See it all in one fell swoop
Butano State Park consists of a redwood canyon a few miles from the coast about halfway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. It receives far fewer visitors than the larger and more famous Big Basin State Park a few miles to the east. The Santa Cruz Mountains lack prominent peaks and instead consist of an extensive system of steep sandstone ridges. Butano has 6 different ecological communities, and this hike visits them all.
The hike starts at the small parking area by the small visitors center (no food or beverages for sale) near the entrance. The Ano Nuevo Trail heads uphill to the southeast after crossing Little Butano Creek. The trail steeply climbs through a dense oak woodland forest. Small clearings of ceonathus pepper a deep forest of coast live oak, California bay, and California hazel. The trail gains 750' to 1000' ASL in the first 3/4 mile before beginning a relentless up and down journey that mainly goes up to Butano Fires Road.
Ano Nuevo ends at the top of a ridge. The Candelabra Trail heads south and down to Gazos Creek and the Gazos Trail continues up the ridge. Take Gazos about a mile until it ends at the unnamed fire road that you'll take up to the Butano Fire Road. You are now in a mixed forest of Douglas fir and redwoods. The redwoods dominate the north-facing slope of the ridge while the Dougies occupy the south-facing side. Tanoak leaves litter the side of the relatively clean fire road. The stretch from Ano Nuevo to the Butano Fire Road is 3.2 miles and features numerous steep climbs that end up being all for naught as the fire road subsequently descends. It's quite a workout. The fire road enters and exits private property 4 times before reaching Butano Fire Road.
You mercifully reach Butano Fire Road at 1740' ASL in a second growth redwood forest. The trees here are relatively small as this area was logged until the 1950s. Turn right on the fire road as it (flatly) travels a few dozen yards to the Ray Linder Memorial Trail which is a loop down into a forest of taller redwoods before heading back up to the road after 0.8 mile. Go right and 0.2 mile and take the fire road west back towards the fire road you took on the way up. The forest here is a nice second growth redwood forest that gradually blends into Douglas fir then chaparral. Enjoy the carpet of ferns, but watch out for stinging nettle and poison oak. Most of the wildflowers found in the park bloom in the spring or early summer so there was little color other than a few clutches of woodrose on my initial visit in August 2013.
A trail camp (register at the visitors center or with the iron ranger) is 5.7 miles from the start where the Indian Trail heads down to Little Butano Creek. You can take Indian down to the Canyon Trail to return to the trailhead for a shorter hike. This looks like a shady, easy way to return. However, the more interesting route is to continue on the fire road as it enters a stretch of chaparral. The fire road continues through the familiar manzanita, coyote bush and ceonathus that cloaks much of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This ecological community has showy wildflower displays in the spring, but midsummer features chaparral pea and California fuschsia.
The fire road continues down another 2.5 miles until it reenters the forest about a mile before reaching the Jackson Flats Trail. Jackson Flats descends steeply from the road into a redwood forest that has obviously seen heavy logging in the past. There isn't much here besides redwood, fern and poison oak and the flora here is much less diverse than what's found along the Ray Lindner Memorial Trail. Jackson Flats drops 800' over 2.2 miles with a few uphill stretches.
Jackson Flats hits the bottom of Little Butano Canyon 10.5 miles after you began, and you may be tempted to turn right and return to the trailhead about 1/2 mile away along a gentle trail that follows Little Butano Creek. However, a better idea is to turn left and take the Creek Trail as it heads upstream (with a few ups and downs...) through a dark redwood forest. The trail ends at a modern pumphouse. Go across the bridge at the pumphouse up to a dirt road that that goes 200' up to a modern-looking building and 2 plastic water tanks. The rest of the way is nice and flat as it passes Ben Ries Campground.
The last half-mile is through a riparian forest. I'm not sure if the riparian community (also known as the red alder community) sprang up after the old growth redwoods were logged, but it seems strong today. Maples, vines, sedges, countless wildflower species and, of course red alders choke the bottom of the canyon. There is an old flume on the north side of the canyon that looks to be in pretty good condition.
The last few hundred yards go through a series of small marshes that dry up in summer. These marshes are important for the California newts found in the park, and the little guys were hibernating safely underground when I visited in August 2013.
You have just completed an ecological tour of the Santa Cruz Mountains passing through the oak woodland, redwood forest, mixed conifer forest, chaparral, red alder/riparian, and a little bit of vernal wetland communities while getting a monster workout to boot.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This is a moderately difficult hike.