Butano Was Made for Families

Natural play areas and excellent campfire programming make Butano State Park a standout kid-friendly destination.

Story and photos by Jen Karno

July 22, 2015—My son and I stared at the crawdad crawling along the bottom of Little Butano Creek. It must have been 10 inches long! Just a minute earlier we had seen two different kinds of newts and the biggest banana slug I’d ever seen, and I'd learned that the famed UCSC mascot and redwood forest denizen is the second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world. Wow! And in our local parks. How cool.

These are just a few of the many wonders we had the pleasure of experiencing at Butano State Park on a trip earlier this summer. Just inland off Highway 1 near Pescadero, Butano is a quiet, secluded state park that provides a host of entertainments and attractions: three different camping experiences in redwood groves, biking, spectacular hiking trails, natural playgrounds, creeks and ponds, newts, banana slugs, deer, bats, crawdads, red-tailed hawks, hummingbirds, various varieties of mushrooms and wildflowers, including the rare Calypso Orchid. Butano is the most remote and least-visited park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Each time we go we find wonderful surprises: a huge seesaw log for adults and kids, towering redwood fairy rings and biking trails, and ample time and space to explore them.

Getting to Butano

On your drive to the park there are some finds for the trip. If you’re camping you can buy wood from the camp hosts or at the kiosk (wood sales benefit the Junior Rangers program). In Pescadero, be sure to get some goat cheese at Harley Farms and some artichoke-stuffed bread from the Arcangeli Grocery in town.

Driving into the park takes you on a stunning journey. Bucolic rolling fields turn into a shady, forest-lined road. Along the road flows a stream edged with huge ferns and crisscrossed with wooden bridges and planks to walk along. The park contains 4,628 acres, or approximately 7 square miles, of mostly redwood forest and mossy Douglas firs. The park is defined by the watershed of Little Butano Creek.

The day-use fee is $10 per vehicle, and the fee covers any state park or state beach for the whole day (until sunset when the parks and beaches close), so you can explore nearby Pescadero State Beach as well. Dogs are allowed in the camping areas and on fire roads but not on hiking trails. Also they ask that the dogs be in your tent or vehicle at night for their safety. Make sure you get a map of Butano at the entrance kiosk—it'll help a lot when you're hiking on the trails. Cell phone service is not good here, unless you climb one of the mountains and get higher than the redwoods.

Camping at Butano State Park

We made reservations through Reserve America (you can also go through our friends at Hipcamp) and camped for a few nights over the weekend. The Ben Ries Campground has 39 family sites. The car camping area is small, with only 21 drive-in campsites, which adds to the cozy, intimate feel of Butano. Most of the outside, perimeter campsites are a bit larger in size, while the inner sites are a little smaller.

There are also 18 walk-in campsites which are very close to where you park, so the trek to your camp site is never more than 200 yards. The walk-in sites are a few yards from each other but also feel rather private. They are nestled in a small valley with hiking paths directly outside the camping area. The very friendly and welcoming rangers and camp hosts can provide carts to help with hauling the camping loads.

There are backcountry sites as well, which you do need to reserve. To make a reservation, call 831.338.8861 Monday through Friday anytime between 9am and 5pm.

I was impressed that the sites were all fairly spacious and quiet. Our favorite part (besides playing tag and eating s’mores) was the nature programs, and of course the seesaw logs. There are many nature education and ranger-led campfire programs for children in the summer. It’s wise to bring layers for these events, as the park is well shaded and can be cool at night.

Butano's Nature And Campfire Programs

Our group, which consisted of three families, all really enjoyed the programs the rangers and interpreters provided. And we had kids (5-11 years old).

At the campfire on Saturday night, we learned through some different games that it was the California Indians who gave the name Butano to the region, meaning a gathering place for friendly visits. The interpreters were very knowledgeable and taught us to identify different flora and fauna. The wildflowers are plentiful, especially in late spring, so it can be handy to have a wildflower field guide to help you and the kids identify the blossoms. (The names are great, too; some of my favorites are milkmaid, lady's slippers (a type of orchid), hound's tongue, forget-me-nots, wild cucumbers and mission bells.) The games were well-designed. with pencils made out of blue jeans as one of the prizes. Very creative!

We also learned that the Steller's jays can aggressively take our food, so we had to be wary of that and made a point to tell the kids not to feed them.

On Sunday we met down at the creek with the park staff to play "Creekside Detective.” We were encouraged to net some insects and creek dwellers to add to a large tank and identify and observe them. This is where we found the most dragonfly larvae, newts, crawdads (including that 10-inch behemoth) and more. It was so much fun to try and find a new insect and water creature that hadn’t been found yet.

Exploring, Hiking and Biking in Butano

Some wonderful discoveries that we made included exploring a lovely large pond near the campground that had logs for the kids to walk along and large redwood groves for hiding. Above the walk-in sites was a trail where we scampered up a large tree that had fallen and found a see-saw made of redwood logs. The kids and adults played in that area for hours.

Biking in state parks can be pretty limited, but Butano has a 12.3-mile fire road loop that you can mountain bike. It starts with a gentle, steady climb through meadows and winds through shady forests and up into chaparral. It trails through the abandoned airstrip and into some tough hills, but afterwards it’s all downhill into the secluded wilderness of ancient redwoods.

There are various hiking trails that allow you to wander among the redwoods, and although many are steep, they have jaw-dropping views. The most popular hike is the 14-mile Jackson Flats Trail, which merges with multiple trails and ends at the Año Nuevo Viewpoint. The distance makes it appropriate only for adults and older, fit kids. Sometimes, when the fog clears, you can see Año Nuevo Island. There are many switchbacks, but the hike is beautiful and there are rare Calypso Orchids that can be found along this trail.

Read about the trail to Butano's Candelabra Tree
Read about the three-mile Ano Nuevo Trail at Butano
Read Camping in The Great Park

There is also a 5-mile option for hiking Jackson Flats. The 5-mile loop takes about two hours and goes from Ox Mill Trail to Butano Fire Road to Jackson Flats Trail to Ox Mill Trail again. We loved all the foot bridges, little waterfalls, tunnels under the redwoods and climbing over the many fallen trees.

I bought a State Park yearly pass and have listed some organizations that are working hard to protect Butano and other state parks from closures and to help them stay funded. Butano is a close, beautiful gem, and I highly recommend you bring friends and family members of all ages here. There is something for everyone.

Butano State Park, 1500 Cloverdale Rd, Pescadero, CA.
(650) 879-2040; reserve campsites by calling (800) 444-7275.

Who's Working to Support Butano?
Coastside State Parks Association
Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks
Sempervirens Fund
Save The Redwoods League

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