Backpacking the Skyline to the Sea Trail
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.
Hiking the Skyline to the Sea Trail in Big Basin is a must-do multi-day backpacking trip. As the Skyline to the Sea trail winds through the Santa Cruz mountains you pass towering old-growth redwoods, cascading waterfalls, and unique sandstone rock formations. And the scenic viewpoints along the trail aren’t too shabby either!
The Skyline to the Sea trail is a 28-mile trek through Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. It’s a great multi-day trip for beginner backpackers. This Skyline to the Sea backpacking guide is a detailed account of my 3-day trek along the trail in May of 2019.
If you want to learn how to plan this trip yourself check out my post all about the Skyline to the Sea Trail permits and planning process.
Skyline to the Sea Trail Map
Most people hike the trail from West to East, starting at Castle Rock and ending at Waddell Beach. The first few miles of the trail through Castle Rock can be confusing, but once you connect with the Skyline to the Sea Trail the navigation becomes really easy! 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. You can also download my GPS tracks from Caltopo and print trail maps directly from Caltopo.
Day 1: Castle Rock to Waterman Gap Camp
Begin at Castle Rock State Park
The 9-mile trek through Castle Rock State Park is one of my favorite parts of the hike. From waterfalls to cool rock formations, there’s a lot to see in the first two miles of the trail. This can also be the most difficult part of the trek. On a hot day the chaparral forest offers very little shade for the first half of the trek, and navigating up and down the rocks with a large pack takes some effort.
Be sure to fill your water bottles at home because there isn’t any running water at the trailhead, or anywhere along the trail. If you don’t have a filter, your first water source isn’t until you reach Waterman Gap camp at the end of the day.
Begin your hike by taking the Saratoga Gap trail toward the Castle Rock Trail Camp. After about a mile you’ll come to an overlook. Take a peek over the edge to see the waterfall, and usually a few rock climbers below. Follow the Saratoga Gap Trail for 2.5 miles to the Castle Rock Trail Camp. Along the way you’ll navigate some small rock formations, and may even need to use the metal wire “hand rail” to help propel you over the rocks. You’ll also get some great views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and you can even spot the Waterman Gap campsite if you follow the line of power poles across the canyon.
If you’re hiking on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday you may hear gunshots as you approach camp. Don’t worry! This is just the folks at the Los Altos Rod and Gun Club practicing their target skills.
Castle Rock Trail Camp
If you have a relaxed itinerary you can camp at the Castle Rock Trail Camp. The park is trying a new reservation process and campsites at the Castle Rock Trail Camp can now be reserved in advance! There are 15 campsites available for advance reservation and five sites for first come, first serve campers. There is no water available at the camp, but there are pit toilets and every site has a picnic table and a fire ring. Fires are only permitted during the rainy season. You should always check with a ranger to see if you can have a campfire.
The campsite fees are $15 a night for up to 6 people. If you want to get one of the walk-in campsites you should check-in with the staff at the new Robert C. Kirkwood Parking lot, at 15451 Skyline Blvd., to see if there are sites available. Get there early (or reserve in advance) if you want to snag a spot!
Saratoga Gap Trail to Skyline to the Sea Trail
When you reach the Castle Rock Trail Camp, continue straight through the campground on the Saratoga Gap Trail. The trail will widen into a fire road as it drops into the canyon. After about three-quarters of a mile, make a left on the Travertine Springs Trail toward Saratoga Toll Road. The trail narrows into a single track, and when I hiked the trail in May 2019 there were a few fallen trees and lots of poison oak protruding into the trail. After about a mile you’ll reach Travertine Springs, a nice shady grove that beckons you to take a break and enjoy the burbling creek.
After breaking, continue climbing for a bit until you reach a three-way intersection, and make a left on the Saratoga Toll Road Trail (the trail marker was missing when I hiked in May 2019). You’ll continue climbing uphill on this trail for about a mile. You’re now starting to round the canyon and the sound of gunfire will fade in and out. Make a right and go uphill on the Beekhuis Road Trail, before making a left on the Skyline to the Sea Trail.
As you walk along the Skyline to the Sea Trail you’ll cross a few private driveways. You’ll also see some old cars and an antique bath tub that somehow made their way into the canyon from the road above you.
Waterman Gap Trail Camp
The Waterman Gap Camp will be on the left. The trail camp has six individual campsites. There are three campsites gathered around a clearing near the bathrooms, one campsite down the hill to the left of the bathroom, and two hidden campsites down a short trail, behind campsite four.
As of February 2020 there is no water at Waterman Gap Trail Camp. You should plan to carry in your water as there are no streams or other water sources close to camp.
The camp has a pit toilet, food storage boxes, and trash cans. It also has a lot of street noise and you can hear the large trucks, motorcycles, and sports cars as they zip by. Bring ear plugs if you’re sensitive to noise. We chose one of the campsites near the bathroom because it had a nice kitchen with a tree stump in the middle and some nice log seats.
These campsites must be reserved in advance and often fill to capacity on the weekends. If you have the flexibility to backpack during the week you might have the camp all to yourself!
Day 2: Waterman Gap Trail Camp to Jay Camp at Big Basin
You’ll get your first glimpse of big trees on the first day of the hike, but it’s on the second day of hiking when the Coastal Redwoods really shine. During the 9-mile hike from Waterman Gap to Big Basin Park Headquarters you’ll wind your way through groves of old growth and second growth redwoods.
To start your hike, make a left out of camp to pick-up the Skyline to the Sea Trail. You’ll follow the Skyline to the Sea trail all the way to Big Basin Park Headquarters. The trail starts climbing uphill almost immediately and crosses Highways 9 and 236 several times within the first two miles of the hike.
Just before the 5-mile mark the trail crosses China Grade Fire Road and the landscape changes drastically. The big trees are replaced with manzanita and smaller pines, and the trail crosses over some cool rock formations. There are several viewpoints along this stretch that are perfect for a rest or snack break.
Before you know it, you’re surrounded by big trees again. As you get closer to the park headquarters the trail becomes quite a bit busier and you’ll walk along a creek that runs through a lush fern canyon. You’ll pass a large picnic area before reaching the park headquarters.
Big Basin Cafe and Store
I always look forward to stopping at the Big Basin Cafe! My backpacking meals have gotten better over the years, but eating fresh food is always a treat. I usually always make two stops at the cafe. I stop by the store to buy myself a treat on the way to camp. This could be anything from a gatorade to an ice cream bar, or a bag of chips- whatever my body is craving at the moment. Then, after I set-up camp and relax a bit I walk back to the store to buy a beer to enjoy at dinner. What can I say, I love taking advantage of the cafe!
The cafe does have seasonal hours and they are often only on weekends in the Spring, Fall, and Winter. Check the hours before starting your hike so you won’t be disappointed if they’re not open.
If you arrive to the park early you can load up on snacks and beverages at the cafe and check out the exhibits at the museum and visitor’s center before heading to camp. If you’re hiking on the weekend, check the schedule at the visitor’s center to see if there are any ranger-led educational programs being offered. Also, be sure to stop in at the Big Basin Gift Shop to get your Skyline to the Sea trail sticker to commemorate your hike! (If you forget to snag one at the gift shop you can also purchase one on Etsy.)
Jay Camp at Big Basin
To reach Jay Camp pass the park gift shop and cafe, and when you reach the parking lot follow signs for the nature trail. Make a left on the nature trail and stay straight until the trail crossed Highway 236 and passes through a gate.
The entrance to the trail camps will be behind the parking area, opposite the bathrooms and park residence. Jay Camp has food storage boxes, running water (including flush toilets!) and coin-operated showers. Some campsites even have picnic tables.
Day 3: Waterman Gap to Waddell Beach
The third day of hiking is the longest, but the easiest part of the hike. You’ll hike 10 miles from Jay Camp to Waddell Beach and along the way you’ll cross several creeks and pass Berry Creek Falls.
To reach the trailhead from Jay Camp, follow your tracks from the previous day and go back toward park headquarters along the nature trail. The Skyline to the Sea Trail near park headquarters occasionally has detours. Check the information board near the parking lot for current trail information. If there aren’t any detours, you can pick-up the Skyline to the Sea Trail near the parking area and the amphitheater. You’ll follow signs for the Skyline to the Sea trail all the way to Waddell Beach.
Berry Creek Falls to Waddell Beach
After a brief uphill climb, the majority of the trail is slightly downhill or flat. As you drop into a canyon with several downed trees, the trail runs along Berry Creek. Watch out for slow-moving Banana Slugs and Giant Salamanders on the trail and enjoy the views of the creek. You’ll have a short uphill clim to the Berry Creek Falls viewing area. There’s a bench at the viewing area and it’s a great place to stop for a snack.
The Skyline to the Sea Trail doesn’t directly pass Berry Creek Falls. If you want a closer look at the falls you’ll need to take a quick detour. When you reach the junction with the Berry Creek Falls trail the Skyline to the Sea trail goes to the left and the Berry Creek trail goes to the right. If you want a closer look at the falls make a right and walk uphill for about 0.20 mile to the Berry Creek Falls viewing platform before turning around to continue on to Waddell Beach.
After you pass Berry Creek Falls and cross Waddell Creek, the trail turns into a wide, flat fire road. If you’re hiking the trail between November to April you may need to wade through Waddell Creek. The park removes the seasonal footbridge for the winter to help prevent it from being washed away with the winter rains. If the metal crossing is in place this is an easy crossing, but you may need to get your feet wet.
Twin Redwoods Camp near Waddell Beach
Hiking the fire road next to Waddell Creek is an easy stroll. About two miles from the end of the hike you’ll pass the Twin Redwoods Camp. The campground has the first available bathroom on the trail since leaving Jay Camp, but it does not have running water. The campground has six designated campsites with food lockers. Like the other Skyline to the Sea backcountry camps, this campground is only serviced seasonally. So, unless you are camping between May 1st to October 31st you should plan to pack out all of your garbage.
Shortly after passing Twin Redwoods the trail splits. Hikers are urged to take the narrow, single track trail to the right so that bikers and horses can use the wider fire road to the left. The narrow hiking trail has some steep uphill sections and is a bit more difficult than the fire road, but the views of Waddell Beach are worth the extra effort. As you admire the ocean views think about how far you’ve come!
This one-way hike can be started from the trailhead near the Rancho del Oso Horse Camp near Waddell Beach, or from Castle Rock State Park. Most people prefer the "downhill" route and begin at the Castle Rock trailhead. Hikers can leave a car at the Waddell Beach Skyline to the Sea long-term parking area near Ranch del Oso Horse Camp. They then, shuttle a second car to park it at Castle Rock, or have a generous friend drop them off at Castle Rock.
To find the Castle Rock parking area you can map to Castle Rock State Park Parking, Castle Rock Trail or click to see the location on Google Maps. The trailhead at Castle Rock is found near the large information board, on the opposite side of the parking area from the bathrooms.
Beginning at the Castle Rock parking lot, take the Saratoga Gap trail toward the Castle Rock Trail Camp. Follow the Saratoga Gap Trail for 2.5 miles to the Castle Rock Trail Camp. Continue straight through the campground on the Saratoga Gap Trail.
Make a left on the Travertine Springs Trail toward Saratoga Toll Road. When you reach a three-way intersection, make a left on the Saratoga Toll Road Trail.
Make a right and go uphill on the Beekhuis Road Trail, before making a left on the Skyline to the Sea Trail. The Waterman Gap Camp will be on the left.
Follow the Skyline to the Sea trail all the way to Big Basin Park Headquarters. The trail crosses Highways 9 and 236 several times before reaching park headquarters.
To reach Jay Camp pass the park gift shop and cafe, and when you reach the parking lot follow signs for the nature trail. Make a left on the nature trail and stay straight until the trail crossed Highway 236 and passes through a gate. The entrance to the trail camps will be behind the parking area, opposite the bathrooms and park residence.
If you stayed overnight at Jay Camp, follow your tracks from the previous day and go back toward park headquarters along the nature trail. The Skyline to the Sea Trail near park headquarters occasionally has detours. If there aren't any detours, you can pick-up the Skyline to the Sea Trail near the parking area and the amphitheater. You'll follow signs for the Skyline to the Sea trail all the way to Waddell Beach.
If there are detours on the Skyline to the Sea Trail, you can take the Dool and Sunset Trails to the Sunset Connector Trail. Walk past the park gift shop and cafe and pick-up the Sunset Trail near the end of the parking area. The Sunset Connector Trail will lead you to the Skyline to the Sea Trail.
No dogs allowed on the trail.
The Waterman Gap Camp and Jay Camp have food storage boxes, running water, and pit toilets. Running water is not available at the other trail camps.
Parking fees at Castle Rock is $8 per day, per vehicle.
Parking fees at Waddell Beach is $10 per day, per vehicle.
Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.
Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.
Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!
Get your Skyline to the Sea Trail Sticker on Etsy or in Our Store!
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