Trail of Tears VII – Portola Redwoods to Castle Rock

IMG_0737A group of my friends and teammates organizes a mostly annual backpacking trip known as “Trail of Tears”. One year it was Yosemite, climbing every major landmark in the park in 4 days (6 all told), another year it was the Emigrant Wilderness where they put in a 25 mile day because the map didn’t have distance markings. (Those trips would definitely make me cry.) They’ve also done Skyline-to-the-Sea, a 30 mile trip, a couple of times, as it’s close and relatively convenient to plan.

Two years ago, I went on my first real backpacking trip with these guys. Billed as “Trail of Leisure”, it was a 3 day affair in and out of Sykes hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur. Day 1 would involve hiking in 10-12 miles from the inner valley, Day 2 would be spent lazing about in the river and hot springs, and Day 3 would consist of hiking out 8-10 miles to the coast. Sounded pretty leisurely, until we discovered that the trail in from the valley was unmaintained and required a fair amount of plowing through shoulder high bushes in the high desert, and the two dogs who were with us fell into bad shape from the blisters and fatigue, so that their owner had to carry them in addition to his pack. Oh, and someone left most of the hot cocoa packets we’d assigned to him at home, thinking “how can we possibly need this much hot cocoa!?” (Note: when the organizers of a backpacking trip tell you to bring something, bring that exact something. Summer sausage is not a substitute for beef jerky. All that hot cocoa isn’t just for you. Jus’ sayin’.)


This year’s Trail of Tears was very local – just 45 minutes away in the Santa Cruz mountains – and seemed like it would be fairly straightforward. What was originally going to be another rendition of Skyline-to-the-Sea turned into a creative road-less-traveled hike from Portola Redwoods State Park to the Castle Rock trailhead. After shuttling some cars around, the 7 of us – me, Chris, Paul, Andrew, Jimmy, my brother Wayne, and his girlfriend Stella – set off from Portola HQ towards Butano Peak via the Ridge trail. We picked up the Basin trail which brought us across park lines into Big Basin but also put us off the available maps for a while. The terrain changed from redwood forest to chaparral as we ascended Butano ridge with views out to the Pacific ocean. Around mile 7 we started gradually descending through tan oak forest, passed remote Lane trail camp, and finally came upon the Skyline-to-the-sea trail and a marker for our first day’s destination – Waterman Gap trail camp. By the time we saw that trail marker, most of us were already ready to call it a day, so when we learned that it was 5 more miles it was kind of a slap in the face. Fortunately, the going was shady and padded – if not easy – through rolling redwood forest along Hwy 236. Getting into camp was a welcome relief for everyone!

Half the group went on ahead to set up camp while the other half hopped in the car that had been left at the intersection to procure water and refreshments. During dinner at the campsite, a park ranger stopped by on a routine check and informed us that we’d basically broken every rule in the book: killing trees (by tying up a slackline), occupying multiple camp sites (we only had a permit for one), having too many people in one camp site (the limit was 6, but 4 were leaving after dinner), and having glass bottles in a state park (our victory beer). He seemed very confused that our camping permit was from Portola Redwoods, and when we told him that we’d hiked in from there, he said incredulously, “you’re the first group I’ve ever heard of to hike that route, you must have done 20 miles today!” Actually, it was probably closer to 15, but still, it made our utter exhaustion feel somewhat justified. At any rate, the ranger let us off pretty easy.

After the day hikers left, darkness descended pretty quickly and we soon turned in for the night. Earlier, when we’d gone to the store for water, we’d passed some signs on Hwy 9 that read, “Night racers, we have” “your plates” “calling CHP”. Sure enough, sometime around 1 or 2 AM we heard the vroom of engines and squealing of tires echoing loudly through the mountains as several cars and motorcycles raced up and down the curves of Hwy 9 less than half a mile away. I could see how it might get tiresome if it happened regularly.

IMG_0734We got a late start the next morning, emerging from our tents around 9:30. After breakfast and breaking down camp, we set out around 11AM for Castle Rock trail head some 9.5 miles distant. Following Skyline-to-the-Sea to Saratoga Gap trail, we crossed into Castle Rock SP and picked up Travertine Springs trail to Castle Rock trail camp. We crossed several springs and streams along the way and stopped for lunch at Travertine Springs proper, though all we could see of the springs were thick stands of reeds.

After lunch, we ascended steadily through tan oak forest to the chaparral and manzanita of Castle Rock’s southwestern slopes. Once we passed Castle Rock trail camp (where we saw our friend the park ranger again), we were afforded the best views of the weekend from the rocky outcroppings of the Saratoga Gap trail over Big Basin, Ben Lomond, and the Santa Cruz bay.


Castle Rock really has it all – rivers and waterfalls, redwoods and madrones, shady forests, exposed rock formations, climbing and hiking, and some of the best vistas in the bay area – so it was great to end the hike there. Once we passed Castle Rock Falls, it was a short 1.5 miles to the main parking lot, where we were picked up by Andrew and a Jamba Juice for everyone.

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All in all, it was a great, sweaty weekend far away from civilization and yet right in our own backyard. That’s the beauty of living here. There’s talk of doing Yosemite again for next year’s trip, which would be awesome since I’ve never actually hiked there. And maybe some day Joshua Tree, and Lassen, and all the other amazing places in California…



Banana slugs 27, newts 11

dsc01862No, the title isn’t the score between two Bay Area school teams – I went for a hike yesterday in Big Basin, which is California’s oldest state park. Only an hour away from most locations in the mid-peninsula, the short journey there is a trip in itself. Winding mountain roads take you by the horse pastures and villas of Silicon Valley’s elite up to Skyline Blvd, where expansive views of the bay and rolling hills leading to the Pacific Ocean alternate with stately groves of redwood trees. Skyline hits Hwy 9 at Castle Rock, and you take Hwy 9 down to Rte 236, treated to more stunning vistas of lush tree topped mountains. Rte 236 takes you “straight” into Big Basin, where over 80 miles of trails await.

For our hike, we chose an 8 mile loop that led us through mostly redwood forest along numerous creeks. Being “winter”, the forest was very damp, but the trails had held up surprisingly well, and the weather that day was sunny and mild. The air smelled fresh and sweet and the undergrowth vibrant with new green.

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It wasn’t long before we encountered our first banana slug. For someone who grew up with the tiny, nondescript black slugs that are common on the east coast, banana slugs never cease to astound me with their sheer out-of-this-worldness. The large, bright yellow slug (genus Ariolimax) is practically ubiquitous in this area, however, and is the mascot for UC-Santa Cruz. The ones I’ve seen have all been a solid yellow color, and are either California or Pacific banana slugs. On this particular hike, we saw 27 banana slugs, some up to 8 inches long. It seemed to me that whenever we saw a profusion of mushrooms we tended to see a slug soon after, and this makes sense given that they are fond of eating fungi, in addition to rotting plants.

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As we descended and traversed the various creeks at the valley bottom, I noticed my first rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). The first one was a baby, as it was only a few inches long and lighter in color. We eventually saw a total of 11 newts, most of them mature adults, between 6-8 inches long. Their backs are dark and roughly mottled, while their bellies are smoother and a bright orangey yellow. I was struck by their well formed hands and feet, their seeming obliviousness to us, and their relative clumsiness. They moved almost mechanically despite interruption but when placed on a slight incline they more often than not simply fell over. I’d never seen a newt before so that surprised me – I expected all lizard-types to be, if not “sticky”, then climbers in some way.

Another group of organisms that fascinates me is fungi. There was no shortage of species encountered on our hike, many I’d never seen before. Again, the suburbs of the east coast don’t really expose you to the myriad of shapes, colors, and textures found in the forest during the rainy season, so each encounter was like discovering a treasure. Below is a gallery of most of the fungi we saw.




Some kind of polypore

A species of Ramaria fungus

Pinkish coral mushroom

Mycena osmundicola

Mycena osmundicola? growing from the side of a tree

Possibly some kind of chanterelle, but non-terrestrial

Possibly some kind of chanterelle, non-terrestrial

Probably either a dye-maker's polypore, or a false turkey-tail

Maybe a dye-maker's polypore or false turkey-tail

Either smoky coral or white worm coral

Either smoky coral or white worm coral

Possibly a waxy cap mushroom, or a small chanterelle

A waxy cap mushroom, or small chanterelle?

Possibly a jelly mushroom of the Dacrymyces family

Possibly a jelly mushroom of the Dacrymyces family

And this shows why I might have trouble hiking – I stop every few feet to examine a new specimen of plant, bug, or fungus. Maybe I should have been some kind of field scientist…

Notes: All photos except the first (by me) were taken by Chris Doyle. Mushroom identification attempted with the help of David Fischer’s American Mushrooms and this wonderful set of photos taken of mushrooms in Big Basin state park by Ron Wolf.