Every year shortly after New Year’s (this year January 7th) there is a great low-key run along a fantastic 29-mile loop in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains known as the Saratoga Fatass. There is no official start time although most start between 7:30 and 8 am. There are no course markings and only one aid station along China Grade at the top of the Butano Ridge cross-over into Big Basin Park. I have run this loop several times before but never on the date of the fatass so it was great to see other runners along the route (usually I see nobody) and chat after the run. I’m a big fan of names that accurately describe things so I like to call this the “Pescadero Watershed 50k” or “Upper Pescadero 50k” since this route completes a giant and aesthetic 29+ mile single circumnavigation loop around the upper part of the magnificent Pescadero Creek Watershed.
With idyllic weather conditions, I got into a nice solid rhythm and let my feeling dictate the pace. The unusually dry early winter also resulted in great trail conditions which helped as well, although there was a large area of blowdown (giant old growth redwoods over the trail and lots of messy debris) heading down the Slate Creek Trail and a few down trees on other parts of the loop. I made sure to leave enough in the tank for the 6+ miles of climbing at the finish (toughest part of the course at the end!) but it is never an easy stretch. Overall, conditions were fantastic and it was great to complete one of my favorite loops in 3:50:45. The remainder of this post is a written description of the loop that might be of interest:The loop around the Pescadero watershed is quintessential Santa Cruz Mountains, with all the things you expect to see in these 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, almost all of which are delicious single track.
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.
Route map by Jean Pommier
Elevation Profile by Jean Pommier
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.