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Articles: From the Mountains to the Sea Natural Beauty Thrives in State Parks
Santa Cruz County is one of the few places where an unbroken trail begins in redwood-covered mountains and ends on the rugged, windswept beaches of the Pacific Coast. With a path that winds along majestic old-growth redwoods, graceful waterfalls and gorgeous vistas, hiking the Skyline to the Sea Trail through Big Basin Redwoods State Park is just one of many ways to experience Santa Cruz County's natural beauty.
Santa Cruz County's vast preserves of open space are a tribute to the early conservation efforts that began here over a century ago. The first campaign to save the redwoods succeeded in establishing Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 1902, now California's oldest state park. Today, Santa Cruz County has an extraordinary number of state parks--14 in all--and each offers a unique experience for visitors.
Along the crest of the mountains, Castle Rock State Park is a forested wilderness of redwoods, Douglas fir and madrone with 32 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails. The park features a number of unusual sandstone outcroppings perfect for rock climbing.
In Felton, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park's wheelchair and stroller-accessible Redwood Grove Trail circles around the park's oldest and largest trees. More trails crisscross the San Lorenzo River and its steep, redwood-covered canyons. The park also features a visitor center, a campground, wi-fi internet access, picnic areas and interpretative programs.
The trails of nearby Fall Creek State Park are far less traveled. The park's stillness stands in sharp contrast to the sounds of the early industrial operations that once echoed through the canyons. Today, the trickling waters of Fall Creek welcome hikers and remnants of old logging operations, quarries and limekilns along the park's trails.
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos is another tribute to nature's resilience. This dense, redwood paradise was clear-cut as recently as 1923, but today, towering second growth redwoods populate the hillsides. The 10,000-acre park offers miles of trails for walking, running, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Interesting sites include an unusual, twisted grove of redwoods, remnants of an old sawmill, and the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
On a bluff overlooking Downtown Santa Cruz stands the last remaining original building of the Santa Cruz Mission. Built in 1791, it was the 12th Franciscan mission in California. All but one of the original adobes were lost to earthquakes, but the remaining structure, which houses fascinating exhibits depicting the mission's history, has been restored at Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park.
The newly restored historic Meder farmhouse at Wilder Ranch State Park a mile north of Santa Cruz is a hands-on living history museum where visitors can experience the details of daily life on a turn-of-the-century dairy farm. Along with its Victorian homes, barns, living history demonstrations and tours, the park offers 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails that skirt the cliffs, and more challenging trails that climb the steep hills and meadows overlooking Monterey Bay. Beautiful windswept beaches and a breathtaking fern grotto line the coast.
Further up the shoreline lies Rancho Del Oso State Park, on the coastal side of Big Basin where densely forested trails open up to glorious views of the Pacific Ocean. Rancho Del Oso is home to the Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve, a rare coastal freshwater marsh that shelters many endangered species and Waddell Beach, a renowned spot for windsurfing and kiteboarding.
One of the most picturesque spots on the coast is Natural Bridges State Beach. A sandstone arch shaped by wind and waves rises from the sea. Natural Bridges was once a series of connected arches, but today only one remains. During low tide, tide pools brim with sea stars, tiny crabs and sea anemones. In wintertime, the park's eucalyptus grove is thick with clusters of hibernating monarch butterflies.
The coastline for which Santa Cruz County is most famous extends south from Santa Cruz to Watsonville and includes the state beaches of Seabright, Twin Lakes, New Brighton, Seacliff, Rio Del Mar, Manresa, Manresa Uplands, Sunset, and Palm.
At New Brighton, Manresa Uplands and Sunset, camp on bluffs above the water or inland among the pines. At Seacliff, campers nestled in their RVs are lulled to sleep by rhythmic waves right on the beach.
Seacliff State Beach in Aptos is home to the "Cement Ship", an experimental vessel constructed of concrete. The S.S. Palo Alto made just one voyage in 1919 before permanently docking at the pier, now a favorite local fishing spot.
Surfing is popular at Manresa and Natural Bridges. Swimmers love Twin Lakes beach. Sunset and Palm both feature mountainous sand dunes, up to 200 feet high built up in front of a coastal bluff.
Picnic pavilions for large groups can be found at New Brighton, Seacliff and Sunset. Barbecue grills and picnic tables for smaller groups line the long stretch of sand at Seacliff State Beach.
The beaches of Seabright, Twin Lakes, Rio Del Mar, Manresa and Sunset have fire rings for building campfires and toasting s'mores. The gentle waves and flickering flames create an idyllic setting for watching the sunset.
From the mountains to the sea, Santa Cruz County's natural beauty abounds in its state parks.