Just north of Santa Cruz with rich coastal habitats and history
HIGHLIGHTS: Just north of Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park offers rich coastal habitats and layer upon layer of history. Some 10,000 years ago, the Ohlones used the site as a seasonal village. It was also a rancho for the Santa Cruz Mission. You’ll find coastal terraces with a hidden redwood grove, historic buildings, a bluff overlooking the ocean, tidepools, sea caves, pelicans, seals and sea otters.
ACTIVITIES: Hiking, biking, botanizing, picnicking, wildlife watching and horseback riding. Learning about Central California history. RV parking only.
VISITOR CENTER: From the parking lot, turn left into the cultural preserve. The Wilder Interpretive Center will be the first building on your right. Inside, a timeline mural and other displays will help you sort out the history and plan your visit. The Gothic Revival and Victorian houses are now history museums. Interpretive Center hours are Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (831) 426-0505 for more information.
CAMPGROUND: Horse camp only. For info, call (831) 423-9703.
TRAILS: 35 miles of multiuse trails. For an oceanside adventure, try a scenic 2.5-mile loop on the Old Cove Landing trail, described in a free brochure available at the Interpretive Center. Heading south toward the coast, you’ll arrive at the Nature Preserve overlook. Look for snowy plovers and other shorebirds. At the Landing itself, think of Jose Bocoff, a smuggler and Mexican land grantee, who used to watch for ships here in the 1840s. Today harbor seals hang out at low tide. Heading west along the bluff you can follow a side trail down to Fern Grotto Beach, where there’s a lush sea cave watered by seeps. Just beyond, at Sand Plant Beach, you can head back to the parking lot.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Mechanically minded visitors will want to have a look at the farming innovations displayed in the cultural preserve. In the 1880s D.D. Wilder saw a Pelton waterwheel at work in gold country and decided to bring one to the ranch to produce hydropower. Today docents demonstrate how these wheels work on special-events days: one runs tools in the machine shop and another pumps the bellows in the blacksmith shop. In 1895, a second generation of Wilders used a hydropower generator to bring electricity to the ranch, causing a newspaper reporter to marvel at the dairy’s “artificial sunrise.” The generator that performed that miracle is on display, though not in working order.
HIDDEN GEM: There’s a redwood cow barn in the cultural preserve that was ingeniously constructed without nails. It dates back to 1856. The Victorian has a redwood interior that, in the fashion of the day, was painted to resemble golden oak.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: Parking, restrooms, visitor center and Victorian house; barns with some assistance.
DOGS: Not allowed.
ENTRANCE FEE: $10 for day-use vehicle entry; no charge to walk or bike into the park.
EVENTS: Wilder holds four special events each year. Independence Day is the biggest, with a parade, games, crafts, and history demonstrations, including hand-cranked ice cream and Big Band music. There’s also a garden planting day, often in April; a harvest festival in October; and “Holidays on the Ranch” in December. Tours of Gray Whale Ranch (and Wilder’s redwoods) are offered the second Saturday of each month at 9 a.m. Check the park’s activities page (external link) or for details.
EAT: Fuel up for your hike in Santa Cruz at Cafe Brasil (external link) for breakfast or authentic Brazilian cuisine like feijoada.
STOP: At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (external link) if you like amusement parks or if the kids make you stop.
FAVORITE HIKE: Go for a bike ride or hike along the coast and reward yourself with a picnic on the beach. The coastline is breathtaking.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: It’s a ranch and it’s a park! Be sure to spot the old farm equipment, maintained gardens, chicken coops, and ranch buildings. Stop at the docent’s office to get a detailed history of the park.
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Acres Protected by the League: 3,507
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