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

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 aa 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.

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.

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.

Horseback riding is allowed on all park trails and unpaved roads except those on the ocean side of Highway 1. The park is also one of the bay area's most popular off-road cycling destinations

Best Hikes at Wilder Ranch

Many visitors at Wilder Ranch head to the state park for hiking. The trails range from two miles to upwards of 10 miles, and most are moderately difficult. None of the trails are stroller accessible.

Trails beginning in the lower park at the Cultural Preserve take you along the coastal bluffs, down to the beach to see tide pools and sea caves, or up into the hills. The Bluff Trail is the most commonly used, especially since it's an in-and-out hike that can be as long as you want to make it.

It can be easy to get lost with so many choices, making a map essential. To get an overview of all of the hikes with ratings and maps, use AllTrails, which also has an app so you can take your routes with you. You can also go old school and pick up a trail map at the entrance.

What to Know Before You Go

  • The park is day-use only, open from morning until sunset. It has six equestrian-only campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no other campsites at the park.
  • 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 conditions called June Gloom, which can happen anytime between May and August.
  • Get current hours, schedules, and parking fees at the Wilder Ranch State Park website.

How to Get to Wilder Ranch

Wilder Ranch State Park is north of Santa Cruz, 45 miles south of Half Moon Bay, and 73 miles from San Francisco. If you are driving from Santa Cruz on CA Highway 1, it is two miles past the Western Drive traffic light. You can also get there by bus. Take Santa Cruz METRO route 20 or 69A.

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What to Know Before You Go to Wilder Ranch