One of the mysteries of human behavior for me is the large number of people living in or visiting the San Francisco Bay Area and/or Santa Cruz who crowd into Muir Woods National Monument (north of San Francisco or Big Basin State Park (northeast of the city of Santa Cruz. I think that trails through the woods are fine, if they aren’t lined with people, but I prefer trails with sweeping vistas and less crowds. Muir Woods and Big Basin are far too crowded for me, and perhaps the only statement with which I have some sympathy that Ronald Reagan made about the environment was, “Once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” I don’t draw the conclusion from this that it is OK to cut all but one of them down, but I find their uniformity oppressive. Because redwoods are so effectively inhospitable to insects, there are no insectivorous birds in redwood stands. When I go hiking in northern California, I may pass through redwoods, but I want to get out of them and see more than their straight trunks repeated and repeated and repeated.
Especially for those who are south of San Francisco and want to hike, I recommend Butano or Castle Rock State Parks. Butano is at the southern edge of San Mateo County, Castle Rock on the northern reaches of Santa Cruz County.
In addition to some stands of coastal redwood, the 3600 acres of Castle Rock State Park also have Douglas-fir and madrone forest. Most of the trails have sweeping vistas down to the Pacific Ocean, although these are sometimes covered with fog from which peaks jut out. Presumably the vistas sometimes are entirely obliterated by fog, though I have not experienced that on my visits to the park.
Most of the visitors go only as far as the “castle,” a clump of serpentine rock on which climbers practice for climbing real mountains (the Sierra Nevadas in particular). It’s not Half Dome or Zion, but the castle counts as a “sight.” And if one wants to hike rather than work on rope technique, there are 32 miles of trail within the park beyond the castle. Indeed, the major trail , the Skyline-to-Sea Trail, runs 38 miles (through Big Basin State Park) to the ocean at the mouth of Waddell Creek (about 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay). The total elevation drop on it is 2700 feet.
The main trailhead is from a parking lot (with a $6 fee) that is on Skyline (Highway 35), 2.5 miles south of the junction with highway 9 (northeast from Santa Cruz or southwest from Saratoga). There is at least one parking lot (with toilet facilities) on highway 9 that is free and is the trailhead for another trail that eventually intersects.
There are 25 hike-in campsites. No smoking is permitted within the park, due to fire danger. Equestrians should call ahead for information on which trails are open for horses (408-867-2952). (For camping, I have to admit that Big Basin has many more campsites: 188 in campgrounds and seven places each accommodating six sites for hiking into.)
For photographers, Castle Rock itself is not much of a slog for carrying camera equipment. The best vistas require going further. And it might not be out of order to include a reminder that unless you have someone picking you up outside the park on the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, you have to climb back up to the parking lot. Although not comparable to hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, most of us are more used to hiking up first and having going back down later, so may misestimate how much energy they have left for an upward return trip! (Been there, done that, though not at Castle Rock.)
By the way, there is also a Castle Rock State Park in Illinois. And Castle Crags State Park in northern California and Fort Rock in central Oregon (I have written here at AC about both of the latter.)