South of San Francisco, the Santa Cruz Mountains ruck and rimple from Woodside to Mt. Madonna, offering challenges every mile along the way. Here, roads wind perilously through steep canyons; earthquakes shake the hills; fog and heat and rain vie for dominance of the skies.
All this is what makes this place so fascinating― and why the stretch of the Coast Range separating Silicon Valley from the Pacific has so long appealed to the ambitious, the dreamer, the maverick.
State 17 provides the fastest route through the mountains. But to truly know them, you need to hit the backroads. To slow down (way down― these are seriously curvy byways) and enjoy the place's recusant spirit is a delight and a surprise. Small wineries provide casual tastings. Rustic towns like Felton and Boulder Creek harbor uncommon shops and restaurants. Hiking trails cut through vast forested parks. Waterfalls and dappled redwood forests beckon to those up to the challenge.
An isolated, iconoclastic region
The challenge is long-standing. In the 1870s, it took mailmen two days to travel the road from Santa Clara to Felton, a distance of 30 miles.
"The mountains were almost impenetrable, and the region was somewhat isolated. In some ways, it still is," says Dave Vincent, superintendent of the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks.
For wildlife as well as for people, the Santa Cruz range marks the seam between Northern and Southern California. Vincent says, "The region has the northernmost population of many plants and animals going south and in the same way going north."
Coast redwoods are the most famous natural inhabitants. They are so impressive that back in 1902, locals recognized the need to save the groves at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, making it California's oldest state park. But other plants and several kinds of animals are equally noteworthy: endemic species of Santa Cruz cypress, plus protected species such as coho salmon. Nature-loving hikers tend to gush about the area. "I have spent my life visiting parks," says Jeannie Eldracher, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Parks Foundation. "And this place is everything I could dream of."
A fabulous way to traverse the range is on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a multiday trek from ridgetop Castle Rock State Park to the ocean in Rancho del Oso. The route runs through Big Basin park, with its more than 5,000 acres of old-growth redwoods.
Farther south, outside of Soquel, the Forest of Nisene Marks was at the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A trip here provides a glimpse of the area's dramatic terrain. "When you drive up the park's backbone and look down, it's like, 'Oh my God'― you'd really have to be in tremendous shape to cut across these deeply incised canyons," says Vincent.
The possibilities are endless
The landscape isn't difficult just for hikers. The area is home to several vineyards and numerous wineries― 53 at present count. Pests and climate mean that keeping grapes happy here is tricky. Growers say, however, that the payoff is in quality.
"This is not an easy spot," says winemaker Randall Grahm, who founded Bonny Doon Vineyard here in 1983. Describing his wines, Grahm could also be talking about the place: "We offer an alternative, a challenging and adventurous experience. In this era of predigested experiences, we serve a useful function."
The Santa Cruz Mountain wineries are their own breed, hardy and small: Many tasting rooms double as barrel rooms. Several of the wineries are open to the public on a limited basis, or not at all. No one worries about the area morphing into something like Napa Valley.
"This area is very irreverent and contrarian," Grahm says. "It's the Peter Pan syndrome; a lot of people here refuse to grow up."
As winemakers and hikers and residents agree, it all comes down to geography. "There's still a sense that a large portion of the lands here are remote," says Vincent. "You have to be rugged. It's part of the lifestyle."