Last month, I got to demo the Santa Cruz Megatower at Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. It was waaaaaaay more bike than I needed for those mostly mellow trails, but I had a blast!
Santa Cruz, California is an awesome place. It’s got the relaxed vibe of a beach town, with the amenities and cuisine of a bigger city. It’s surrounded by the Santa Cruz mountains, but you don’t even have to get out of town to be immersed in a redwood forest. In addition to all of the great beach activities, the Santa Cruz area is a hot spot for mountain biking. While newer trails like the Flow Trail in Soquel Demonstration State Forest and Emma McCrary Trail in Pogonip, get a lot more publicity (and a lot more riders), there’s an underrated gem of a trail network within easy riding distance of town – Wilder Ranch State Park.
Wilder Ranch was one of the original places to mountain bike in the Santa Cruz area. Greyson grew up riding here almost every weekend in the 90s! The network is a little more old-school than something like the Lithia Trails in Ashland, Oregon or the Hammerfest Trails in Parksville, British Columbia. Don’t worry, the trail building isn’t stuck in the 90’s. They’ve built some new switchbacked single track, so there’s less climbing up exposed fire road, while leaving old school favorites like Old Cabin and Zane Gray untouched.
One of my favorite things about Wilder is how many classic coastal California terrains that you can pack in one ride. You can go from coastal bluffs to oak woodlands to wide open ocean views to thick redwood forests and back in under ten miles! Because there are so many trails in this network, it can be hard to string together a route without a guide. So here are a couple of my favorite routes that gets you on the best of what Wilder Ranch has to offer. Note: mile markers are approximate and intended as a general guide based on my rides. I started all of these rides in the parking lot inside the state park. Any of these routes can be done by an intermediate rider, and most could be ridden by a beginner- some sections of Old Cabin and Zane Gray might be tough for a newer rider.
Wilder Ridge & Zane Gray:
This lollipop route is about 6.5 miles and 850 feet of climbing and will get you good views and one of the most technical singletrack sections in Wilder. From the parking lot, head past the stables on the Wilder Ranch Connector. After a half mile, you’ll make a sharp left onto Wilder Ridge Loop (fire road). This is the trail where you’ll do most of the climbing. The climb is fairly challenging – you gain ~450 feet of elevation in about 1.5 miles, and it’s mostly fire road or double track, plus, the steepest pitch is at the very top. After the steepest part of the climb (~1.9 miles into this route), Zane Gray Cutoff is on the left. The first part of Zane Gray is wide open, bluff riding – be sure to pull off onto the overlook for gorgeous ocean views, but the trail quickly turns into shale-y, challenging riding. There are exposed corners (no banked berms here!) and shark fins ready to catch your pedals. There are even a few small drops. The whole cutoff is under a mile, but you’ll descend ~320 feet in that time. Zane Gray will basically turn into Wilder Ridge Loop (single track), but stay left if you’re unsure. This is a fairly easy, rolling single track section, but watch for erosion ruts and there are some short steep climbs. At about 5.2 miles, the Wilder Ridge Loop single track will merge back with the fire road, and you’re almost back. At 6 miles, don’t miss the sharp right back towards the parking lot (like I did on the above screen shot!), and before you know it, you’ll be back at your car. This route took Greyson and I about an hour of riding time, and we definitely weren’t pushing our speed. It was a great late-winter tune up ride for us. See Strava route here.
Englesman, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Zane Gray, Wilder Ridge
For a longer loop that really hits all of the highlights, try this almost 12 mile route with about 1,560 feet of climbing. You’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman – NOT the sharp left onto Wilder ridge loop or right onto Englesman Loop, confusing, I know. At 1.4 miles, you’ll want to bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. This is really well built single track that’s fun to climb. You’ll get your heart pumping, but I never feel completely burnt out. This section is about 1.1 miles and 263 feet of climbing, but I think it feels easier than that. At 2.5 miles, you’ll on the the Englesman Loop double track/fire road for less than half a mile. Turn right to get on the classic Old Cabin trail. This trail drops you into an incredible redwood grove. You can bomb down switchbacks surrounded by giant old growth, and, if it’s a hot day, it will be much cooler in the little canyon. Now that you’ve gotten that super fun descent, you’ll have to climb back out of the other side of Old Cabin, about 260 feet. Old Cabin dead ends on Eucalyptus at 3.8 miles. Turn right and climb another 200 feet on a mile of exposed fire road. That’s definitely the worst part of this loop. Ride down the fire road until 6.2 miles and turn left onto Rodrigo for more single track. At 6.4 miles, make a sharp right on to Bobcat for 0.2 miles. Bobcat will dead end at Twin Oaks, and turn left. Twin Oaks will end with a little uphill at mile 7.3 and out you on Wilder Ridge Loop. Turn left and keep climbing, about 100 feet to mile 8. Here you’ll make a left on to the techy Zane Gray Cutoff, described in more detail above. At 8.9 miles, Zane Gray dumps you out on the single track section of Wilder Ridge Loop (stay left). You’ll hit the Wilder Ridge fire road at 10.6 miles, and after that it’s just the sharp right back on to Wilder Ranch Connector at 11.4 miles, and back to your car. We did this in 1:51 riding time, but we took lots of scenery and snack breaks – overall it took 2:24. See my Strava route here.
Englesman, Wild Boar, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Wilder Ridge
This route gets you to Old Cabin and some great views, but is shorter and climbs a little less, 9.5 miles and ~1,300 feet of climbing. Similar to above, you’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman, and 1.4 miles, you bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. At 2.2 miles, turn left onto Wild Boar. At 2.7 miles, Wild Boar turns left and turns into Old Cabin, the redwood grove classic with a fun descent and a punchy climb. Old Cabin will end on Eucalyptus fire road at 3.6 miles. Turn left and keep climbing! You’ll top out on Eucalyptus at 4.8 miles – with Old Cabin you climb almost 450 feet in under two miles. It’s a stout climb. At the top, you’ll find the namesake eucalyptus tree grove with some picnic tables. It’s a great place to stop, catch your breath, and enjoy the view and a snack. Drop down the fire road – which can get pretty rutted, so watch out. At mile 5.9, you’ll go through a four way intersection, and you’ll continue going straight, which will put you on Enchanted Loop. At 6.1 miles, hit a fire road and turn left. Continue straight at mile 6.3 on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road for only 0.1 miles, where you’ll take the left fork at mile 6.4 back on to single track – Twin Oaks. This single track spits out on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road at mile 7.5. The sharp right on to the connecter comes at mile 9, and then back to the parking lot. We did this with a moving time of 1:24 and a leisurely 2:15 overall. See my Strava route here.
A note about Wilder: All of the trails at Wilder Ranch are mixed use, so be sure to yield to hikers and horses. I’ve never had a bad encounter with an equestrian at Wilder, but I try to spend the most time on trails that tend to see less horse traffic, like Old Cabin, Zane Gray and the single track parts of Wilder Ridge Loop. You’ll need to walk your bike through the historic ranch part of the park, but it’s very well signed and for a pretty short distance.
If you’re looking for a mellow but fun day away from the crowds, check out Wilder Ranch State Park!