Skyline to the Sea Trail Permits and Planning

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In 2020 the Lightning Complex Fire destroyed the Big Basin Visitor Center and burned approximately 97 % of the park’s 18,224 acres. The park and surrounding trails are currently closed to visitors and there is no anticipated re-opening date.

The Skyline to the Sea trail is a 28-mile trek through Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. This is one of my favorite Big Basin backpacking trips and it’s also at the top of my list as one of the Bay Area’s best multi-day backpacking trips for beginners. This guide will walk you through the Skyline to the Sea Trail permit process and will hopefully make planning your hike easy!

Backpacking the Skyline to the Sea trail is a great beginner trip that can be done over 3 or 4 days. As the trail winds through the Santa Cruz mountains you pass waterfalls, walk through groves of old-growth Redwoods, and are treated to stunning views of thickly-forested canyons.

If you’re interested in learning more the hike itself check out my post about backpacking Skyline to the Sea for more details on each day’s hike.

Skyline to the Sea Trail Map and Elevation

Trail map for 28 miles on the Skyline to the Sea Trail in Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks.
Elevation profile for the 28-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail in Castle Rock and Big Basin State Parks

The Skyline to the Sea Trail begins at Castle Rock and cuts West through the Santa Cruz mountains before ending at Waddell Beach. The trail is well signed, and pretty easy to follow. If you start at the Castle Rock trailhead you’ll need to follow a series of trails before connecting with the Skyline to the Sea Trail. Ask a ranger to show you the way or read my Skyline to the Sea Backpacking Guide for a detailed trail log and directions. You can also download my GPS tracks from Caltopo and print trail maps directly from Caltopo.

Once you reach Waterman Gap Trail Camp you’ll be on the Skyline to the Sea Trail for the rest of your journey, and the trail markers are easy to follow. I used the trail maps in the park brochures, but if you want a map of the complete trail, and all of the connecting trails, check out the Big Basin and Castle Rock trail map from Redwood Hikes Press.

The Skyline to the Sea Trail near China Grade has beautiful views and cool rocks.

Best Time to Backpack Skyline to the Sea

The best time to backpack Skyline to the Sea is in the Spring, Summer, or Fall. While the trail camps are open year round, in the winter the park service removes many of the bridges and some of the creek crossings may be too deep to cross.

The campgrounds along the Skyline to the Sea trail are only serviced May 1st through October 31st. If you camp November 1st through April 31st the camps will not have trash cans and the pit toilets will not be serviced. Bring your toilet paper and be prepared to pack out all of your trash. If you’re hiking in the winter be sure to call the park before heading out to get information about current trail conditions.

The Skyline to the Sea campsites at Jay Camp have picnic tables and running water

Hiking Skyline to the Sea Trail in Three Days

I spent three days to backpacking the Skyline to the Sea trail. I’ve learned that hiking more than 12 miles a day is hard on my body. Plus, I like having the flexibility to take lots of photos and even take a post-lunch nap if I feel like it! Everyone’s pace is different. Some people hike the trail in a single day and others like to stretch it out into a 5-day hike. I’ve included the most common hiking itineraries below.

3-Day backpacking itinerary:

Day 1: Castle Rock State Park to Waterman Gap Camp (9.5 miles)
Day 2: Waterman Gap to Jay Camp (9 miles)
Day 3: Jay Camp to Waddell Beach (12 miles)

4-Day backpacking itinerary:

Day 1: Castle Rock State Park to Waterman Gap Camp (9.5 miles)

Day 2: Waterman Gap to Jay Camp (9 miles)

Day 3: Jay Camp to Twin Redwoods Camp (10 miles)

Day 4: Twin Redwoods Camp to Waddell Beach (2 miles)

5-Day backpacking itinerary:

Day 1: Castle Rock State Park to the Castle Rock Trail Camp (2.5 miles and no reservations required to camp)

Day 2:Castle Rock Trail Camp to Waterman Gap Camp (6.5 miles)

Day 3: Waterman Gap to Jay Camp (9 miles)

Day 4: Jay Camp to Twin Redwoods Camp (10 miles)

Day 5: Twin Redwoods Camp to Waddell Beach (2 miles)

Our campsite at Waterman Gap was in the main clearing near three other campsites

Campgrounds on the Skyline to the Sea Trail

The designated trail camps are the main reason why I think that this is a good beginner backpacking trail. (Maybe you should get your beginner backpacker a Skyline the Sea hiking sticker as a way to commemorate their first trip. Wink, wink!)All of the campsites along the way have pit toilets and food storage boxes. And most of the campsites even have running water. Below is a brief description of each trail camp.

Castle Rock Trail Camp

As of February 2020, the Castle Rock Trail camp can now be reserved in advance! This site is only 2.5 miles from the Castle Rock entrance and it would often fill to capacity in the summer. There are 20 designated campsites,  and 15 of these are available for advance reservation. Every site has a picnic table and a food locker, and the camp has a pay phone, seasonal trash service, and pit toilets. The campsite does not have water, and there is not a water source close to camp for filtering. You must hike in with all your water. Camping fees are $15 per campsite. If you would like to try for one of the five first-come, no-reservation sites you must check in with the ranger at the Kirkwood Entrance before hiking to camp.

Waterman Gap Trail Camp

Waterman Gap camp has 6 designated sites and one pit toilet. The camp has seasonal trash service and there is usually potable water, but this camp does sometimes have problems with the water lines. The campground is nice and shady, but it is near a road and you can often hear logging trucks and motorcycles rumbling by in the evening and early in the morning. NOTE: As of February 2020 the campsite does not have running water.

Jay Camp at Big Basin

Jay Camp is the most luxurious of all the camps. It is close to Big Basin park headquarters and it has six designated campsites with access to hot showers and flush toilets. It’s also a nice treat to pick-up some trail snacks or a beer from the Big Basin Cafe Store while walking into camp.

Twin Redwoods Camp

Twin Redwoods is the most remote camp in Big Basin. The camp sits at the edge of Waddell Creek and is surrounded by redwoods. There are six designated campsites, a pit toilet, and seasonal trash service. This camp does not have potable water, campers need to filter water from the creek.

Skyline to the Sea Trail Permits

You do not need a permit to hike the Skyline to the Sea Trail, but you do need campsite reservations. The trail camps are open by reservation only and dispersed camping is not allowed. Your campsite reservations essentially act as a hiking permit. After booking your campsites the park will email you a backcountry permit and parking pass confirming your campsite reservations. One backcountry permit needs to be displayed on the dash of each car that is parking overnight in the Castle Rock or Waddell Beach parking lots. See more information on transportation and parking below.

Big Basin Redwoods and Castle Rock Backcountry Trail Camp Reservations

To secure a campsite along the Skyline to the Sea trail reservations must be made in advance. Dispersed camping is not allowed, you must make reservationsto stay at any of the Skyline to the Sea Trail camps. If you want to hike the trail on a weekend, you should make your reservations as soon as the online calendar opens, 60 days in advance.

If you are hiking during the week you have a good chance of snagging a campsite at the last minute. When we hiked in May 2019 we started our hike from Castle Rock on a Sunday and only had to share the campground with one other group. That was quite a nice change from when I hiked the trail for the first time in July 2017. We started that hike on a Saturday and the campgrounds were fully booked each night.

Making a reservation is pretty easy. First, check the park’s trail camp calendar to make sure that campsites are available for your dates. If there are available sites, fill out a backcountry trail camp request online. If your reservation is accepted, the park will email a temporary confirmation. You will need to call the park to confirm and pay for your reservation within 24-hours.

If you don’t confirm and pay for your reservation within 24 hours the park will give away your reservation to the next person in line.

The park’s Backcountry Trail Camp Guide is great resource for alternate backpacking itineraries and booking information.

Hiking through groves of old growth redwood trees on the Skyline to the Sea Trail

Transportation for the Skyline to the Sea Trail

If you’re backpacking the Skyline to the Sea Trail, getting to-and-from the trailhead is probably the most difficult part of this hike. There’s no public transportation in the area and cell service is spotty at best, so don’t expect to hire an Uber or Lyft.

Most Skyline to the Sea hikers choose to shuttle cars- leaving a vehicle at the starting point and at the end point. If you are hiking the trail East to West you’ll want to park one vehicle at Waddell Beach, and then drive up to the Castle Rock trailhead.

There’s limited parking at the trailheads. Castle Rock State Park just opened a new visitor center, and it is now much easier to find parking at the trailhead. Hikers should check-in at the Kirkwood Entrance at 15451 Skyline Blvd. before heading to the old parking area to find overnight parking. The Waddell Beach parking area is also a safe and secure place to leave your car. The parking lot is gated, but not always locked.

Carpooling will save you some cash because the parking fees can add up. The parking lot at Castle Rock costs $8 per day and the Waddell Beach parking area costs $10 per day. Free parking for one car is included in your campsite reservation.

If you don’t have two vehicles, or if you are a solo hiker, you’ll want to enlist the help of a friend or family member to drop you off or pick you up. Some hikers have also used Craigslist to hire drivers to meet them at Waddell Beach and drive them to Castle Rock. If you hire a random person to drive you, and they aren’t familiar with the long-term parking area at Waddell Beach, it’s probably best to arrange to meet at the public beach parking area on the West side of Highway 1 and then have them follow you to the trailhead parking. (The parking area is through the closed yellow gate on the east side of Highway 1, directly opposite the beach parking lot.)

The roads that cut through the Santa Cruz mountains are windy and slow-going. Expect to spend one hour driving from Waddell Beach to the Castle Rock parking area. Since these rugged mountain roads are easily damaged by winter storms, you can use the Caltrans website to check road conditions before choosing your route.

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