Quick Take:

The world has been a bit upside down, from COVID-19 to economic and wildfire recovery. Here’s our Lookout Guide to sanctuary and solace, especially as the pandemic grip loosens and summer blooms. These Santa Cruz County hiking paths will bring some calm to your being. Best off, they’re all free.

It didn’t take a pandemic to convince Santa Cruzans that they are better off outside. The redwood paths, rushing creeks, tree canopies, and outdoor vistas are where many locals feel most at home. Many are wise to the fact that hitting the local trails can feel like a mental and psychological refresh.

There are so many different places to explore in the county that you can spend time at a different one every day of the week.

Here are six spots that offer the perfect combination of variety, seclusion and awe-inspiring nature retreats. A huge, added bonus: The entrance to every one of these trails is free.

Earn your cheesy Bavarian in Corralitos

The Byrne-Milliron Forest
Credit: Courtesy Santa Cruz Land Trust / Paul Zaretsky

The Byrne-Milliron Forest in Corralitos is slightly larger than 400 acres, but it provides the best of what the region has to offer. The forest is managed by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and is tucked away off of Browns Valley Road about 2.5 miles from downtown Corralitos. There’s no entrance fee, but visitors are encouraged to register online in advance or when they arrive at the parking area.

The trail to AJ’s Point starts with a steady, steep ascent through coastal chaparral. Turn right at the Byrne trail from the connector trail, and it’s about 1.5 miles to the deck with sweeping views of Pajaro Valley and Monterey Bay.

Not a bad view from up here.
Not a bad view from up here. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Along the trail, you’ll find plenty of resting spots. The former caretaker used to leave oranges and water, and you’ll still find old mailboxes filled with binoculars to observe the birds and landscape.

If you’re more in the mood for unusual fauna, take the Milliron Trail that will lead you to the “Great White” redwood, a tree whose bark has been bleached by the sun.

For a post-hike treat, head to the Corralitos Market for a cheesy Bavarian sausage or grab a pint of Hop Kiss from Corralitos Brewing Company.

  • Address: 809 Browns Valley Rd., Corralitos
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
  • Parking: Lot available.
  • Distance options: 1.5 miles to the view — and can be extended for an additional six miles throughout the forest.
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: Available near parking lot.
  • Tip: The road to the forest is narrow and windy. Use caution and go slowly to let other vehicles pass.

More about the Bryne-Milliron Forest

Cool your jets along Aptos Creek

Aptos Creek
Aptos Creek Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Want to Zen out at your own private beach near Aptos Creek? Access to the neighborhood entrance of the Forest of Nisene Marks is just off of Vienna Road, and allows visitors to sidestep the park’s crowded, dusty fire road and the entrance fees.

Instead, you can pass fat banana slugs as you wade in Aptos Creek and marvel at the old-growth redwoods in this lesser-known part of the park.

The trail begins in the oaks, but quickly leads into the redwood forest. The descent is along a narrow path, until you read an unmarked four-way trail junction. Head toward the right (south) and continue on the Vienna Woods Trail.

Your own private beach.
Your own private beach. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

You’ll meet several other unmarked forks in the road; just hug the right, and the path will take you to private creek beaches lined with burned-out trunk forts, rope swings and driftwood sculptures.

If you can pull yourself away from that idyllic setting, you can continue on to the Aptos Rancho Trail at a giant old-growth redwood. If you get lost for a bit, no worries. This is a place that’s all about joy in the discovery.

  • Address: Aptos Creek Rd., Aptos
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
  • Parking: Street parking.
  • Distance options: About 1.5 miles round trip to the creek. The hike can be extended to explore the 30 miles of trails within the park.
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: None near trail.
  • Tip: Stay on the path. The trail has seasonal poison oak.

More on Nisene Marks

Clear your monkey mind here

Land of the Medicine Buddha
Credit: Courtesy Sean Sequoia

If you’re searching for a bit of serenity in the woods in these chaotic times, then look no further than The Land of the Medicine Buddha in Soquel. The Tibetan retreat center is tucked away about 2.5 miles away from the lively wineries and funky coffee shops of downtown Soquel, but first you have to get there.

Access this quiet spot by driving up into the mountains from Main Street and turning right onto Prescott Road.

The road narrows and you might have to pull off to let your fellow dharma bums pass. Start your physical and spiritual exploration at the prayer wheel near the parking lot and head uphill on the pavement past a smaller prayer wheel, inscribed bell and large golden deity.

The path has plenty of places to sit and contemplate the Buddhist teachings that are written along the trail before heading into the Enchanted Forest, where redwood shrines and prayer flags welcome you. Make it a loop by heading right after you exit the Enchanted Forest. There’s a resting spot near the koi pond before you head back to reality.

Or, if you’re blissed-out enough, you can walk all the way to the Forest of Nisene Marks, but most people will turn back well before then — unless they’ve caravanned and left a car at each spot.

Land of Medicine Buddha
Credit: Courtesy of Land of Medicine Buddha

  • Address: 5800 Prescott Rd, Soquel
  • Hours: 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Parking: Street parking available.
  • Distance options: Anywhere between 2 and 6.2 miles on the Land of the Medicine Buddha grounds. The hike can be extended into the Forest of Nisene Marks.
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: Available on premises.
  • Tip: The trail has seasonal poison oak, but the path is wide and it’s easily avoidable. The road to the forest is narrow. Use caution and go slowly to let other vehicles pass. A $5 donation of hikers is requested, but not required.

More about The Land of the Medicine Buddha

Your own private hacienda

A trail in DeLaveaga Park.
A trail in DeLaveaga Park. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The “DeLaveaga Park Wilderness Area” just off Market Street in Santa Cruz is a way to get your lunchtime nature fix before your afternoon of back-to-back Zoom calls. This place is a known hangout for bobcats, deer and the occasional curious mountain lion.

This centrally located urban park is cool and delightful on a hot day, with a beguiling assortment of Douglas fir, oak, grasslands and tall redwoods.

The park — formerly the private hacienda of the DeLaveaga family — is a great place to take a leisurely stroll past exposed tree roots.

Easily accessible from Highway 1’s Morrissey Boulevard exit, this hiking and biking area has its own small dirt parking lot adjacent to a dog park on Market Street. You start on a brief steep jaunt up a hard-packed dirt road that soon gives way to softer ground and dense forest.

You could stay on the wide and roomy Sand Pit Trail, opt for the Redwood Loop path or take the snaking Upper DeLaveaga Loop Trail, which passes so close to the DeLaveaga Golf Course that you can sometimes see players stumbling around the ferns in search of lost balls.

  • Address: 855 Branciforte Drive, Santa Cruz
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
  • Parking: Street parking available.
  • Distance options: Between 1.6 miles and 4 miles.
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: None near the trail.
  • Tip: Stay on the path. The trail has seasonal poison oak.

More about DeLaveaga Park

Where you beat the Wilder crowds

Moore Creek
Credit: Courtesy Sean Sequoia

On the Westside of Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch gets all the love from hikers and mountain bikers who crave an adrenaline boost with panoramic payoffs. But if you’re looking for views of the Pacific without the crowds, just cross Highway 1 at Schaffer Road and you’ll find Moore Creek Preserve. The nondescript entrance to this city park can be difficult to spot, which makes it a locals-only hangout.

The Prairie View trail starts off with a steep uphill in grass and dirt, but after a few minutes of walking, you’ll be treated to panoramic vistas you most likely won’t have to share with anyone else. You might, however, have to maneuver around a herd of cows and, depending on the season, newborn calves. The bovines are used to human encounters and will politely move aside when you approach.

Don’t be surprised if you spot a lizard and snake along this heart-pumping uphill climb. The area is also home to the endangered red-legged frog and the Ohlone tiger beetle, so tread lightly. The hike continues along coastal prairie for about a mile to a flattened ridge, where there’s plenty of open space to enjoy a socially distanced picnic.

If you still want to explore, head into the shade to the oak forest with beautiful trees that drape over the path. Kids (and adults) will love climbing these old trees, an activity that can be a perfect antidote to too much screen time. You can rest on a branch before heading back to the comforts of town, where you can recover with a treat from nearby Companion Bakery or a caffeine boost at Verve Coffee.

  • Address: Moore Creek Trail, Santa Cruz
  • Hours: Summer (April-October): sunrise to 7 p.m. Winter (November-March): sunrise to 4 p.m.
  • Parking: Street parking available.
  • Distance options: 2.5 miles
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: None near the trail.
  • Tip: There have been break-ins to cars recently on Shaffer Road, so you might want to park on more heavily trafficked Delaware Avenue and walk to the trailhead.

More about Moore Creek Preserve

Quintessential Santa Cruz

Henry Cowell
Credit: Courtesy Sean Sequoia

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is most famous for its lovely and highly touristed Redwood Grove Loop Trail, accessible from the park’s main entrance. But the park’s steep and narrow hidden entrance — easily reached from a free parking area just off of Graham Hill Road, close to Sims Road — gives you access to the park’s ferny, well-shaded eastern edge, with well-marked side trails.

Hikers have a few options here. A relatively short walk along Pipeline Road (about a mile) leads to an overlook bench where hikers can catch their breath and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Along the way, you’ll pass places to take a quick dip in a swimming hole or just enjoy a tree bath.

If you want more of a workout (and an even better view), follow the signs at the junction near the picnic tables towards the Pine Trail. This is a sunny, steep path lined with chaparral.

As soon as you step on to the path, it feels like you’ve entered a completely different forest. Follow the signs to the Ridge Trail and you’ll be treated to 360-degree views at the Henry Cowell Observation deck.

  • Address: 101 N. Big Trees Park Road, Felton
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
  • Parking: Street parking available.
  • Distance options: The park has more than 30 miles of trails you can explore. Or keep it on the shorter end with a 1-3-mile hike.
  • Water availability: Bring your own.
  • Bathrooms: None near the trail.
  • Tip: The trail to the observation deck can get baked by the sun, so pack your hat, sunscreen and extra water.

More on Henry Cowell Redwoods here