Butano Grand Loop
Total Distance: 11.0 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 6 hours
Elevation Change: 1,300 feet
There's a forested canyon along the Half Moon Bay coast that looks much the same as it did a century ago. Filled with redwoods, Douglas firs, calypso orchids, and ferns, the canyon is found in 3,200-acre Butano State Park, just outside the coastal town of Pescadero. It's far enough away from the Bay Area's major population centers that its trails are rarely crowded. An 11-mile loop trip through the park is about as close as you can get to a true wilderness experience on a day hike in the Bay Area.
At time of publication, Butano was on a "seasonal closure" schedule, courtesy of the California governor, which means that it is technically closed from November to April. However, even though the park road is gated at the entrance station during those months, hikers are still permitted to walk in and access the park's lovely trails. And you don't have to pay the entrance fee if the park is "closed."
You can hike this loop in either direction—the gradient doesn't change much no matter which way you go. (The route described here saves the best grove of redwoods for the end.) However, before you start, you might want to practice pronouncing the park's name. It's BYOO-tin-oh, with the accent on the first syllable. Almost nobody gets this right on their first visit.
Park by the entrance kiosk and begin your exploration on Año Nuevo Trail. The narrow path switchbacks up and up through dense vegetation—primarily thimbleberry, huckleberry, and poison oak vines. The ascent will get your heart pumping immediately. Soon you've climbed high enough to claim a vista through the lichen-covered branches of Douglas firs. The panorama includes the coast and the forested canyon inland; hawks soar over the grassy hills. Take the right spur to a bench 20 feet off the trail. A second bench, a little farther up the trail, has more obstructed views. At one time it had a clear view of Año Nuevo Island, giving this trail its name.
Año Nuevo Trail drops downhill and joins Olmo Fire Road. Follow it for 0.25 mile to the right turnoff for single-track Gazos Trail, which roughly parallels the fire road. Views of the coast are yours for the taking as you cruise up and down along the ridge top. This high ridge is composed of light-colored shale and sandstone—proof that the entire area was once undersea. Manzanita, chinquapin, and knobcone pines line the exposed, gravely slopes.
At Gazos Trail's end, it's worth stopping to admire the long-distance view of the coast before rejoining Olmo Fire Road and continuing to climb. A highlight along the wide dirt road is the 25-foot-tall root ball of a huge fallen Douglas fir. On one visit, it was covered with bright yellow banana slugs, busy doing the important business of decomposition.
Just before the road intersects with narrow Indian Trail (on the left), it becomes noticeably steeper. Where the vegetation opens up, you can clearly see the ridge's sandy shale soil. If you can withstand another 100 feet of climbing, follow the road a short distance past Indian Trail to a high overlook just off the trail. This sunny spot is probably the best potential picnic site of the day.
Follow Indian Trail into a dense oak and madrone forest, curving around the steep slopes of Little Butano Creek canyon to begin the loop's return leg. Where Indian Trail forks right 0.5 mile from its start, the path leads to Trail Camp. A half-dozen, no-frills backpacking sites are hidden in the forest; a pit toilet is the only amenity. (These sites are first-come, first-served, but you must register with the park to camp.) At the turnoff, bear left on chaparral-lined Canyon Trail. You'll have a few more glimpses of the coast through the ceanothus and occasional Douglas firs.
Canyon Trail connects with Jackson Flats Trail, the final leg of this loop. The last 2.8 miles on Jackson Flats Trail are an easy cruise through the park's loveliest stretch of forest. The woodland features fern gardens, many big and small redwoods, and moss-covered Douglas firs growing in some interesting configurations, with trunks and limbs extending every which way. Watch for banana slugs and California newts; the redwood duff is their home and you don't want to step on them. In the early spring (February–April), keep your eyes trained to the forest floor in search of the rare calypso orchid, a small and delicate purple flower.
For Butano campers, or day hikers looking for a shorter hike, a pleasant three-mile loop can be made by starting on Año Nuevo Trail to Olmo Fire Road (as described), followed by an immediate left on Goat Hill Trail. This trail drops down to the service road beyond Ben Ries Campground; turn right and follow it to its end, where Creek Trail begins. Finish out the loop on Creek Trail and Six Bridges Trail. Even though the last leg follows the park access road, it leads through a handsome fern-filled redwood forest along the banks of Little Butano Creek.
From Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay, drive south for 17 miles to the Pescadero Road turnoff. Turn left (east) and drive 2.5 miles to Cloverdale Road. Turn right on Cloverdale Road and drive 4.2 miles to the park entrance. Turn left and drive 0.75 mile to the entrance kiosk; park in the small lot just beyond it.
Information and Contact
A $10 day-use fee is charged per vehicle. Dogs are not allowed. Bikes are allowed only on fire roads. A park map is available at the entrance kiosk or by free download at www.parks.ca.gov. A detailed map is also available by download at www.virtualparks.org ($1 fee). For more information, contact Butano State Park, 1500 Cloverdale Road, Pescadero, CA 94060, 650/879-2040, www.parks.ca.gov.
From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication