This fantastic 29-mile loop is also the route of the low key Saratoga Fatass 50k that happens around New Year’s day. I am a big fan of names that accurately describe things and aside from starting and finishing at Saratoga Gap, there is nothing “Saratoga” about this loop. Therefore, I came up with the Upper Pescadero 50k because this route completes a giant and aesthetic 29 mile loop around the upper part of the magnificent Pescadero Creek Watershed. In other words, the upper Pescadero Creek Watershed is the central geographic feature which this route circumnavigates.
The loop is quintessential Santa Cruz Mountains, with all the things you expect to see in this mountains wrapped up into one pleasant loop, including spectacular vistas from grassy ridgelines, ancient douglas firs, chaparral with stately knobcone pines, and lush redwood forest. The route passes through a collection of parks and preserves, including Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve, Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, Portola Redwoods State Park, Pescadero County Park, Big Basin State Park, and Castle Rock State Park. 99% of the loop is on trails, most of which is single track.
Route description after the jump!
The route starts at Saratoga Gap and follows the Saratoga Gap trail for 2 miles before crossing Hwy 35 and entering Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. The next section along the Hickory Oaks Trail includes open viewpoints that provide a great overview of the Upper Pescadero Creek Watershed and you can essentially see the entire route. After a sharp descent along Ward Road (becoming single track), a right turn is taken on the Slate Creek Trail. After more descending you cross Slate Creek and are treated to a fantastic rolling section among mature redwoods with a lush carpet of redwood sorrel and the cascading Slate Creek nearby. A slight rise brings you to a trail camp and the intersection for the Peters Creek Grove Trail – continue on the Slate Creek Trail. After a pleasant traverse near the ridge crest, you leave the Slate Creek Trail and make another steep descent on the Summit Trail. At the bottom of the Summit Trail, run along the park maintenance road (the only real pavement on the entire route) for about a quarter mile, crossing Pescadero Creek and (if needed) refilling water at the maintenance building.
A short steep climb above Pescadero Creek puts you at Old Haul Road. Cross Old Haul Road and take the Portola Trail, which makes a gradual ascent up toward the Butano Ridge Trail, including a nice section next to Iverson Creek. The climb continues along the Butano Ridge trail, at first gradual, but then steepening in an area known as “40 corners” due to the plethora of tight switchbacks. From Pescadero Creek to the top of the climb up Butano Ridge is around 1,600 ft of net vertical gain. At the top of the climb there is a junction – the Butano Ridge Loop continues to the right and the Basin Trail starts to the left. Go left and traverse below the crest of Butano Ridge, passing by a viewpoint that is becoming obscured by trees (you can still see Pescadero and Skyline Ridge). Eventually you enter an easement section of property owned by Redtree logging company. This area can be a little confusing with old logging roads crisscrossing the forest so look out for the small signs directing the path of the easement. A short steep climb leads to the top of China Grade and Lane Camp in Big Basin State Park (2,280 ft). You might feel like you have come a long way from Saratoga Gap, but this only about the halfway point of the loop.
From Lane Camp/China Grade, continue on the Basin Trail, which has sharp contrasts from redwood forest to chaparral. The trail also passes through a nice knobcone pine forest with a technical section along sandstone. This trail is becoming overgrown in places as the chaparral is starting to encroach. The technical nature of the Basin Trail along with the brush make it a relatively slow three miles to the junction with the Skyline to the Sea Trail and China Grade crossing. From this point you remain on the Skyline to the Sea Trail all the way up to Saratoga Gap – 11.2 miles. The first portion to Waterman Gap is generally rolling in a nice redwood forest and goes by relatively fast. The final 6.5 miles is a real slog with 1,700+ ft of total climbing (~1,350 of net gain) with Hwy 9 always nearby.
Overall, this is one of the finest loops in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the entire Bay Area. While not quite 50k (about 47k or 29 miles), you will feel like you ran 50k or more by the time you make it back to Saratoga Gap. While the ~4,500-5,000 feet of total elevation gain does not seem so daunting, a good chunk of the gain comes in the final stages of the loop and sections like the Basin Trail are tiring despite not having much elevation gain. The route is largely under forest canopy which makes it a good choice during the summer months and the trails generally drain well making it a good wet season choice as well.
- A GPS track from my friend Gary Gellin who participated in this year’s Saratoga Fatass 50k (great overview displaying the size of the loop)
- Here is a rudimentary map from the Saratoga Fatass website.