soon.
Be safe out there.