Butano State Park

A wilderness escape
California > San Francisco Bay Area

The Butano Fire Road has some nice views over the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The prominent peak with the plateau at upper-left is Pine Mountain (Buzzards' Roost) in Big Basin.

Butano State Park is one of the quietest and most remote parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's also one of the least-visited parks on the peninsula, mostly because it's kind of hard to get there and it lacks a major attraction like Ano Nuevo's elephant seals or Big Basin's giant redwoods. That makes it a great place to visit if you want solitude: in summer you might see two or three other groups during a day-long hike, while in winter you might have the entire park to yourself.

The park was created in 1956 after efforts to save a 1,040-acre expanse of old-growth redwoods just to the north failed due to the high cost of the land. To mollify conservationists, the state purchased the current park, which with only 315 acres of old growth was more affordable.

The park's main entrance, campground, and the nearby trails are in a logged area that, while lush and shady, isn't especially scenic. Hidden within the park, though, is some excellent scenery that makes the very enjoyable canyon rim hike worthwhile.

** The Canyon Rim Route (11.7 miles, 1700 feet)

Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps or in Google Street View.

This satisfying backcountry loop combines the best trails of Butano State Park. Circling the rim of Little Butano Canyon, the trail has an engaging variety of scenery, with two sections of old-growth redwood uplands, two stretches of sunny chaparral with expansive views over the conifer-clad mountains, and a creekside stroll. The redwoods aren't very big, but up until Little Butano Creek there are few signs of logging and the woods have an atractive lush and open appearance. Sweeping views of three major valleys, with almost no sign of development among the miles of green hills, make the hike feel like a wilderness getaway.

Quite a bit of this hike is on exposed fire roads and on hot summer days these roads can get unpleasant. Otherwise, though, this is a hike that can be tackled year-round.

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all trails and roads
Part of the Bay Area Trail Map: Big Basin and Castle Rock (Redwood Hikes Press, 2013)

Start in the little parking lot next to the entrance kiosk and the visitor center, and take the Jackson Flats Trail. The trail immediately begins a moderate ascent through oak woodlands which give way to a small redwood grove after about a half-mile. As it ascends, the trail passes several more small groups of redwoods. Although there aren't any stumps, the redwoods have a twisted, irregular appearance that suggests that they are second growth. There's a little poison oak along this section of the trail but fortunately, once you get to Butano Fire Road there won't be any more poison oak to deal with for the rest of the hike.

Jackson Flats itself is somewhat anticlimatic — a small open area with a little bit of boardwalk. You might not even notice it if you're not looking for it.

The trail soon comes to an intersection. Straight ahead is the Canyon Trail, a rather monotonous singletrack trail that seems to wind in and out of ravines forever. To the left, the Jackson Flats Trail climbs more steeply to meet the Butano Fire Road, which is longer but a lot more scenic.

Goat Hill Trail

The trail emerges from the forest just before it reaches Butano Fire Road. Turn right onto the road. The climb starts out a little dull and the wide road is sunny and hot in summer. Soon, you're treated to a nice view over the Little Butano Creek basin.

Passing lichen-draped spruce trees, the road curves up to an abandoned landing field, which looks like a wide, unused dirt road (but typically for this area, the "dirt" is actually fine chips of rock). There are some partially-obstructed views of Butano Canyon from near the end of the runway.

Just after the runway, the road descends into a cool old-growth redwood grove that surrounds the peaceful Butano Trail Camp. The trees aren't especially large, but the attractive old-growth look is unmistakable. The biggest trees are right along the road; a few yards away, within the trail camp, the trees are a lot smaller.

Little Butano Creek Trail

Past the trail camp the road ascends, a little steeply, to an intersection. Turn right onto Olmo Fire Road. The old growth soon ends and you'll see some signs that say "No Trespassing / Ainsley Family Tree Farm", indicating that road is crossing through private property and that you shouldn't leave the road. The road descends steeply out of the woods, offering some very nice, expansive views of two redwood-covered valleys, the Gazos Creek watershed to the left and the Little Butano Creek watershed to the right.

Just after the trail re-enters the woods and as it starts to climb a hill, look for the Doe Ridge Trail to your right. On summer days the temperature always seems to drop by 10 degrees when you step onto the trail.

The Doe Ridge Trail trail winds through a pretty stretch of old-growth redwood uplands. The redwoods are smaller here than around the trail camp, but a lush groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel makes this area more attractive. The redwoods are sparsely distributed among a dense understory of huckleberry and tanoak. Despite the small size of the trees, the openness of the woods above the understory, the variation in the size of the trees, and the lack of stumps all indicate that this is old growth.

Little Butano Creek Trail

As the trail crests a small hill, the redwoods give way to a coastal pine forest with some pretty good-sized trees. At the Goat Hill Trail, turn right and descend until you reach a dirt road. At this point, you can turn right to access the Butano Creek Trail or turn left for a faster exit.

Turning right adds 1.2 miles to the hike. The uninteresting dirt road descends to the lush canyon bottom, which has been logged and can be somewhat dark, but still makes for an interesting walk and adds some more variety to the loop. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs high up the hillside on the other side before dropping back down to the creek. It then crosses the creek several times before ending at the main park entrance road.

The main road, which is open to cars, passes an artificial pond and runs alongside a flume that was apparently used for logging. There are trails that run alongside the paved road, but they're kind of hilly and dull so I usually just take the road back to the parking lot.


© 2010, 2012 David Baselt