Wilder Ranch State Park: The Complete Guide

Beaches and cliffs on the Pacific Coast, Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz, California
Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images
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Wilder Ranch State Park

Address
1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060-5601, USA
Phone +1 831-423-9703

Wilder Ranch State Park is a former dairy ranch turned state park, complete with a 19th-century Victorian home, a water-powered machine shop, farm animals, and buildings to explore. The park's 7,000 acres cover a varied landscape. From the crest of Ben Lomond Mountain, it rolls down ancient wave-cut terraces through marshlands to the seashore.

Today's Wilder Ranch takes its name from D.D. Wilder, who established a dairy and harnessed water power to generate electricity to run it. His family worked there for the next five generations until 1969.

Things to Do at Wilder Ranch

The Wilder Dairy Cultural Preserve includes a rodeo arena, ranch buildings, and three restored workshops run by water power. You can take free tours and guided hikes on weekends, starting from the Visitor Center. Docents at Wilder Ranch also dress in period clothing and give living history demonstrations. Some people take a picnic to enjoy on the front lawn, and kids love to see the farm animals. The park is also one of the Bay Area's most popular off-road cycling destinations.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of visiting Wilder Ranch State Park is the hike along its coastal bluffs with views across the Pacific. You might catch a glimpse of migrating whales from there or watch a flock of pelicans flying just above the water like a formation of bomber planes.

Wilder Ranch is also a place where you can explore the sweep of California history, starting with Ohlone Indians who lived in the area and traded local stones, shells, and bone tools with inland tribes. The Spanish mission era began when Mission Santa Cruz was dedicated in 1791. After the missions were secularized, the land became a large rancho that had a series of owners.

Horseback riding is allowed on all park trails and unpaved roads except those on the ocean side of Highway 1. There are also six equestrian-only campsites for visitors with horses to spend the night that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, there's no other camping in the park and these sites are exclusively available to campers with horses.

Best Hikes & Trails

Many visitors at Wilder Ranch head to the state park for hiking. The trails range from 2 miles to upward of 10 miles and most are moderately difficult, but you can get breathtaking views of the ocean or escape into the nearby redwood forests.

  • Ohlone Bluff Trail: The Bluff Trail is the most commonly used, especially since it's an easy in-and-out hike that's 2.5 miles one-way, making for a perfect half-day hike. The trail begins in the lower park at the Cultural Preserve and takes you along the scenic coastal bluffs and down to the beach to see tide pools and sea caves.
  • Wilder Ridge Loop: This trail offers not just sweeping views of Monterey Bay, but you may also come across deer, bobcats, hawks, and turkey vultures. It's a moderately difficult hike and 4 miles to the scenic outlook overlooking the bay.
  • Enchanted Loop: For a full day of hiking, take the Wilder Ridge Loop until you get to the Enchanted Loop. The full trail is about 8 miles, and you'll be deep in the redwood forests as opposed to the open coastal views of the other trails.

Where to Stay Nearby

Wilder Ranch is right at the doorstep of one of California's most popular beach towns: Santa Cruz. There are all kinds of options like homey bed and breakfasts, luxurious hotel chains, and cute Airbnbs. However, Santa Cruz isn't a cheap city to sleep in, so make your reservations early to have the most options.

  • Pacific Blue Inn: This inn shows that being eco-friendly and providing top-notch hospitality can go hand in hand. It's conveniently located within walking distance of the Beach Boardwalk and downtown, and less than 10 minutes away from Wilder Ranch by car.
  • Babbling Brook Inn: Just 3 miles away from the state park, the Babbling Brook Inn has been a favorite place to stay in Santa Cruz for years. The building dates back to 1796 when it was built as a corn mill, but today it's a boutique hotel in the heart of the city.
  • Dream Inn: The Dream Inn is quintessential California, located right on the beach and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And with Wilder Ranch just 10 minutes away, you have the best of both worlds at your fingertips.

For more ideas of where to stay, check out the best places to stay in Santa Cruz.

How to Get There

Wilder Ranch State Park is just north of Santa Cruz and right off of scenic Highway 1. The nearest big city is San Jose, which is about 40 minutes away just over the Santa Cruz mountains. Meanwhile, San Francisco is about an hour and 15 minutes away by car. Both San Jose and San Francisco have major airports for travelers arriving from outside of the Bay Area.

Accessibility

While the trails are not accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or with strollers, the other tourist destinations in the park are. The historic ranch and nearby buildings aren't located near the parking lot, but you can request to be dropped off closer. Other barns around the park and the visitor center are accessible via ramps. The main parking lot and the restroom near the parking lot are both accessible for all visitors.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park is open for day-use only from morning until sunset.
  • There is a charge for parking, or you can park alongside the highway and walk in. Parking fees contribute to the park's maintenance, and your vehicle may be slightly safer there than beside the road.
  • The park has a visitor center and park store. Restrooms and drinking water are available.
  • Dogs are not allowed (except for service animals).
  • The ocean views from the park can be spectacular, but it's most enjoyable on a sunny day. If you live near the California coast, you already know that it is often foggy (and cold) all day in the summer, especially during foggy June Gloom. The best time to visit is usually September when the days are consistently clear and the sun is out.
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What to Know Before You Go to Wilder Ranch State Park