July 2024

Hiking at Arana Gulch

Feeling stress in our Santa Cruz paradise? Is your apartment so small that when you bend over in your bedroom you turn on your kitchen stove with your ass? Philosopher Frederick Gros says, “…the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide-open spaces”, and you can find wide open spaces right here in our ever more congested town.

Arana Gulch seems to be serotonin to the Santa Cruzan soul; under a giant oak I met two artists who had set up their easels to paint the golden meadow that dominates the preserve. One of the women said, “We’re playing Dueling Watercolors,” and then they pretended to fence with their brushes. The next giant oak I came to had two kids climbing the tree, one was hanging upside down with his legs curled over a limb. He said, “I’m a possum.”

One of the last pockets of California coastal terrace prairie, Arana Gulch is right in the middle of Midtown Santa Cruz. The meadow has enormous eucalyptus trees around the edges, and the paved bike/hiker paths are studded with ancient coastal oaks where you can picnic or paint one another in the shade.
A path circles the meadow, runs along the western edge and connects the park’s three entrances. I park on Frederick Street and enter from the north at Agnes Street. I walk by a hundred people standing in line to get free food from the Santa Cruz Bible Church and enter the 68-acre Arana Gulch preserve.

There are cows in certain areas to help restore the natural habit; apparently, cows eat invasive plant species and allow the native plants to flourish. I read an information plaque that said there are also cowbirds, and this makes me wish I had brought my helmet to protect me from 3-pound cow paddies falling from the sky.

The fight over what to do with this property that used to be called the Live Oak Ranch, was contentious and long. I’m sure it was exhausting and frustrating to the combatants over the decades, but what we ended up with is a wonderful combination of plant sanctuary, hiking and biking opportunities in the middle of town, and a way for bikers to safely ride between Midtown to Capitola. Santa Cruz has the second highest rate of bike commuting in the United States. (www.cityofsantacruz.com)

I hadn’t done much walking around electric bikes and there is a stream of them passing through this preserve. Our local Santa Cruz City trails allow legal e-bikes on trails designated for bike use (currentebikes.com.) If you are on a bike, or a hike, it is an amazing way to get from the Seabright neighborhood to Live Oak, or down to the yacht harbor.

I was all set to rail against the e-bikes in Arana Gulch but found out that that is legal.
California requirements for riding e-bikes:
Riders must be 16 years old or older.
Riders must wear a helmet.
Riders cannot travel with a passenger. (dmv.ca.gov)

So, I guess the kid in the photo nailed all three. He’s got a helmet, it seems a stretch, but he could be 16, and the dog is legal as well (having a dog in your car does not let you drive in the carpool lane.) Even talking on his cell phone is legal. I used to think as I got older, I would become more activist. It turns out I’m just getting crankier.

Keeping the Arana Gulch controversy heated; it’s just what we do.

The commuter route aspect continues to be criticized; a quiet green space is now a paved thoroughfare for bicyclists. Some decry the loss of tar plant (endangered) territory because of the paved paths, but it does keep walkers and riders from widening dirt trails.

Apparently, the new trails avoid the main tar plant population areas. What is cool about the trails is how easy it is for people of all mobility skills to come here. The more people, the safer it is. My understanding is that you have to get your meth somewhere else now (I’m sure it’s still a short walk.) Regardless, you do see fewer tied-together tennis shoes hanging over power lines (a signal that meth is sold in the neighborhood. In my place of birth in the deep south, Bakersfield, meth is everywhere, and people hang old tennis shoes over powerlines to purify the air.)

The Coastal Prairie Loop Trail circles the entire meadow and runs along the western boundary. The Marsh Vista Trail goes to Arana Creek. There is a bathroom and water fountain near the harbor entrance to Arana Gulch along the docks.

By Richard Stockton

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