Towering redwoods, opal colored creeks, waterfalls, and picturesque campsites are just a few of the things that hikers and backpackers can expect to experience along the 30-mile long Skyline-to-the-Sea trail in California.
Traveling through the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, this trail passes amongst the coastal redwoods, some of the most magnificent trees in the world.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is the perfect place to escape our busy California lives, reconnect with nature and enjoy some incredible hiking and camping over a course of 2-3 days.
In this guide we share tips and our personal experience on how to hike the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park:
- Quick Trail Facts
- Trail Description
- Where To Park
- What To Bring
- When To Go
- Are Dogs Allowed
- Our Experience
Warning: the following content may contain arguably too many photos of big redwood trees.
Quick Trail Facts
Before we cover the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail in more detail, here are a few quick hike facts:
- Length: around 30 miles
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
- Days Needed: 2-3
- Trailhead Starting Point: Saratoga Gap or Castle Rock State Park
- Ending Point: Waddell Beach
- Campsites: Waterman Gap & Jay Camp (reservations required)
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is one of the best long-distance hikes to do in California.
This trail passes through the Big Basin Redwoods State Park offering beautiful views of coastal redwoods for most of the hike that get better and better the more distance you cover.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is mostly downhill and not very strenuous making this the perfect trail for first-time backpackers. On the other hand, the Skyline-to-the-Sea trek often follows along major highways and the occasional traffic noise is one of the biggest downsides that hikers and backpackers often dislike about this trek.
The trail is roughly 25-30 miles long, depending on if you choose to do a few of the recommended side detours into the Redwood Loop and Berry Creek Falls.
Here is a general map of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail in Google Maps highlighting some of the major stops on this trail:
Most people backpack the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail over a course of 3 days but you can also complete this trail in 2 days if you hike at a quick pace. Once a year this trail is also used for the Skyline-to-the-Sea marathon and half marathon (which we’ve done) so it’s possible to run this trail in a single day too – without a heavy backpack and with lots of training.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is not a loop and it goes one way – so you’ll need to plan on how to get back to your car after you’re done. Many people leave a car at the starting and ending points or get dropped off.
Another thing to consider are camping reservations if you choose to backpack this trail. You can’t set up your tent anywhere you want along the trail and there are specific campgrounds where backpackers are allowed to stay. You will need to reserve campground permits before you go and we’ll cover how to do that next in this post.
Ideally, you want to spend 3 days hiking the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, breaking down the hike as follows:
- Day 1. Saratoga Gap or Castle Rock State Park to Waterman Gap – 6 miles
- Day 2. Waterman Gap to Jay Camp – 9 miles
- Day 3. Jay Camp to Waddell Beach – 15 miles
If you choose the 3-day option, you’ll be only hiking 6 miles on the first day. There isn’t anything to do around the Waterman Gap campsite so you can take your time getting there.
Another 2-day option is:
- Day 1. Saratoga Gap or Castle Rock State Park to Jay Camp – 15 miles
- Day 2. Jay Camp to Waddell Beach – 15 miles
This option is better for those who hike at a fast pace and can cover 15 miles in one day. But it is a lot of miles to cover with a heavy backpack so you should get an early head start in order to make it to Jay campsite before sunset. Although the hike follows along a major highway, you don’t want to find yourself in the woods past sunset miles from the campground.
As I mentioned above, camping reservations is one of the most important factors to consider if you’re planning to backpack the 30-mile long Skyline-to-the-Sea trail.
Unlike other wilderness trails, you can’t just pitch your tent anywhere you find a flat spot. You can only stay in designated campgrounds along this trail which are:
- Waterman Gap Camp (6 miles in)
- Jay Camp (15 miles in)
- Twin Redwoods & Alder Trail Camps (at the end of the hike – optional)
All of these campsites have limited spots and can get booked up early in advance. To check campsite availability go to the official California Parks website and check the Trail Camp Calendar.
If the campsites are available, you will need to fill out a Trail Camp Request Form and submit it to the Big Basin State Parks office. Your form will be reviewed by the park staff and if the campsites are open, your reservation request will be accepted and you will receive an email.
You will be given until the following afternoon at 5 pm to call 831-338-8861 and pay for the campsite permits. This is one of the most involved trail campsite reservation systems that I’ve done, but each park usually has its own set of rules and procedures to follow (which is why I will probably never run out of things to cover on my blog).
The campsites cost $15 per night plus an $8 reservation fee. If you’re only planning to stay at Jay Campsite and complete the trail in 2 days, your total will be $23. If you plan to stay at Waterman Gap Camp and Jay Camp over a course of 3 days, your total will be $38.
If the campsites are booked up, you also have the option to day-hike portions of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. Following a similar plan, you could hike from Saratoga Gap to Jay Camp on Day 1 and from Jay Camp to Waddell Beach on Day 2.
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Where To Park
This hike is a one-way hike so it involves a bit of planning and logistics, especially when it comes to parking your car.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea route starts at the Saratoga Gap trailhead, but cars are not allowed at this trailhead parking lot overnight. Instead, most people park at the Castle Rock State Park entrance and connect with the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail a few miles down.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail ends at the Waddell Beach roughly 30 miles later. Most people will park a second car at the Waddell beach so they have a car waiting there when they finish the hike.
If you choose to leave your car at the Waddell beach, you will need to register your car with the park staff there. Typically Waddell beach does not allow overnight parking and only Skyline-to-the-Sea backpackers are allowed to park there.
You will need to show the park office a campsite reservation to leave your car overnight. As long as you have reserved an overnight campsite anywhere on the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, you will be allowed to park here.
For those who plan to get picked up from Waddell beach, note that there is no cellphone reception at this beach to make a call. This means that you won’t be able to call a cab or Uber if you plan to.
For Day Hikers
For those who plan to day hike portions of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, you will also need to arrange a car at the starting and ending points.
Usually, most day hikers will hike the section from Saratoga Gap to Big Basin State Park Headquarters in one day and from Big Basin State Park Headquarters to Waddell Beach on another day.
Day hikers can park and start at either the Saratoga Gap or Castle Rock State Park entrance. Both of these parking lots permit day parking.
If you plan to finish your day hike at the Big Basin State Park Headquarters, there are several designated parking lots for day parking where you can drop off your car in the morning. Once you arrive at the park headquarters, you will need to go to the visitor center window, pay $10 and get a parking permit to leave on your car’s window. From there it’s a 30-minute drive to the Saratoga Gap starting point.
This parking ticket is only good for one day so if you plan to return and do the second section from Big Basin State Park Headquarters to Waddell beach another day, you will need to pay again.
If you’re doing day hikes note that you can’t leave your car at Waddell Beach overnight. You can, however, drive out there in the morning before your hike and leave your car if you plan to day hike from Big Basin State Park Headquarters to Waddell beach. From Waddell Beach, it’s about an hour-long drive to the Big Basin Headquarters where you can start hiking the second portion of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail.
For those who plan to get picked up from Waddell beach, note that there is no cellphone reception at this beach.
What To Bring
We hiked the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail in early October when days were still pretty hot but night temperatures dropped to around 40 ºF. We happened to hike this trail on an especially cold weekend so we had to take weather into consideration for what to bring. Usually, the temperatures at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park stay pretty mild throughout the year.
Here is our suggested packing list if you’re planning to backpack the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail.
Our favorite ultralight tent for long-distance backpacking trips is the MSR Carbon Reflex 2. We have written a detailed post on why we love this tent for backpacking here but essentially it’s extremely easy to set up, it is surprisingly roomy inside, and it is the lightest tent that we’ve ever used.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 weighs just under 2 pounds so it’s the tent we use every time we’re going on a backpacking trip when shedding any weight possible will help make the hike faster and more enjoyable.
For sleeping bags, I love this one from REI because it keeps me warm during our backpacking trips but it also compresses super small, it’s easy to pack up and doesn’t weight too much. Overall it’s a pretty versatile sleeping bag so you can use it in all types of conditions from beach camping to mountain hikes – perfect for California.
I’m not a very good sleeper when it comes to camping and backpacking trips, but one thing that has recently made a huge difference for me is using a blow-up sleeping pad with a pillow for extra cushion. Before, we used rollup sleeping pads that took up a lot of room and didn’t really make it that much more comfortable. After switching to a blow-up sleeping pad I am now getting a lot better sleep when camping.
For a multi-day trek, you want to keep everything as light as possible, including your pack. You want to go for a backpacking pack with a good solid frame but one that is lightweight. This 65 Liter Osprey backpack from REI has more than enough room for all of my gear, it is lightweight and has very comfortable padding.
On a long hiking or backpacking trip having a good pair of hiking boots is essential. There is nothing worse than a pair of boots that are too small, rub your feet or cause blisters. I highly recommend getting a pair of over-the-ankle boots like these Vasque ones.
Most of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail goes downhill and can be slippery and tough on ankles. Over-the-ankle boots prevent your ankles from rolling and potentially getting injured when your feet become tired.
Cooking Set Up
If you plan to stay at any of the campsites overnight, you will need a small camping stove with a burner to make your dinner and breakfast.
There is a small store near Jay Campsite at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarters selling sandwiches, snacks and drinks but the food options there are pretty limited.
We use this type of camping stove on our backpacking trips. It works pretty great and we use it to make quick meals like rice with chicken, oatmeal and coffee in just a few minutes. Note that you’ll need to buy the gas separately but you can get that at any outdoors store like Big 5.
Depending on the season that you choose to hike the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, your clothing packing list will probably vary, but here are a few essentials to keep in mind.
- This trail is full of overgrown poison ivy so I highly recommend wearing long pants or leggings.
- It can get pretty chilly at night so bring a thermal shirt, jacket, and layers for night time.
- On the other hand, it’s usually pretty hot during the day so you’ll want breezy light shirts to keep you cool.
- You want to get a good pair of hiking socks that won’t rub blisters on your feet and won’t make your feet sweat. I always bring an extra pair of hiking socks to switch out in the morning.
- Although most of the hike follows through an overgrown forest, you might want to bring a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun during the day.
- Poison ivy scrub in case you get it on your skin or clothes.
- Wipes to clean off dust and dirt at the end of the day.
- Travel toothbrush & toothpaste set.
- Deodorant & sunscreen.
- Plenty of water to get you through the hike. We brought 3 bottles each per day and it was enough for us. There is a little market at the Big Basin Headquarters where you can purchase more water halfway through the trail. It is actually not recommended to drink creek water in this area since the creeks are pretty dry and murky. If you do, you will need a water filter like this one to filter it before drinking.
- Headlamp for when it gets dark.
- Battery charger to keep your phone charged for emergencies.
- First aid kit for emergencies & blisters.
- Ibuprofen or aspirin in case you start feeling pain from the long hike.
- Small trash bag to carry out all of your trash.
When To Go
The best times to backpack the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is in late spring, summer and early fall. By the time late fall comes around in October, the days will still be hot but the night temperatures will start falling to 40 ºF. Unless you have the right gear, it can get really cold at night.
The upside of hiking this trail in spring and fall is that campsites are more available, especially on the weekends. In the summer campsites can get booked up weeks in advance so it’s best to plan this hike well ahead of time.
If you have any weather or trail concerns, you can always call (831) 338-8860 and talk to the Big Basin State Park rangers before heading out on the trail.
Are Dogs Allowed
Unfortunately, our furry little friends are not allowed on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.
The ancient redwoods that you will see along this trail are some of the oldest and tallest living organisms in the world. To protect the redwoods and wildlife that live in the Big Basin State Park, there are certain restrictions that should be respected and followed.
While dogs are allowed in the campsites, picnic areas and on paved roads, they are not permitted on any trails (similar to a National Park).
- This park is “Crumb Free” meaning that when you are finished with your meal, please make sure to clean up any food including crumbs after you. Crumbs attract Steller’s Jay birds that are known for eating other bird eggs like the Marbled Murrelet that are endangered.
- To protect wildlife, drones are not allowed at the Big Basin State National Park.
- Once a year this trail is used for the Skyline-to-the-Sea 50K, marathon and half marathon. If you plan to backpack or hike this trail, you might want to avoid going on the marathon weekend because the trail will get pretty congested with runners.
- Mountain bikes are not permitted on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. This trail is pretty narrow and mostly used by backpackers and day hikers.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is around 30 miles long and most people hike it in 3 days while staying at Waterman Gap Camp, Jay Camp and ending at the Waddell Beach.
Due to time limitations and work we could only spare 2 days to do this trail over a weekend which meant covering around 15 miles each day. Although the trail mostly goes downhill, it is still quite a lot of distance to cover over a course of two days.
Saratoga Gap To Watermap Gap (6 miles)
We started our hike at the Saratoga Gap entrance at around 8 am. The first portion of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail goes from Saratoga Gap trailhead to Watermap Gap campsite and is around 6 miles long.
This section follows through a pretty “standard” forest near a major highway so you’re hearing a lot of traffic noise and not seeing anything too exciting.
I was also expecting to see a lot more mountain views (as the name “Skyline” indicates) but there was only one overlook of the mountains called the Sempervirens Viewpoint a couple of miles into the trail dedicated to the club that created the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail.
This section mostly goes downhill and it only took us 3 hours to get to Waterman Gap campsite. If you plan to split up your trip into 3 days and camp here on the first night, you really don’t need to get an early head start since there isn’t much to do around the Waterman Gap camp.
The campsite itself is beautiful and surrounded by giant redwood trees but it is located next to Highway 9 so you can expect to hear some traffic noise from cars passing by.
The Waterman Gap campsite has 6 spots for backpackers. Sites 1, 5 and 6 had the best set up with more privacy.
This campsite also has pit toilets, trash bins, and animal lockers to keep your food secured from animals. When we passed through the Waterman Gap camp it didn’t have potable water so you’ll need to carry enough water with you or bring a water filter to filter water from the nearby creeks.
Waterman Gap To Jay Camp (9 miles)
After stopping at the Waterman Gap campsite for a quick lunch we kept going on to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarters where the Jay Campsite is located. It was already past 11 am and we still had 9 miles to cover.
There is a part in this section that gains 800 feet in elevation so it’s not all downhill. This will be the toughest part of the entire trail and this uphill lasts for about 4 miles.
In this section, you’ll start seeing a few redwood groves so the hike starts getting a bit more interesting than the previous part. We also spotted a few deer and yellow banana slugs along the trail.
You’ll be hiking near Highway 236 so you’ll still hear some noise from the road. The trail will occasionally come out of the woods and cross the highway but there will be plenty of clearly marked signs. Just look for signs marked “Sky-To-The-Sea trail” or “Big Basin State Park Headquarters”.
The closer you get to the Big Basin Headquarters, the more redwoods you’ll start seeing. The last part also crossed a steep flat rock surface before connecting with the Opal Creek known for its turquoise color resulting from minerals in this region.
Soon after we reached Jay Campsite that is located a 5-minute walk from the Big Basin State Park Headquarters & Visitors Center.
Jay Camp is a campsite designated specifically for the Skyline-to-the-Sea backpackers that are hiking the entire 30 miles of the trail. It’s a beautiful campsite with 8 different spots surrounded by giant redwoods, quite scenic.
If you need to get any food or water, there is a little market near the park’s Visitor Center. This store is usually open Sunday to Thursday from 10 am to 4 pm and on the weekends from 10 am to 6 pm but note that sometimes it closes early without notice.
Jay Camp To Waddell Beach (15 miles)
The last section of the Skyline-to-the-Sea hike is around 12 miles long but most people choose to do a few side trips into the Redwood Loop trail and Berry Creek falls extending this portion to around 15 miles.
The half-mile-long Redwood Loop trail is located just 5 minutes from Jay Camp so you can do this trail in the evening after arriving at Jay Camp or in the morning before heading out.
Redwood Loop is actually where the last section of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail starts leading down to Waddell Beach.
This portion of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is a favorite for many hikers because it follows through a lush redwood forest with rustic wooden bridges, creeks and overgrown ferns.
About 4 miles in there will be a viewpoint and turnoff for the Berry Creek waterfall. If you have the energy, I highly recommend hiking up to the Berry Creek falls viewpoint for a better look.
As the hike gets closer to the beach, I started noticing a lot of poison ivy along the trail. Some sections of the hike get very narrow and it’s almost impossible to avoid it. I highly recommend wearing long pants and bringing an anti-itch cream in case you get in contact with it.
The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail ends by the Rancho Del Oso horse camp and exits onto Waddell Beach. There are two campgrounds near the endpoint where backpackers can stay if needed (Twin Redwoods camp or Alder Trail camp) but we opted to get a hotel in Santa Cruz instead.
Thinking about taking on the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail? Get started with your trip planning and browse all the best hotel deals in Santa Cruz here!
Looking for other awesome hikes and things to do in California? Make sure to check out our other California posts below:
- Backpacking The Trans-Catalina Trail: All You Need To Know
- 6 Incredible Day Hikes At Kings Canyon National Park
- How To Backpack The Eagle Peak Trail In Yosemite
- 7 Best Beaches To Visit In Southern California
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for landscape shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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