No better place for mountain biking in California

Tom Stienstra

Sunday, October 30, 2005

When you buy a new mountain bike, your first trip should be to Wilder Ranch State Park, the No. 1 state park for biking in California.

But when my buddy Celso Bulgatti bought a new bike, instead of heading to Wilder, he plunged into the planning and rehearsals for his wedding next weekend. Rather than argue priorities, it thus fell to me, in faithful service to my friend, to break in the bike properly.

So this week, I pumped up the tires, set the seat, met ranger Joe Connors and interpreter Carolyn Schimandle at the parking lot, and we were off, heading up to the park's eye-popping lookout -- and then the downhill glide for the bluff-top route above the ocean.

Right off, I spotted Joe's big handgun, holstered on his hip, and asked him, "Ever had to pull that thing?"

"Yeah, just this morning," he answered. "Another ranger tried to take the last doughnut."

Heh, heh. Well, with that problem solved (Joe reportedly got the doughnut), we were ready for our trek across the coastal foothills, ridges, valleys and ocean bluffs.

Wilder Ranch State Park is located along Highway 1 just north of Santa Cruz and spans about 7,000 acres (the state park Web site says 4,500 acres, which is wrong) with 34 miles of bike routes and enough options to make the place perfect for any level of rider, from training-wheels phase to gonzo:

-- Easy: The best easy ride is a 10-minute flat pedal on the Old Cove Landing Trail to beachfront bluffs for gorgeous ocean views. This can be extended northward to Fern Grotto Beach (a 1.5-mile ride from the parking lot). A small cave here has ferns hanging from its ceiling, fed by a freshwater seep, a magic find. The cliff-top route then continues on the Ohlone Bluff Trail.

-- Moderate: The best moderate ride is to the Wilder Ridge Lookout. From the parking lot, this is a 480-foot climb over the course of 1.6 miles (and we'll get to that), ideal for intermediate riders, to a ridge-line lookout with a panorama of coastal farmlands and beyond across miles of ocean.

-- Challenging: From Wilder Ridge, you can forge on, climbing through a succession of terraces and ridges in the park's interior that climb to 1,000 feet. In addition, the route connects to a network of bike trails in the wildlands and redwood forests managed by adjoining UC Santa Cruz and Henry Cowell State Park.

To start your trip, note that the trailhead is located at the south end of the parking lot. Right off, you will hit a Y split. To the right is the easy, flat ride to the ocean bluffs. The left will sail you downhill about 50 yards to the historic Wilder Ranch and farmhouse, a former dairy farm that operated from 1871 to 1969. Turn left here, walk your bike through the farm complex (they still have chickens, goats, cows, sheep and draft horses), and past the picnic grounds to a tunnel under Highway 1.

"This is the gateway to 7,000 acres of the best mountain biking in California," Connors said as we entered the tunnel. He downshifted and rode out ahead. "It's a good climb to the ridge."

By "good," he meant not too steep, with the exception of two short spots that require a downshift and five-minute huffs and puffs.

This region is ideal for mountain biking, explained Schimandle, because the landscape consists of "a series of ancient marine terraces." A marine terrace is a former ocean cliff and beachfront. "The terraces were uplifted by tectonic plate action off the coast." The result, she said, is that over the course of several million years, the rows of coastal foothill ridges here formed like giant stair steps.

That means you have a series of flat-topped ridges linked by short climbs. So even on long, challenging rides, you get a chance to catch your breath -- and also take in fantastic ocean views.

The climb to Wilder Ridge Lookout is the best intermediate-level ride in the greater Bay Area. The climbs are rhythmic pumps, followed by cruises through the flat spots amid grasslands, chaparral and cypress woodlands. When you near Wilder Ridge, you will enter a left-curving climb and emerge at a fork. Bear left for 40 feet, and as you pull up to a stop at the ridge, it can seem as if the entire world is at your feet -- two miles of hills below you that extend to the ocean's infinity of blue.

From here, the ambitious continue to the park's interior, riding all day in remote wildlands, ridges and valleys.

But with sunset imminent, we instead glided downhill as if floating. At park headquarters, we kept going, riding on the Old Cove Landing Trail to the cliffs that overlook coves and beaches.

At an overlook above one cove, we spotted a sea otter on its back, grooming its whiskers and fur. As the sun dipped below some distant cirrus, a squadron of pelicans sailed past. A gorgeous sunset was the capper to the day.

It would be difficult to improve on this ride. Unless, that is, you could improve on perfection.

As for Celso's new bike, after his wedding rehearsal, I informed him: "Nice ride, bud."

Hey, someone's gotta break it in, right?

If you want to go

Cost: $6 per vehicle.

Map: Brochure/map available at park entrance; topo trail map, $3 at park office; Mountain Biking the Bay Area (15 detailed maps, including Wilder Ranch), $19.95 at bikemapdude.com.

Trail rules: Bikes permitted on single track. Some trails closed during wet conditions in winter (signed).

Tunnels: Two tunnels available under Highway 1 to access wildlands on far side Highway 1.

Contacts: Wilder Ranch State Park, (831) 423-9703; parks.ca.gov/ -- click on "Find A Park; or santacruzstateparks.org.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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Last Modified: March 9, 2008