This blog is not intended to instruct or administer guidance in hiking. Hikers should check routes and have a good awareness of prevailing conditions before setting out. Links to maps will often be included, as well as a few points of advice,  but no map or tip can substitute for common sense. That being said, go forth!

My friend Echo and I recently explored Cave Gulch, the steep ravine behind Porter and Kresge colleges. This is a great hike for those new to UC Santa Cruz’s ‘backyard’, and provides some great, laid-back adventure for those more familiar with the area.

Porter Meadow's main field. Head straight and to the right!

Start at Porter Meadows and take any of the trails heading northwest towards Empire Grade. You will enter a hillside descent leading towards Empire Cave, also known as Porter Cave.

We spelunked in the cave, but if you would like to go straight to the gulch, take the tunnel below Empire Grade and head west, parallel to the length of campus. The gulch winds all the way down to Hwy 1 and the ocean, although we got hungry and decided to turn back after covering about 3 miles.

All trails West of the Empire Cave tunnel head in the same direction (downstream/downhill leads you away from campus towards the ocean and vice versa takes you back home), making it difficult to get lost. There’s also a high degree of biodiversity in the gulch, including a few species endemic to the Cave Gulch area.

Empire (Porter) Cave

Empire Cave is the largest known cavern in Cave Gulch, and entering it feels a bit like descending into a bomb shelter. After taking a few moments to

Entrance to Porter (Empire) Cave.

gather some gumption, I swung my camera over my shoulder and we took the 25-foot ladder into the darkness. Adjusting to the starchy silence of still, cool air, we turned right and climbed upwards into the second and third rooms. The cave has a fair amount of stalagmites, which are cool to look at and also have several varieties of fungi growing on them. In fact we were surrounded by a startling amount of plant life—complete with aphids—and I wondered if some of the spindles we saw on the lower walls were the far-reaching roots of plants above.

Photos by KellyAnn Kelso

Wriggling up into the next room was a squeeze, and we were grateful we’d worn durable clothing and headlamps. Echo was getting a bit out of breath from the lower oxygen content, so we decided to rest where we were. In this room (squatting room only) were dozens of mud sculptures—cats and trolls and fairies and skulls and slugs, to name a few. They rested in the tiny pockets formed by acidic rainwater. Upon looking closer, we also noticed faint yellow paint on the walls — glow-in-the-dark-paint. We entertained ourselves for a good fifteen minutes “charging” the stuff with our flashlights and then switching them off to gaze at the spectacle. I felt like we were sitting in the night sky: tiny dabs of paint spread everywhere, accompanied by slightly larger, more flashy looking ‘stars’.

Cavematt Harvestman

There was a single word painted amongst the array, which I didn’t think to record. It wasn’t English, and I’m still curious about its significance. Sitting there, in the moist clay of that room, breathing cave air and gazing at the work of who knows who was an experience I will keep of my time here at UCSC. There are no pictures of this area, you’ll have to experience it for yourself. I’m definitely going back to find that word again.

The Empire Cave Spider

We left reluctantly, descending back (I only slipped four times) towards the mouth of the cave. We detoured into a crevice just beside the ladder, and saw a Triphosa moth (they hang out in the cave during the day and leave to feed at night), several red centipedes, and a banana slug, the first of several spotted that day.

Turning around, Echo found himself face to face with a horde of really, really big daddy long-legs, or Cavemat Harvestmen. I felt they belonged underwater, moving their two front legs like a lobster moves its antennae—slowly, languidly and eerily. In truth, these spiders are all bark (or quiver?) and no bite. They carry no fangs, venom, or silk glands, and are harmless to humans.

It was then that I spotted a much more formidable creature—the endangered Empire Cave Spider, which is found only in Cave Gulch. A predator of the Cavemat Harvestmen, it is indeed related to the Black Widow, and was far too much for me. I credit Echo with the photo in full; after staring at the obviously man-eating arachnid for thirty seconds, I started shrieking like a lunatic. Needless to say, we were quite happy to be above ground after that encounter. A brief note on the absurd amount of trash we found in some parts of the cave: spelunkers, please mind your chip and candy and condom wrappers! They’re a deflating ‘discovery’, and threaten the health of the already endangered Empire Cave Spider.

Out of Empire and into the Gulch

The graffiti-strewn tunnel next to Empire Cave, underneath Empire Grade Road.

Back in the signature smell of drying Bay leaves and Redwood bark, we headed towards the graffiti-covered tunnel below Empire  Grade.  I love the tunnels in Santa Cruz—it’s as though some head contractor  said “You kids wanted a tunnel and we built you a frigging tunnel! You never said anything about lighting the damn thing!” As it was daytime, this was not the  most opportune moment to run screaming bloody murder through the tunnel — I recommend trying it at night. Just past the road, a sign marks the “Fred T. Willbanks Inspirational Grove”.  We weren’t very inspired by the roadway–but another cave just beside the  tunnel proved to be enjoyable. A significantly tighter crevice than Empire  Cave, Echo was able to wedge himself into the mouth while I took several badly focused photos (for shame, Kelso…). Hiking further in, we settled in for a healthy bushwhack session and kept a close eye on some very friendly poison oak. During a rest I seized the opportunity to bite into a raw Bay nut; they are quite tasty when roasted but can be gag-inducing raw (see recipe).

The beautiful canopy of trees above Cave Gulch.

All in all, we traversed three miles over the large rocks — an interesting three miles for a six foot male and a five foot female indeed. My already squat legs were no match for Echo’s sure-footedness, and in the end we settled into a mutual respect for slingshot hiking — as in, one person goes on ahead while the second person ambles at a significantly slower pace, and at a certain point person one decides to wait up for said slowpoke, then darts ahead again just as person two rounds the bend. I was grateful that he wasn’t the world’s biggest gentleman about it; the embarrassment of it all pushed me to negotiate the awkward terrain more and more fluidly as time went by.

Along the way, Echo and I encountered several interesting life forms, including an artist’s conk on the underside of a fallen tree. The fungus makes a nice sketchpad to any hiker with a small scraping instrument. We drew a sun on its white underside, which would have grown over a few days later. There were other varieties of mushrooms along with the medley of plants and animals. In the springtime, Cave Gulch is the place to go for seeing California Giant Salamanders, in their juvenile stage, along the streambed.

Dry for the couple of miles, the streambed abruptly began gurgling for no apparent reason. Taking a closer look, we discovered another feature of Karst topography: underground chambers and tunnels collect rainwater, occasionally releasing it back above ground in a gentle geyser.

Coming up on a third and fourth cave further down in the gulch, we discovered that some smart guy had decided they wanted to change the general hiker’s orientation of Hell Hole. The faux hell hole had a nice chest of treasures tucked below its mouth; in it we found a deck of cards, some drawings, a few marbles and colored pencils.

Not Hell Hole. Hell Hole is located closer to the ocean than this cave. The name of this cave is unknown.

Hell Hole

The slender entrance-way of Hello Hole a ‘fitting’ initiation into the cave’s passageways. As both of us were pretty tired at this point,  we didn’t venture in for fear of getting stuck down there. Hell Hole is aptly named for the ill-prepared spelunker; do not venture into this cave without somebody who either knows its passageways or who will agree to stay above ground and make sure you find your way out (and bring a reliable flashlight).

THIS is the entrance to Hell Hole!

Both caves are located uphill on the Northern side of the gulch. A bit of internet research may lead you to various maps about where their exact loci are, but I’ve left their discovery to your own spelunking discretion.

Log bridge.

Shortly after Hell Hole we wandered towards a stream junction. Beyond this point, the water ran consistently, so we hopped the stream and took the biking trail. There was an interesting foot bridge, and I walked across it several times feeling very sophisticated.

If we had gone fishing, we would’ve see one trout — just one stinkin’ trout. But we’d gone hiking — so we saw a trout! It darted behind a rock when we came trundling through, however once we stopped and gave it a few moments of peace, it cautiously skittered out and hung around for a bit. It struck me that this is pretty much all a fish has to do in their life, besides eat and avoid being eaten. I’d still enjoy being a fish.

One of our last encounters was with a small organic hut erected beside the stream. I instantly coined the hut “Dragon Lair,” per the painting, but beyond that I was happy to leave it be. Hope you find it!

We hiked back in relative silence, partly because we were engrossed in our surroundings and mostly because we were really hungry.

It had been overcast when we set out that morning, yet as we came up out of the meadows the campus gleamed like a jewel.

Additional Resources

Roasted Bay nuts recipe/tasting experience:

A map from the UCSC Natural History Museum:

The "Dragon Lair"

(We wandered far past what this map captures, but it’s a great reference point for finding Empire Cave near Porter and the crossing underneath Empire Grade. There’s also a podcast tour, which covers several of the critters you might find — and a very fun fact about our mascot).

Karst topography of the region includes several caves and other oddities:

Cave Gulch’s documented biodiversity (I don’t understand a lot of it, but some ENVS majors out there might appreciate this):

A virtual 360º of the gulch: