Before budget cuts hit and gates close, our diligent scribe explores the area’s greatest treasures
Bonny Doon was burning. Jaws was lurking. The Terminator was touring. And it was all happening in Santa Cruz County on the third day of my story. It seemed like a strange convergence as I returned home from a long day amongst the redwoods. Big Basin, California’s oldest state park, at this point, was recoiling from the smoke that had swirled into its canopies from the blazing Lockheed Fire, which had spread across more than 5,000 acres and was 15 percent contained. News headlines were buzzing about how the worst local fire in 20 years had set up camp north of Santa Cruz, while a great white shark that mauled a dolphin had taken up residency in our local beaches in the south.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was meeting with fire officials in the county because nature was at her wildest. Meanwhile I was exploring local wilderness in response to his recent mandates for state park closures.
As I stopped at a red light on Mission Street and watched a helicopter drag a bucket of water the size of a dot across the hazy sky thick with smoke, I thought about the response a park ranger gave earlier in the day, after I had asked him what he’d want to say to the visiting governor if given the chance.
“I think I’d probably have to tone down what I’d want to say if it’s going to be in print,” the mild-mannered ranger said, requesting anonymity due to the hot-button topic of budget cuts at hand. He pondered quietly before offering a simple statement: “I guess I’d want to know if he’s ever been to our state parks, and I’d tell him he should take the time to really see what they’re about.”
I’d never taken the time to really see what my local state parks are about. While my twenties were spent schlepping across oceans with my backpack and spare change adventuring to the opposite corners of the globe—South Africa for six months, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji for nearly two years, and shorter stints in Southeast Asia and Colombia—the world-class state parks and facilities in my backyard never really piqued my curiosity all that much. “They’ll always be here awaiting my return, right?” This was always my thinking when I’d hear names of cool spots around the corner but would never investigate further.
Seeing the light at Henry Cowell.
And then … budget cuts took center stage and press releases flooded the Good Times offices: Gov. Schwarzenegger had nixed an additional $6.2 million in state parks funding (making the total loss $14.2 million), and that could mean the closure of more than 100 sites.
Was it possible that state parks and beaches could simply be abandoned without a system to care for them? Could visitor centers or campgrounds or lifeguard towers or bathrooms be padlocked shut? What about those issues of safety and stewardship?
I met with Bonny Hawley, the executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, and Friends spokesperson Bill Maxfield, to learn more. As the head of the nonprofit which raises funds and awareness for education in the parks system, and which currently operates as its most vocal defense against closures, they are at the helm of the movement to counteract the governor’s decree.
“[State parks] are all public trust resources that have been acquired because people way before us went through a lot to save these areas,” said Hawley. “After decades of cuts upon cuts, these facilities are already operating at bare bones.”
According to Hawley, the reduction of an already skeleton crew could lead to illegal activities in the parks and the deterioration of natural resources currently protected by rangers and naturalists.
“During the Great Depression people taxed themselves to purchase some of these properties,” Maxfield chimed in, “and here we are in the Great Recession closing them up. It’s mind boggling.”
Now, I’m not a numbers cruncher or a savvy political/financial analyst, but I like me my outdoors and I knew it was time to pay attention to that which I’d ignored and which might now be taken away.
Still, let’s get one thing out into the open: I am not a seasoned hiker. I don’t own one piece of REI or North Face clothing and I’m not intuitively good with directions and maps. I almost cried climbing Half Dome and I once lost blood after accidentally snapping my elastic headlamp onto the bridge of my nose. Like many in these parts, I tend to gravitate toward the water versus inland travails when I’ve got a few hours (or days) to spare. But with the downsizing of operations in the state parks system looming, that old saying, “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” has gained potency. I decided it was time to do in four days what I hadn’t done in all my years living in Santa Cruz.
So with Labor Day fast approaching—after which the proverbial budget cut axe is slated to fall and unknown measures to scale back spending will hit—I was determined to go into the wild (cue Eddie Vedder singing here) and scope out 14 protected areas in the coastal and mountain sectors of the Santa Cruz State Parks District.
Could I do it? I’d already been called “nuts” just for proposing the idea. What would I find?
I guess I’d want to know if [the governor has] ever been to our state parks, and I’d tell him he should take the time to really see what they’re about. —Anonymous Park Ranger
I was staring straight into the eyes of a great white shark. I was fearless. We were locked in a face-to-face confrontation, neither of us wavering, neither of us moving an inch.
Neither of us moved an inch because I was sitting in my truck at the entrance kiosk to Seacliff State Beach staring down a photocopied flier of a great white shark taped on the kiosk window. The note warned that a recent shark sighting had sparked a ban on water play at New Brighton and Seacliff state beaches. I looked over my shoulder and whispered telepathically to my six-foot six-inch single-fin lounging in the back of my pickup, “It’s going to be OK.”
It was the tail end of my packed first day striking eight destinations, and I’d already investigated the following: Natural Bridges State Park and its monarch havens, green pond and active tide pools luring groups of school children on educational tours; Lighthouse Field’s hidden paths nestled across the street from the surfer statue and the surfing museum off West Cliff; the Santa Cruz Mission—harboring the oldest building in Santa Cruz County—quietly sitting smack near downtown; Twin Lakes’ packed crowds sticking rainbow umbrellas into the sand; and New Brighton beach’s fishermen and tucked-away campsites.
I had started the day at the Natural Bridges visitor center appreciating the art of taxidermy (there’s nothing like gazing into the frozen faces of dead critters in the morn—a sea otter, raccoon and gull), traced the evolution of the arching siltstone structure the park is named after in photos spanning the 1900s, and ambled about the berry bushes and eucalyptus trees that will soon be adorned with more than 100,000 Monarch butterflies when they land in town for a winter breather. And while my kick-off at the park that was established in 1933 was lighthearted, my later visit to the nearly 200-year-old remnants of the Santa Cruz Mission would weigh a bit heavier on the heart.
All’s quiet on the waterfront at Wilder Ranch.
I had run my hand along the white adobe walls of the mission compound’s remaining eight rooms, which were built by Ohlone and Yokut Indians during the early 1820s. I wondered if the spirits of those who once lived, labored and loved there throughout the different eras still milled through the doorways, annoyed by, or unaware of, the school children and families that now stop by for the lessons it reveals.
“For years, people in this country and in Santa Cruz were in denial of our Mexican-Spanish roots and Native American history,” Mission Park Interpreter Julie Sidel had told me when I’d stopped into the park store. “This adobe mission is a place with a lot of memories, a lot of controversy surrounding that part of history … and now we’re talking about closing it down and putting it under the rug.”
Before leaving, I had peered out past Mission State Park’s outdoor Spanish clay oven, grand avocado tree (suspected to be one of the oldest in the state), and tree-lined perimeter, and I had seen the peaks of downtown rooftops hinting at the 21st century that lay right outside the mission’s doors—as if encroaching upon the restored landscape. Would the modern world succeed in burying the deep cultural roots planted in the historical park?
Then, the time of day arrived when I’d truly indulge in the county’s coastline …
Once I ended my battle with that two-dimensional shark at the kiosk, I walked along Seacliff’s promenade and watched the seagulls blanket the infamous sunken cement ship. Next, I headed to Manresa State Beach under the early evening sky and paddled into the salty abyss of my preferred type of waves: small and friendly. Playing out in my mind whimsical fantasies of doing cutbacks on triple-overhead monsters as I’d catch each knee- to waist-high wave, I felt the heat of the sun, the absence of the wind, and the comfort of knowing that, at least through Labor Day, lifeguards would be around if Jaws—or any other sign of danger—dared to show up.
I left the water unscathed, packed away my board and charged forward,
continuing toward Watsonville on San Andreas Road. Landing at an aisle of farmland with strawberries stretching beyond sight, I made my way into a quiet sunset—at Sunset State Beach. I was content to take a seat on the long stretch of sand known for bearing the largest sand dunes in the country. I was alone and unwilling to move. I was already beat and I’d only just begun.
Feeling like someone who was lost at sea and hungry for any glimpse of land, I now found myself buzzing on the freeway toward Castle Rock State Park and Portola Redwoods State Park on Highway 17 to the 35—moving deeper inland. I was itching to get off the high-speed veins of the loud, modern world to check out the most far-removed and lesser-known Santa Cruz state parks situated nearly an hour away.
Driving along a winding road that curved past sweeping vistas of seemingly endless forests, I entered Castle Rock, the park which starts the 30-mile “Skyline to the Sea” trailhead that connects the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains with Waddell Creek and Big Basin’s coastal entrance. It was also a notable place of inspiration for John Steinbeck.
Storyteller Lenny Gerstein
tells it like it is at Henry Cowell.
“We’re a high-risk park,” said Mary Hazel, a park aid whom I met upon entry. She said she was fearful of losing her job. “Because we don’t have income from car camping and our revenue comes from parking fees, we have a higher threat of closure. And with two highways on each side of the park, people will still have easy access if we’re closed but there will be no supervising.” She emphasized that all those parking and camping fees many usually try to dodge really do make a difference in sustaining each park. I looked around to see only a few more cars in the paid parking lot, and I guessed that there wouldn’t be many other people scattered along the trails.
To my surprise, Castle Rock was bustling with climbers bouldering its cavernous, twisting rock structures that sat like artful landmarks in a city of skyscraping trees. I climbed one gargantuan stack of rocks, sat cross-legged, and enjoyed a Buddha-sitting-atop-a-lotus moment of calm, before abandoning my rocks in search of a waterfall. Passing a deer and scampering baby lizards along the way, a mile later I was overlooking Castle Rock Falls, which at this point in the year turned out to be more like a trickle (I overheard a middle-aged bearded man call it “a pee-pee fall”). Before moving onward to the “Little Basin” state park of Portola Redwoods, where I would complete this leg of my excursion in its own expansive yet gentle wilderness with 18 miles of vertiginous trails maintained by the state since 1945, I lay down above Castle Rock Falls, closed my eyes, and soaked up all the sounds—and the silence.
How can you feel like someone’s an enemy when you’ve just gone and walked through the redwoods and felt all this peace here with them? —Lenny Gerstein
As a kid in New York City, Lenny Gerstein used to think that all trees grew in the middle of a cement square. As an orthopedic surgeon, he later dreamed of retiring in the redwoods. Today, the 71-year-old lives that dream as a volunteer treading amongst the regal old-growth woods each week.
After enjoying a Stand By Me moment walking along Felton’s Roaring Camp railroad tracks at the start of day three, I made my way into the trees of Henry Cowell State Park, whose 2,000 acres of land were officially entrusted to the state in 1954. There, I met Gerstein—a quirky old man sporting a school-bus-yellow volunteer cap and a walking stick. But it wasn’t just any walking stick. It was a walking stick with a miniature figure of a man holding a walking stick at its crown. With thick glasses, a genial smile and an unabashed East Coast accent, he slowly walked over to me and proceeded to explain how he’d carved his prized possession out of willow and basswood and had connected the pieces with epoxy resin and a quarter-inch rod.
A park volunteer for the past nine years, Gerstein savors Henry Cowell’s trails. He finds that his peculiar walking stick is a useful ice breaker that puts people at ease when they see him approaching in uniform, because, he explained, “sometimes people get scared ’cause they think you just want to bust them for using pot.” He generously shares the stories of the redwoods—and stories of himself—with those lucky enough to listen. So I asked him to tell me about his favorite memory in the park.
“I had been a physician in the Vietnam War, and there was a group of North Vietnamese soldiers who came to Henry Cowell five years ago,” Gerstein began, recalling a special tour he’d once given. “I was telling them all about the redwoods. At the end, the ‘enemy’ came over to give me a hug and said, ‘May you live as long as the redwoods.’ And I said, ‘The war is over.’ How can you feel like someone’s an enemy when you’ve just gone and walked through the redwoods and felt all this peace here with them?”
As I left Gerstein, whose tales and lively spirit could lighten any load, I felt as though this place—these places—had the ability to bring out the best in people. You just never know what uplifting soul you might encounter at each turn of the corner on each trail. And just as I had smiled upon first seeing my new friend Lenny Gerstein, the sight of a 5-year-old girl named Sabrina perched atop her dad’s shoulders and looking like a delicate chocolate chip beneath the colossal redwoods, would later strike a chord down the road at Big Basin—the monumental park that started it all, when it was set aside for preservation in 1902 and birthed the California State Parks System.
“It’s a shame in this particular economy because visiting state parks is a budget-friendly thing for families to do,” Sabrina’s mother, Shannon, told me as we chatted under the shadow of ancient coastal redwoods about the impending closures.
Spanning 18,000 acres with more than 80 miles of trails and numerous waterfalls, Big Basin sits as the eminent celebrity amongst our network of local parks—offering the feel of a national park; a sort of Yellowstone right here at home. Its redwood groves once served as the place of refuge for Ohlone Indians from Spanish forces during the 1700s, but on this day, it was offering Sabrina and her parents refuge from the city. And the camping family of three from San Francisco was, according to Shannon, “having a great time, even with the [Lockheed] fire.”
Before the trio made its way to Big Basin’s charming outdoor theater and its rows of hollowed and polished logs for seating to enjoy a camp-style sing-along, and I went on my way to walk along some massive fallen sequoia tree trunks that were weathered by time and past fires, I asked one last question to Sabrina. Does she want the parks to stay open? She coyly held onto her mother’s leg and took a minute to think on the serious matter. Then her wise epiphany hit.
“Yes, because there are tall trees.”
I’d always heard about a Lord of the Rings-ish lush wonder nestled in Aptos known as the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, where the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rumbled. On my last day I’d finally seen the light—literally filtering through Nisene’s every shade of green leaves. The moist land, once a victim to logging practices until the ’20s, was donated by Salinas’ Marks children in honor of their mother, Nisene, in 1963.
After hiking around the park, where endless bicyclists, young and old, whizzed by walkers, and where a pair of teenagers gravitated toward one forest bench to savor a covert smoking session by the Aptos Creek—I came home to Santa Cruz’s Westside. It was time for my final mission.
I parked my truck in my driveway and grabbed the beat-up mountain bike that my housemate affectionately calls “Dork 4000.” I ventured out to Wilder Ranch, the park that was saved from becoming a housing development and nuclear power plant by the will of local citizens in the early ’70s, before it was included under the State Parks umbrella in 1974.
Ranch handlers Ken Sievers and Christina Cecchettini party like it’s 1899 at Wilder Ranch
Passing a parade of fire trucks while pedaling two miles north on Highway 1, I ended up at Wilder Ranch’s Cultural Preserve area (where Fleetwood Mac once filmed a music video in the ’80s). I set my bike against the entrance to some horse stables and meandered through an old dairy farm, a blacksmith workshop, the historic Victorian home and garden, and a visitor center all lending insight into life during the 1800s when the pioneering Wilder Family worked the land with water-powered electricity.
Ken Sievers, a 65-year-old docent wearing a cowboy hat and boots, found me wandering about and graciously gave me a spontaneous tour. Sievers is a retired farmer from Iowa who used to spend his days cultivating corn and soybeans. After learning about Wilder Ranch’s educational programs, he now cultivates curiosity in the troops of third graders that visit the park each week.
Like Sievers, Senior Park Aid Christina Cecchettini, who began her career in the parks system 25 years ago as a maintenance worker, talked with me about how the current park programs “help people foster a connection with nature and culture, and inspire them in addition to educate them.” Cecchettini worked her way up to her dream job as an interpreter of local history and natural wildlife, and said she was simply crossing her fingers for the best, come Labor Day. As she described the park, its history and her hope for its future, she upheld a positive disposition and couldn’t stop smiling—which I realized seemed to be the case with most everyone I had met who worked at the sites. It was as if the parks seemed to galvanize each character I encountered like a fountain of youth.
As I rode away from the historic complex on a trail that ends at the cliffs overlooking Wilder Beach, bringing my travels full-circle and back to the coast, I cruised around Wilder Ranch chasing white butterflies and blue dragonflies that zipped in front of me and beside me like real Tinkerbell’s of the natural world. The invasive smoke from the Lockheed Fire seemed to let up in my favor, making everything more and more visible, and I roamed my last state park thinking clearly about all the places I had seen in the past few days and the people whose paths I’d literally crossed.
I sped Dork 4000’s wheels over my last rocky dirt trail to end my four-day challenge, felt the breeze in my hair, and thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m tired. But, in those three words of the Terminator that I can actually agree with, I’ll be back.’
Photo Credit: Kelly Schaefer
To learn more about Santa Cruz State Parks, visit santacruzstateparks.org . To learn more about saving state parks and beaches, and to volunteer or become a member of the nonprofit Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, visit thatsmypark.org .
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