Wilder Ranch: Coastal California in a Nutshell

Wilder Ranch has just about everything to provide the quintessential California coast experience. It is a large (7,000-acre) park with trails for hikers, bikers, and horses. It has pastoral open fields that lead right up to steep cliffs and pocket beaches. To stand atop the cliffs and look out at the mountains to the north and east and the ocean to the south and west truly uplifts the soul. Add into your mind the eons of geologic upheaval, large and repeated changes in sea level, use and management history by native peoples and early European settlers, 20th century development attempts, ensuing preservation struggles and its ultimate status as a state park; then you’ll have an understanding of the richness of Wilder Ranch as well as a fairly representative case study of many of todays public lands along the central coast of California.

To help guide you through the history, a cultural preserve lies within the park. There are restored farmhouses and workshops from a century of dairy farming. Docents dressed in period clothing are often available for interpretive tours and living history demonstrations. It is very family friendly with a large chicken coop and a great “climbing tree.” Call (831) 426-0505 for hours and tours.

The restored Wilder Ranch Farm House. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
The restored Wilder Ranch Farm House. Photo by Grey3K.

Native Americans

The native peoples of this area refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today the descendants of the area’s indigenous forbearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone as well as harvesting, gathering and taking game from the coastal uplands. Though not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.

Europeans

The Spanish first came to Monterey Bay in the mid-1500s, but they did not establish settlements until sometime after the expedition of Gaspar de Portolá in 1769/70.

During this period, the Spanish laid claim to the land as their property, divided it into land grants called ranchos, and offered it to Spanish speaking settlers from Mexico. In 1849 the region became part of the United States but the land grants left a framework by which future subdivisions were made. In many cases, outlines of the original grants are still marked by the fences and roads of today.

From 1791 to 1835, all of the land west of Mission Santa Cruz was used by the Mission for hunting and agriculture. In 1835 it became Rancho Refugio. The huge land grant had various owners and was subdivided into smaller sections. Deloss D. Wilder bought the section on which the park stands today, in 1885. He and his descendants operated a dairy farm here until the 1930s when financial pressures necessitated a switch to beef and vegetable production.

One of the spectacular views you will see along the Old Cove Loop Trail. The rock type here is the  Santa Cruz Mudstone. Note the shore platforms formed by erosion of the mudstone and the large pocket beach half in shade.
One of the spectacular views you can see along the Old Cove Loop Trail. The rock type here is the Santa Cruz Mudstone. Note the shore platforms formed by erosion of the mudstone and the large pocket beach half in shade.
The same spot as above from a postcard circa 1913. You can see a large arch (left) and two caves. Image courtesy of the Santa Cruz City-County Library System.
The same spot as above from a postcard circa 1913. You can see a large arch (left) and two caves. Image courtesy of the Santa Cruz City-County Library System.

In 1969 the Wilder family sold the property to the Moroto Investment Company who proposed to develop up to 10,000 housing units over 30 years. The land was included in a plan developed by the Santa Cruz City Council to extend the city limits 3.5 miles to the north along the coast, thereby doubling the cities population.

Local residents opposed the plan and formed groups such as Operation Wilder to fight it. Similar to the battle to save Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz County citizens voted to protect the open space. In 1974, California State Parks acquired the property to preserve the land’s natural environment and cultural history.

Open Space

Much of the open space along the coast north of Santa Cruz is the result of many struggles between development and other priorities. Large tracts of land including Wilder Ranch, Gray Whale Ranch, Scaroni Ranch (now part of Wilder), Coast Dairies Property and very recently the CEMEX Redwoods area surrounding the Davenport Cement plant, are all development-free because of the work of many conservation organizations.

Since 1994 this beach has undergone restoration efforts to create a more native habitat. It is currently closed to visitors.
Since 1994 this beach at Wilder Ranch has undergone restoration efforts to create a more native habitat. It is currently closed to visitors.

Human Impacts on Ecosystems

European settlement caused significant changes to the landscape and ecology as new plants and animals were introduced. Grazing lands were created, by burning on lowland slopes, to support large numbers of cattle, horse and sheep.

Prior to European settlement, grasses in the Monterey Bay area were perennial bunch grasses such as purple needle grass. Patches of native grasses can still be found on rougher terrain that is inaccessible to grazing and cultivation. These grasses, though able to recover from a burn, do not tolerate repeated grazing. Thus exotic plants, originating in the Mediterranean, took hold and spread outward from Monterey—the main site of Spanish activity.

Accounts show that by 1846 landscapes had been noticeably changed and new species had taken hold. Some of the most common plants now associated with rural California landscapes are non-native wild oats, filaree, wild mustard, wild radish, foxtail, and bur clover.

Fields of rosemary being cultivated within Wilder Ranch State Park.
Fields of rosemary being cultivated within Wilder Ranch State Park.

Ecosystem Restoration

Today Wilder Ranch is managed to support a variety of activities including recreation, agriculture, cattle grazing, and cultural preservation. Recently 110 acres has been restored to pre-Spanish habitat conditions with native vegetation.

Restoration work began in 1994. Some of the agricultural fields have been returned to wetland and riparian habitats with their native tree, shrub and plant species.

Wetland birds and hawks now nest in this habitat. Red-legged frogs and other wetland animals have also moved into the area. The riparian corridor was planted with dogwood, alder, cottonwood, and willows. It will take constant vigilance to keep out weedy plant species such as hemlock and thistle. The hope is that Wilder Ranch will become a showcase coastal wetland restoration site.

Marine Terraces

Have you ever wondered why much of the Westside of Santa Cruz and all the agricultural fields just north of it are so flat, or why many of the hills climb upwards like a staircase to flat tops? It’s because the local landscape is made up of ancient marine terraces which formed as sea level rose and fell over the millennia. These terraces are clearly visible from Western Drive north to Año Nuevo State Reserve. Once you recognize them they will always pop-out at you. The second marine terrace runs along Highway 1 very clearly from Western Drive to Davenport.

View looking west from the Old Cove Trail. You are standing on the first marine terrace. The second marine terrace is clearly visible. To the right of the middle white arrow, you can see the third marine terrace.
View looking north from the Old Cove Trail. You are standing on the first marine terrace. The second marine terrace is clearly visible. To the right of the middle white arrow, you can see the third marine terrace.

The story of how the marine terraces formed begins long ago when the west coast of the United States, as far inland as the state of Utah, was under the ocean. Most all rocks west of Utah are either marine sediments or volcanic in origin.

Here, on the north coast of Santa Cruz, the marine terrace sequence consists of a series of platforms or “terraces” cut into the ocean facing slope of our local mountain (Ben Lomond Mountain). Each terrace is an ancient ocean floor that has since been slowly uplifted by large scale tectonic movements along the San Andreas Fault System. The higher the terrace, the older it is. The steep surfaces that separate each terrace are ancient beach cliffs eroded away by waves when sea level was high. For a more detailed explanation about marine terraces click here.

Map showing the Santa Cruz marine terraces. The first through fifth terraces are shaded purple, blue, green, yellow and red, respectively. The black arrow points to the fifth marine terrace. The image is modified from a 2008 paper by Art White and colleagues (cited below).
Map showing the Santa Cruz marine terraces. The first through fifth terraces are shaded purple, blue, green, yellow and red, respectively. The black arrow points to the fifth marine terrace. The image is modified from a 2008 paper by Art White and colleagues (cited below).

Many thanks to Archer Koch of MultirotorCam.com for permission to use of his video at the start of this post.

Further Information

  • Wilder Ranch Pamphlet
  • General Wilder Ranch Information
  • Land Trust of Santa Cruz County
  • Save the Redwoods League


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    1. Sources Used

      • California State Parks Website. Wilder Ranch Pamphlet. 2009.

      • Chemical weathering of a marine terrace chronosequence, Santa Cruz, California I: Interpreting rates and controls based on soil concentration–depth profiles. A F White, M S Schulz, D V Davison V. Vivit, et al. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. 2008;72:36–68.
      • Monterey Bay Area: Natural History and Cultural Imprints, Second Edition. Burton Le Roy Gordon. Boxwood Press; 1977.
      • The Monterey Bay Shoreline Guide. Jerry Emory. University of California Press; 1999.
      • Ocean Cliffs at Wilder Beach Circa 1913. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website Website. http://www2.santacruzpl.org/gallery2/v/postcards/v3-013.jpg.html.
      • Personal Communication with Jim Keller, Director of Conservation and Land Initiatives, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, November 28, 2012.
      • A Santa Cruz County Century: The Sentinel takes a journey through the past 100 years. Santa Cruz Sentinel. Santa Cruz Sentinel Publishers Co. 2000.
      • Wilder Ranch State Park. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilder_Ranch_State_Park.



  • About The Author

    I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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