Sustainable From Scratch

December 14, 2021
How SCMTS is creating public access for Cotoni-Coast Dairies. By Guy Lasnier.

Where do you begin when the blank slate is roughly 6,000 acres of spectacular coastal marine terraces, redwood glens, and six perennial streams of the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property north of Davenport?

Donated to the public by the Trust for Public Lands, the Santa Cruz County property with world-class Pacific Ocean views became part of the California Coastal National Monument in January 2017. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agreed to be its permanent steward with a long-term vision to allow for responsible public access, use, and enjoyment.

What areas will be accessible? What kinds of trails will be created? Where will they lead?

Drew Perkins starts with a 30,000-foot view. “First you take a look at the big picture, you think about everything,” says Perkins, trail planning director with Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship (SCTMS). The Santa Cruz trail building and maintenance organization is working with the BLM to eventually create 27 miles of hiking, mountain biking, ADA accessible, and equestrian trails at Cotoni-Coast Dairies.

“You start at the high level; how can we provide a range of experiences and a unique experience? You think about who is using the trails and how they’ll use them,” said Perkins, the architect and engineer of the CCD trail network. BLM and SCMTS are planning for a wide range of users and more variety in the future. E-bikes and leashed dogs will be allowed on specific trails. Trails will become increasingly more challenging as visitors move farther from the property’s entrances.

Designing and building new trails involves a lot of compromises. “A lot of thought goes into it to have the least impact on animal habitat and natural resources,” Perkins said.

Cotoni-Coast Dairies is the second property where SCMTS will have created trails from scratch. Three years ago, working with the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the nonprofit organization, known then as Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, built eight miles of trails on the 166-acre Glenwood Open Space Preserve in Scotts Valley.

Cotoni-Coast Dairies is vastly larger and a more challenging terrain.

Trail construction began early this month for the first nine miles at the north end of the property with opening expected late next year. The first multi-use trails will be the gateway to the northern parcel and will allow more users to enjoy the beauty of the central coast.

The BLM and SCMTS are using a sort of wait-and-see approach to trail build-out. After the first few miles are open to the public, supervisors will evaluate impacts on sensitive habitat. Another 10 miles are planned for phase one, with additional trails planned for phases two and three based on responsible public use. Eventually the CCD trails will connect with the 33-mile trail network planned at San Vicente Redwoods to the north and to the Coastal Rail Trail leading to Santa Cruz to the south.

Sustainable trail design and construction is an art with some science mixed in. Slope, drainage, soil type, and vegetation are all key considerations. SCMTS works closely with BLM staff regarding terrain and archeological and natural resources. New routes will be based on best practices of modern trail building, taking into consideration grade, trail width, and the effects of high-volume use.

Perkins and his SCMTS trail-building colleagues, along with several volunteers, have spent months plotting routes. “We do a lot of hiking around looking at soils, thinking about soils and geology,” Perkins said. Each mile of trail takes about four miles of hiking to survey the right line. He avoids flat areas and steep areas—flat for drainage, steep for difficulty. “You look at habitat, look at what the views are, where people are going to want to go.”

The next step is trail grade. Rocky soils can support a steeper trail, sandy soils cannot. And you want to stay away from water. Perkins explained that the high water table on marine terraces can present challenges for trail location.

Perkins, who has been building trails since his days at California State University, San Luis Obispo, learned from one the masters, Homer T. “Bud” McCrary, a longtime Swanton resident and co-founder of Big Creek Lumber. McCrary, who died in 2020 at age 93, built countless miles of trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Bud was the first one who taught me to work with a trail machine—the ‘Morrison Trailblazer,’” Perkins said. Unfortunately, the old excavator that McCrary once dubbed “the Beast” was destroyed in the CZU Complex Fire. Today, Perkins and the SCMTS crew of six trail builders use power mini-excavators and hand tools.

On a foggy day in early fall, Perkins and SCMTS volunteers Dimitry Struve and Mark Burden scouted a northern slope of the CCD property just off Swanton Road, overlooking Molino Creek and Scotts Creek Beach. With small flags, orange ribbons, and an inclinometer to measure slope rise and fall, the trio surveyed to find the best line for a new trail. The SCMTS trail crew and volunteers will follow the flagged course to sculpt a trail that is both pleasant to hike or ride and that will respect the land and resist erosion.

Cattle grazing will be among the uses of the CCD property, said Lee Thompson, BLM ranger for the site. “One of the things I really like what Drew does is put the trail on the edge where the slope meets the flat. It helps drainage and we can add fences there for grazing.”

SCMTS is working under a cooperative agreement with BLM which is funding a portion of construction through a grant. In existence for more than 30 years, SCMTS is the only Bay Area nonprofit trails organization with a professional staff, a contractor’s license, and broad volunteer support. SCMTS must raise the largest portion of trail planning and construction cost from donors—$3 million. About one third has been raised so far. Several trail building opportunities for volunteers will be planned during the upcoming winter and spring.

Perkins has learned not to let brush or even poison oak detour the proper line. It’s a good thing he doesn't get poison oak, at least not too badly. He’s spent many hours crashing through the stuff, often over his head.

“You have to follow the trail where it leads,’’ says Perkins. “It’s part of the job.”

SCMTS wants to share a HUGE thank you to Guy Lasnier for joining Drew in the field at CCD for a day of flagging and writing this piece. Our team is looking forward to opening these trails to the public!


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