Great Treks: Butano State Park

01/22/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:33 AM

The ocean's pull is strong – and not just in the strict tidal sense.

Once you arrive at the beaches buttressing the tiny San Mateo County coastal town of Pescadero, once that briny aroma and wispy spray of surf envelopes your senses, heading inland away from this splendor may be the last thing on your mind.

You start the self-rationalizations.

There are lovely places to hike coastside, you know. No need to be so landlocked. Really. What say we do that three-mile out-and-back on the Año Nuevo Point Trail, where you hear the sea elephants snort and frolic below. Or how about the Arroyo de los Frijoles Trail across Highway 1 from Bean Hollow beach?

No, the destination for this edition of "Great Treks" is Butano State Park, a 3,500-acre gem tucked into the foothills about four miles southeast of Pescadero proper. Ignore the name – butano is Spanish for "butane," the gas, and we'll resist making the connection to the adjacent Arroyo de los Frijoles – because Butano State Park is like entering a completely different ecosystem, lush and verdant.

Wait, didn't we just leave the beach? Now, we've plunged into a sun-dappled redwood and Douglas fir forest, mossy fern-filled culverts and white alder trunks?

That's the beauty of this part of the San Mateo coast: The eye candy never gets old, because it's always changing. And you're not fully leaving the ocean behind. A few viewing points along the ridgeline afford Board of Tourism-worthy vistas of the shoreline.

Hikes or trail runs at Butano are plentiful. The map pinned to the kiosk shows more than 10 trails – some well-groomed dirt and (slight) gravel fire roads, some single-track carved into the ridge and a series of arteries crisscrossing the forest floor.

We decided to mix and match trails, sort of a combo platter, to taste a bit of what Butano offers. Our trek is five miles and gains about 1,400 feet in elevation over the first two miles. But not to worry; we let you catch your breath. The remaining three miles are mostly downhill and not at all taxing.

(Want a shorter or longer trek? See below.)

Our journey begins at the Año Nuevo Trailhead on the south side of the park entrance station. The first 200 feet plunges you into a moist, muddy (even when it hasn't rained) riparian habitat. You'll cross a footbridge over a small creek where we are told the endangered red-legged frog dwells.

Follow the sign saying Año Nuevo. Actually, the sign is superfluous. There's no place else to go except up – straight up a series of switchbacks that last six-tenths of a mile. It's rocky and root-strewn, then flattens out for a few hundred feet. On the left is a bench from which you can scan the treetops below.

That bench proves to be a false summit, though. More climbing is in the offing. The higher you get, the more the landscape changes. You leave behind the dense flora of the creek bed and ascend to a ridge studded with Douglas firs. For the next half-mile, you weave in and out of the big trees – the trail even wraps around the trunks, as if you were on a slalom course.

At 1.3 miles, the Año Nuevo Trail ends at the junction with the Olmo Fire Trail, which, by comparison, is like a freeway. Turn right and descend on Olmo for a few hundred feet until you see the sign for the Gazos Trail on the righthand side. Once you make the turn, Gazos goes slightly left and the Candelabra Trail (which you don't take) goes straight.

It's only eight-tenths of a mile, but we were told by Butano insiders that we had to travel on Gazos. Sure, it's the most strenuous part of our five-mile trek, being nearly all uphill. But it is inarguably gorgeous. At the summit of the third rise, another picnic bench and viewing area beckon. Linger here and take in the sight of the distant surf breaking on the rocks along the coast.

After the festival of climbing that is Gazos, you reach the junction with the Olmo Fire Trail. This time, you turn left and head back up the fire road from where you started. But you're not retracing your steps; rather, you're running parallel with Gazos Trail directly above you. The footing is much better, despite dodging cracked tree branches lining the road from those early December windstorms, and the downhill is pronounced.

In another half-mile, 2.4 miles into the trek, you turn right at the Goat Hill Connector Trail. If we had the time and inclination, we would have traversed the entire 1.8 miles of Goat Hill Trail. But we wanted to get a sampling of the second-growth redwood forest and Douglas firs, so we breezed through four-tenths of a mile of it.

Pine needles cushioned the single-track path, which ran slightly downhill. Crane your neck up to gauge the full height of the trees, and look down to see stumps left behind by the logging in the early 20th century (stopped by 1961, when Butano became a state park).

You're almost sad to see the junction for the continuation of the Olmo Fire Trail. Turning right from there, it's a careening mile-long downhill, with gentle switchbacks to the Six Bridges Trail. At this point, you're near the Ben Ries Campground, so you're likely to see your first signs of human life. Someone has stretched a zipline between two redwoods on this downhill stretch of Olmo. That's the quicker way down.

Six Bridges Trail marks the four-mile mark in the trek, and the last mile is a series of rolling gentle hills (after the initial short, steep climb to get to the ridgeline). As the name implies, you'll cross six bridges, the fourth of which moves like a trampoline, so watch your footing.

You're back in riparian alder forest again. In the spring and summer, this is said to be a great stretch for berry picking.

In no time, it seems, you're back at Año Nuevo Trailhead, back in the car, then back at the beach to let the foamy surf wash over your tired, trail-dusty feet.

The Arroyo de los Frijoles Trail can wait for another day.


Trail: 3-10 mile options

Directions: Take I-80 to I-580 over the San Mateo Bridge on Highway 92. When Highway 92 ends in Half Moon Bay, turn left and head south 15 miles to Pescadero Road. Turn left and travel 2.5 miles to Cloverdale Road. Turn right and go 4.2 miles to Butano State Park. Turn left at the park entrance and travel three-tenths of a mile to the entrance station. Cost is $10 (free if you buy a yearly state park Poppy Pass for $90).


(5 miles)

From the entrance lot, start at the Año Nuevo Trail marker on the south side of the lot. After crossing a bridge, the trail curves left and uphill of switchbacks. Some have wooden stairs, others just jutting roots. At 1.3 miles, turn right on the Olmo Fire Trail. Go downhill a a few hundred feet to the Gazos Trail on the right. Follow Gazos uphill for 0.8 miles. At the 2.1-mile mark, Gazos ends. Turn left on Olmo Fire Trail and go 0.4 miles before turning right on the Goat Hill Connector Trail. At 2.7 miles, veer left at a sign indicating the Olmo Fire Trail is ahead. In another 100 feet, turn right on Olmo and head downhill for about 1.2 miles. At a junction at the 3.5-mile mark, go left at a sign with an arrow that says "Trail to Entrance Road." At 4 miles, turn left and go uphill on the Six Bridges Trail.


(3.3 miles)

When the Año Nuevo Trail dead-ends with the Olmo Fire Trail, take Olmo left and travel to the Six Bridges Trail. (This cuts off the Gazos and Goat Hill trail segments.)


(10.3 miles)

At the park entrance lot, follow the Jackson Flats Trailhead on the north end. Take Jackson Flats Trail about 3 miles until it joins the Butano Fire Road. At the Butano Trail Camp, turn right onto the Canyon Trail until it meets the Indian Trail. Go right until the trail ends at the Olmo Fire Road. After 0.3 miles, go right on the Doe Ridge Trail for about 2 miles until you reach the Goat Hill Trail. Follow Goat Hill downhill to the Ben Ries Campground. That leads to the Six Bridges Trail. Take that trail back to the park entrance.

Difficulty: Moderate (3.3-mile Año Nuevo) to moderate/strenuous (5-mile loop) to strenuous (10-mile loop).

Toilets: Yes, at park entrance

Poison oak probability: High

Will there be blood? Possibly. The fire roads are well groomed, but the single-track is root- and rock-bulging.

Probability of getting lost: Slim

Make a day of it: See the story on Pescadero on Page H1.

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