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A Perfect Day in Pescadero

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Written by Tara Leonard

Travel - Santa Cruz

PESCADERO (October, 2010) - When it comes to State Parks, Santa Cruz County enjoys an embarrassment of riches. We’ve got the towering redwoods at Henry Cowell and the fluttering Monarchs at Natural Bridges. We can catch a wave at Manresa, mountain bike in Nisene Marks or step back in time at Wilder Ranch. So what would compel a nature lover to leave? The irresistible combination of Butano State Park and Duarte's Tavern in neighboring San Mateo County, the yin and yang of a perfect day in Pescadero.
For years, I had heard that Butano is unusually quiet and uncrowded. So after a few sweltering weekends teeming with beach visitors, my husband and I decided to head up the coast for a kid-free getaway. After a gorgeous half hour hugging the shoreline on Highway One, we hung a right onto Gazos Creek Road and quickly left the coastal throngs behind. This narrow, twisting road is your first hint of things to come. Several dizzying miles later, we saw the park entrance on our right.
According to Native American lore, butano means “a gathering place for friendly visits,” but perhaps a more fitting phrase would be “a solitary place for enchanted visits.” Immediately upon entering the park, we sensed its low-key, rustic vibe. There’s no flashy gift shop or bells-and-whistles visitor center. Instead, we were greeted by an empty kiosk trusting visitors to cough up the $10 use fee on the honor system. (Warning: Shameless political plug ahead!) We gladly obliged, although not without discussing how great it will be once the California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010 (Initiative 21) passes, thus ensuring free admission to all state parks.
We parked in one of just a few spots and perused our trail map. Butano State Park includes more than 3,500 acres straddling a plunging central canyon. A network of single-track trails and narrow fire roads take you from the lush, fern-lined canyon bottom up through redwoods and moss-enveloped Douglas firs to sunny chaparral ridge tops with panoramic views. There are 21 drive-up camping sites and 18 walk-ins, with restrooms and flush toilets. There is also a remote trail camp with pit toilets.
We set off on the Ana Nuevo trail, quickly ascending on narrow, heart-pounding switch-backs lined with dense vegetation, including poison oak. At times the trail seemed to be losing its battle with the encroaching plant life, just another reminder of how sparsely populated the park is. The trees were so heavily draped in spider-webs of lichen that it looked as if someone had decorated for Halloween. I would have enjoyed this primordial feeling more in long pants, rather than my leg-baring shorts. Tecnu was definitely in my future.
Several benches along the ridge line teased us with only partial views towards Ano Neuvo Island, but offered a welcome spot to catch our breath. After a more gradual descent on Goat Hill Trail, we eventually entered a 1.5-mile stretch of Butano Creek Trail that was cool, dark and verdant. The splashing creek is criss-crossed with tempting but risky bridges of fallen redwoods, their shallow roots splayed towards the canopy above.
Rather than “we took this trail, we took that trail,” I’ll simply say that we didn’t see another human being for three hours. We did, however, encounter a young buck, standing directly on the trail and giving us a look of open curiosity. It felt quite different than encounters with the far-too-tame deer that traipse fearlessly across the UCSC campus. This animal was strong, wild, and tensed to flee, which he did after several breathless seconds of mutual contemplation.

In short, we felt as if we had a true wilderness experience. No cars. No cell phones. No sullen teenagers ensconced in headphones or hikers who felt the need to whistle while they walked. Butano State Park doesn’t have a singular, flashy attraction to lure hordes of visitors with their camcorders. Instead it offers a true refuge, the chance to escape, at least for a few hours, the wearying constancy of human interaction.
Refreshed and renewed, we were ready for interaction with some serious food. Leaving the park, we turned right and drove a few miles north towards Pescadero and Duarte’s. Frank Duarte opened his restaurant in 1894 and more than a century later it’s still a thriving family-run business, anchoring the quiet intersection that marks this sleepy town. Completely unpretentious, Duarte’s is all about good food served up by good people. But don’t let all that down-home nostalgia fool you. In 2003, the James Beard Foundation awarded Duarte’s one of only five “American Classic” awards in recognition of their distinct menu and singular atmosphere.
In spite of the crowd – there’s always a crowd! – we were quickly seated in the no-frills main dining room. The menu is designed around fresh local produce and seafood, including fried calamari, artichoke omelets, pacific snapper and crab cioppino (a savory blend of crab, prawns and clams in a delicate tomato-based sauce). I started with the famous cream of artichoke soup, which surprises me every time with its piquant pure-artichoke flavor. Then I opted for a simple crab salad sandwich, which was fresh and delicious, stuffed with real crab, none of that flavorless imitation Krab, in just the right amount of mayo. My husband, famished after our hike, went for the French Dip. Both arrived quickly and were quickly devoured. With no room for dessert, we opted instead to take home a full olallieberry pie, a sweet reminder of our sweet escape.