Wilder Ranch State Park, just a few minutes south of Davenport, is a 7,000 acre ranch from the late 1800s converted into a museum and nature preserve. It’s one of those lesser-known patches of coastline that you have to see to believe – and it’s easily enjoyed as a relaxing walk on the bluffs or a dramatic bike ride.
Wilder Ranch is one of those special areas of exposed coastline in California that remains largely untouched by property development. The land was originally home to the Ohlone people, who lived there for centuries before the 1776 Spanish expedition of Gaspar de Portolá and subsequent influence of Mission Santa Cruz. The Spanish grazed the mission cattle on Ohlone lands, exploited their food sources, and transferred European diseases to the native people.
As the Ohlone population dwindled, the Spanish claimed the land under the name Rancho Arroyo del Matadero and used it for raising and butchering cattle until the 1830s. It changed hands several more times before coming under the ownership of the Wilder Family, who operated the Wilder Creamery and ranchland for over a century.
The land was eventually proposed for property development in the 1970s, but Santa Cruz citizens voted to maintain it as a nature preserve. Today, visitors can still visit the 19th-century dairy ranch, an 1897 Victorian home, an 1859 Gothic Revival farmhouse, and an 1896 water-powered machine shop. You can explore these elements on 1-hour weekend tours, where docents often dress in period clothing.
As for hiking, there are several trails you can take at Wilder Ranch. The Old Landing Cove Trail, Pacific to Redwoods Loop, and Wilder Ridge trails will give you up-close views of the breaking waves and access to some of the hidden beaches. Make sure you walk down onto Fern Grotto Beach, where you can find some incredible sea caves.
The Englesman, Long Meadow, Eucalyptus and Enchanted Loop trails will give you more views of the green countryside, with a dazzling ocean backdrop. You can learn more about hiking options on the Wilder Ranch website, where they outline some mild, moderate, and more strenuous hiking options.
Keep an eye out for native wildlife including harbor seals playing in the water or basking on the beach. Other animals include egrets, pelicans, gulls, newts, and snakes. There is also plenty of informative signage to help you spot native animals.
The cliffs are great places to look for whales! Keep an eye on the water and see if you can catch them spouting.
Be advised that dogs are not allowed at Wilder Ranch, except for service animals.
Don’t forget to search for sea anemones, star fish, hermit crabs, and other interesting critters in the tide pools. But remember: you’re a guest in these creatures’ habitat, so try not to disturb whatever you find and always watch your step! Be sure to visit at low tide, and watch out for sneaker waves. Check the tide tables here.
Be sure to visit Wilder Ranch State Park for an amazing weekend getaway from the city! You can find it off of Highway One, just north of Santa Cruz at 1401 Coast Road.
Featured Image: Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz via Shutterstock