Updated: Aug 7, 2018
May 17-19, 2018 41.4 miles
The official Skyline-to-the-Sea hike is a roughly 25-mile downhill trek that begins at Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve and travels through Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park, finishing at Waddell Beach on Highway 1. This was my first journey into backpacking and hiking, and would form the basis for my love affair with long-distance trails. I ultimately extended the hike by 16 miles by continuing up the Pacific Coast to Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
Day 1 - May 17, 2018
Skyline-to-the-Sea Trailhead to Waterman Gap Campground
Distance: 8.1 miles Time: 3.00 hours Pace: 2.7 mph Elevation Gain: 787 feet
Gear and Experience
I began my first long-distance hike as a true novice. Without any real hiking or backpacking gear, I spent the few weeks leading up to this hike buying cheap gear from Amazon, and quickly learned that extensive research was necessary to outfit myself correctly without breaking the bank. I'm a firm believer that you get what you pay for as far as quality gear goes, but I purchased the necessities knowing that each item would be replaced eventually. I will admit that researching gear was half of the fun of the trip - the process of learning about each item is something I was drawn into immediately, and it's exciting waiting on items to arrive. I was really happy with the Wasing 55L Backpack ($50) for the value, and was able to keep my budget manageable by shopping at REI and using what I could from around the house. I won't get into a detailed gear list for this hike because nearly every item I carry has changed, but a successful multi-day hike doesn't require spending thousands of dollars on gear, especially just starting out.
Because I had no formal backpacking experience prior to this hike, I had no idea how many miles I was capable to doing each day, or how I should expect my body to react from carrying the heavy pack (trust me, it was heavy compared to my current standards). In retrospect this could have easily been a two-day hike, but I'm glad I got the experience of a third day given how beautiful the trail was.
Hitting the Trail
Although the first day of hiking was only 8.1 miles there was so much to see that the miles seemed irrelevant. My wonderful mother dropped me off at the Trailhead, which is just a parking lot at Saratoga Gap where Skyline Boulevard meets Big Basin Way. I set off in the late morning with heavy fog looming just above the tree line. The first two hours of trail were some of the most magical I have experienced - the trees formed a perfect overhang above the trail, and condensing fog on the leaves dripped to the trail below. Although it sounded and smelled like I was walking through a light rain, the trail itself magically stayed dry and I never missed the rain jacket that I had forgotten to pack.
I passed turkeys on the trail almost immediately, and they were slow to dart off the trail in front of me, wandering for a few moments like a guide showing me the path. I only came across two other hikers during my first day, and really enjoyed the solitary of the trail. There were small patches of wildflowers everywhere, and the trail itself was the perfect balance of wild and well-maintained.
I got into camp by early afternoon and had more than enough time to practice putting up my shelter, which was good because it took me two or three tries to get it set up the way I wanted. Rather than a traditional freestanding backpacking tent I went with a waterproof silnylon tarp from Paria Outdoors that sets up using my trekking poles, and a lightweight mesh tent that hangs from beneath the tarp. Tying out the guy-lines was difficult at first, but after a little practice I found that they held everything taut and seemed more than sturdy enough for some wind.
Day 2 - May 18, 2018
Waterman Gap Campground to Jay Camp, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Distance: 11.6 miles Time: 3.92 hours Pace: 2.96 mph Elevation Gain: 1467 feet
I packed up and left Waterman Gap campground by 7:30 and noticed immediately that the trail into Big Basin Redwoods State Park was much more quiet than the first days trail winding adjacent to the roadway.
Just after Waterman Gap the trail surroundings begin to change slowly. The trees become larger and the undergrowth becomes more green and lush. By mid-morning the trail entered a small old-growth redwood grove. The trees aren't massive, but they are noticeably larger than what I had seen the previous day.
As I began the slow climb up China Grade my pack began to rub on my lower back, but I learned quickly to use my foam sit-pad between my lower back and the pack frame, and I was never uncomfortable for the rest of the trip.
The views from the China Grade crossing were some of my favorite from the entire trip. As I reached the crossing the landscape below changed drastically to one of lush scrub and forests of much smaller trees. In the distance beyond was the emerald hills of Big Basin. This is one of the more exposed sections of the trail, and I regret not getting any pictures of the beautiful rock structures and sheer cliffs that I had to zigzag across and down.
The headquarters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park would have been worth the trip by itself. I arrived and set up camp with more than enough daylight to do some exploring, and was surprised at how few tourists there seemed to be given the size and quality of the headquarters.
Day 3 - May 19, 2018
Jay Camp, Big Basin Redwoods State Park to Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Distance: 20.8 miles Time: 6.87 hours Pace: 3.03 mph Elevation Gain: 1394 feet
Waking up on the third day my legs felt so good that I decided I was going to walk as far as I possibly could, meaning I would continue past the southern terminus of the trail at Waddell Beach and continue as far as I could toward home in Half Moon Bay. This final section of the trail was the most beautiful, covered in towering redwoods and perfect trails. There trail I was supposed to take leaving the park headquarters had been washed out and was closed, so a park ranger helped me find a good alternate that bypassed the closed section.
Berry Creek was the highlight of the trail with dense stacking hillsides of explosive green. Just past Berry Creek Falls the trail surroundings change again as I exit the last of the old-growth redwoods. Transitioning to an old logging road, there were many more joggers, bicyclists, and even a few horses traveling uphill on the trail. By early afternoon I got my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and the subtle downhill that cuts through coastal scrub and farmland to the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1 for us locals) and the ocean.
I reached the bluffs at Waddell Beach and continued north along the highway dunes toward my final destination of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. This extension of the trail was less about beautiful scenery and more about finding where my limit was - but oh was it beautiful. There are walkable bluffs for miles along that section of the coast, and with almost no signs of human influence aside from the highway and the occasional car, it was an amazing feeling knowing that I had hiked through redwood forests and along the Pacific Ocean all in the same day.
I cant imagine that a better first hiking experience exists. Close to home, the perfect amount of time, and the most beautiful surroundings I could ever ask for. I'm writing this post months after this hike, but felt that it was important to start here because this experience in particular was the catalyst for my current obsession with all things hiking and backpacking. As this is my first blog post ever, I'm not fully certain how I want this all to work, but my plan for now is to post something following every hike as I work to finish the Bay Area Ridge Trail, plus some posts about gear, hiking thoughts, trip planning, and whatever else pops into my head while I'm walking the trail.
Please feel free to post a comment about any questions you have, things you'd like to hear more about, or anything else.