I woke up in a forest embedded in the University California Santa Cruz campus. By the time the sun set last night we opted for stealth camping in the wooded campus instead of seeking out a far-off campsite.
We parked at the northern parameter parking lot and after some wandering around in the dark, navigating among fallen trees and towering redwoods, we found a spot I deemed “flat enough.” Choosing a flat place to pitch the tent is an art I cultivated on the Pacific Crest Trail. Even amongst designated campsites, like the New Brighton State Beach where we slept last night, truly flat spots are hard to find.
You may think I am flat-spot-crazed but when you wake up at 3am rolling out of our tent you realize fast that finding a flat camping spot is a worthy task.
We found our flat patch in the woods and slept well, hoping we would not be woken up by students passing by on their morning jog. We got up at 6:30 and were out by 7:00, apparently too early for the college folk.
One our way towards Butano State Park, heading north, we stopped off at the town of Davenport to pick up chocolate muffins. I remember this as the town I couldn’t ‘hitch’ a ride out of several years ago on my way home from a trip in Big Sur. That thought made me grateful for my vehicle.
After a small stint on HWY 1, we started snaking our way inland on Pescadero road to Butano State Park. It is touted as one of California’s least visited State Parks, proud fact or abashed confession I was not sure. Either way, we were looking forward to the absence of crowds during our short backpacking trip.
We parked and approached the visitor center, with the ‘opened’ sign in the windows. The lights inside where off and no one was there. Upon further investigation the door was locked, the place was really living up to its desolate name.
We drove into the park and had breakfast amid a pile of fallen autumn leaves, gulping water between every bite. Our planned route for the next two days had no water sources so we would have to carry every ounce of water with us.
After a hearty breakfast of vegan burgers, mushrooms, and onions we headed back to the visitor center in the hopes of consulting a ranger before we headed out. We found one in the now lighted and unlocked visitor center. She confirmed our reservation and even guessed which party we were. Apparently the only other party backpacking in the park that weekend where the Blumes. Another point for the “deserted State Park.”
Unfortunately, she had no good information about the trail for us. She confirmed there would probably be no water but she confessed she had never been up that way so she couldn’t answer our questions about trail conditions. I was a bit surprised by her lack of knowledge because of how small this park is.
Our destination is, “Trail Camp”, it is the only backcountry campsite in the whole park. Nonetheless, we found a place to park and loaded up our packs. We are out of practice so it took nearly an hour to get everything together. After one more big gulp of water and with 7 liters of water packed we hit the trail.
We choose to hike in via the Jackson Flat trail, a winding single track trail leading to the ridge and eventually to the campsite. The only other options where fire roads, and although fire roads can make for great backpacking trips (Henry Coe SP is a great example) I always opt for the single trail.
Starting out was laborious, our packs weighing us down and the cold morning quickly turning into a hot afternoon. As it got gradually hotter we hit incline and somehow our packs got even heavier. Four hours into the 7-mile hike we were exhausted and ready to plotz.
The trail stretched on until we finally hit a milestone on the map that allowed us to figure out our location and remaining mileage. What we saw was disheartening, there was a small stream flowing at a slight trickle. It was not the Rio Grande but it would have been enough for us to filter and drink. We had just carried 16.2 pounds of water for naught. We got over our disappointment and arrived at camp within half an hour.
We came in from the south, the first campsite we saw where 8 and 7. We left out packs by the trail to scout it out. It was going to be our home for the next day, we didn’t want the Blumes to snatch the best campsite. When we got to campsite 8 the toil of the past six hours of hiking evaporated. It was a mix of a Redwood Haven, the type you might find in Big Sur, but spacious and open like a campsite we stayed at in Mendocino National Forest a while ago.
There was not only a truly flat camp spot but two! I was instantly impressed. Aside from the flat place to pitch the tent there was a great fallen tree that made an ideal kitchen table and two designated trees, a perfect hammocking spot (hammocking among designated trees only) We went back to the trail to retrieve our packs not even feeling the need to check out the other campsites.
The next day was serene and another great piece of evidence in the case for spending zero days in nature, sometimes a hard sell for us go hard or go home mlieagecoveringlongdistancebackpacking types.
We grudgingly headed out Sunday morning knowing once we got back to the car we had a 2-hour drive back to the Bay Area in store. We opted for a ridge walk (Butano Fire Road) back, it looked easier than the other options. That ease proved true, the weather stayed cool and the trail was gradual. We arrived back at the visitor center in what felt like an hour but was probably closer to three hours. There was already a humble horde of weekend visitors by the time we got back. The first sign of suspicion towards the parks claim to anonymity.
We had a hearty lunch of more vegan burgers, mushrooms, but this time no onions. At last the time came for us to drive back along Pescadero road aiming for Marin County.
Thinking about making a trip to Butano State Park? Here are a few pointers I have:
- It is a great excursion for those folks Bay Area adjacent, a 2-hour drive in the right traffic
- Check out Amy Kaesers trip review, it is a nice write up and has some good details
- Maps, reservations, and a way to contact the visitor center can be found at the State Park website
- Do not rely on there being water, just because we found a slight trickle. Always do your research, expect the best and be prepared for the worst
Have more questions? Made this trip? Leave a comment below and I will respond when I make my way out of the mountains.