The best first backpack

SIGHT TO SEE Massive old-growth redwoods make for an enchanting pass along the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.Photo: Ron Erskine

It was a long afternoon at the REI Co-op, but now you have all the gear. The backpack is comfortable, and the boots feel like bedroom slippers. After a little research, you are feeling pretty comfortable with your backpacking know-how. The big question now is where do you go on your very first backpack trip?

People often ask me this question, and it is not a small matter. Backpacking is an activity with a very thin margin between “This is great!” and “Get me outta here.” No activity is more likely to offer life-changing moments—and it would be a shame to send a new backpacker on a death march that might needlessly extinguish their excitement.

The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is a perfect first backpack by every measurement. Except for a short climb in Big Basin State Park, the 30-mile route is downhill the entire way. The trail is right here in the Bay Area, so we can eliminate altitude sickness, chancy alpine weather and a four-hour drive from our worry list. Sierra trails are often rocky obstacle courses, but on the Skyline-to-the-Sea each footfall is on soft leaves and redwood duff.

You might assume that the price you pay for a backpack route near home is so-so scenery, but you would be wrong. When you reach Big Basin State Park, Mother Nature pulls out all the stops. The walk along Opal Creek is the quintessence of picturesque. Massive old-growth redwoods and beautiful Berry Creek Falls are beautiful sights, and I loved the long walk beside Waddell Creek that takes you to the end of the trail at Waddell Beach.

The trail begins at Castle Rock State Park where Skyline Boulevard meets State Route 9 above Saratoga. Until you enter Big Basin State Park, the trail follows State Routes 9 and 236. In fact, the trail owes its very existence to the huge 200-foot right-of-way of the old Turnpike route, only 50 feet of which is occupied by the road itself.

I did this trip midweek when few cars passed by, and I was barely aware of it. Surprisingly, I had one of my finest outdoor encounters on this section of the trail. I had stopped to admire a huge coast live oak tree. My eyes traced a massive branch until I found myself exchanging glances with a bobcat comfortably reclined high above.

This route is best done as a three-day trip and requires a little advance preparation. You must make a reservation and pay a small fee for each trail camp. Plan on spending your first night at Waterman Gap Trail Camp. Your second night will be inside Big Basin State Park where there are several trail camp options. Be sure to get the two excellent trail maps from the Sempervirens Fund (650) 949-1453, and phone (831) 338-8861 for trail camp reservations.
This trip’s only riddle is arranging a drop off and a pick up at each end. Everything in between will confirm that taking up backpacking was a good idea.

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