by Pete Gauvin

Mileage: 29.5 miles
Elevation Change: 2600 feet

The Skyline to the Sea Trail is a beautiful mini thru-hike within easy reach of millions of Bay Area and Nor Cal residents. Despite its proximity, surprisingly few have hiked the trail. Perhaps because it is so close, many deem it too short of a drive to be a “real” adventure, a “real” challenge, or a “real” wilderness experience.

It’s all those things, minus the long drive and the hefty gas bill.

Winding nearly 30 miles through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the ocean at wind-whipped Waddell Beach, this point-to-point hike is an ideal springtime training ground for Bay Area backpackers preparing for summer treks in the Sierra. But regardless if other more grandiose hiking trips are on your calendar, the Skyline to the Sea Trail is worth doing for its own sake.

Passing through Castle Rock and Big Basin Redwoods state parks, it features expansive vistas, waterfalls and some of the oldest, largest redwoods in existence.

While the hiking is generally easy, and you lose a lot more elevation than you gain on the typical coastward path, it’s still significant mileage spread over two or three days — or one brutal day-long run, if you’re an ultra-runner looking for a challenge. Carry a big pack loaded with fresh food and maybe a bottle of red from one of the many local wineries for a little gourmet camp food under the stars if you want to add to make it more strenuous.

Or if you’re really bent on a challenge, turn it on its head and hike from sea to skyline, like a modern-day Spanish explorer in search of new lands and a cold drink. It’ll be almost entirely uphill.

And if that’s still not enough, you can always do it as a roundtrip.

Keep in mind that several must-do side trips add some mileage. For instance, a visit to Berry Creek Falls, on the coast end of the trail, adds three miles, and in Big Basin, California’s oldest state park, the one-mile redwood trail takes you to some of the biggest old-growth redwoods in the park.

Starting at the top at the Castle Rock parking lost, near the intersections of Highways 9 and 35 (Saratoga Gap), camping options include the Waterman Trail Camp, approximately seven miles in, and Jay Camp in Big Basin, a 17-mile haul. (Note: You can cut out the most unremarkable stretch of the trail by starting at Castle Rock park headquarters a few miles south on Highway 35.) Trail camps are popular; reservations are required and may be made up to two months prior to your trip. Call (831) 338-8861.

At Big Basin park headquarters, 13 miles from the ocean, you can pick up cold drinks, food items and basic camping supplies at the park’s general store (ph. 831-338-4745) across the street.

Lace up and enjoy the trail. It may be real close but it’s a world away.