Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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What’s a mountain without a ghost airfield? What’s a 10-mile family hike without a little detective fun? Last but not least, my young explorers – what’s a redwood hike without 575 banana slugs? Next time you offer your kids to get up at 6 am on a chilly November morning, you better have arguments and a ghost air field beats the view any day. Now the Butano State Park ghost airfield may not be particularly impressive with rickety control towers and WW2 bombers in dusty hangars but it is still a good one to look for because a) airfields scattered along the trail are a rare commodity and b) this air field was built on the narrow ridge of a mountain – that’s stuff for mystery novels alone. Therefore it was on our hiking checklist and we made it happen.
Each year we organize a big Thanksgiving weekend hike and this one was last year’s hike with our friends Gerry and Diane. They came over from Santa Monica for a few days and were psyched about the adventure. I pulled my maps out, flattened them on my desk, checked a few websites and figured out logistics. How many miles to the airfield, when and where to have lunch, what time we should start to get back before nightfall, and so on. Even if we didn’t find the airfield (some people apparently didn’t – how hard could it be to find?), we’d manage to shed off a few turkey pounds and breathe in fresh redwood air. As far as the young crew, I struck a deal with my girls – they could pick $2 worth of candy to eat on the trail. We were ready.
At 6 am the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we woke up and made turkey sandwiches. Checked the candy was in the kid backpacks, as well as powdered hot chocolate and hot water for the lunch break. Tied up our boots and drove off. At 8 am, we pulled in at Butano State Park and parked on the side of the road by the trailhead for Little Butano Creek.
Its crystal clear waters flowed in the shade of tall coastal redwoods while lush ferns fanned out their serrated leaves on the needle-strewn slopes of the valley. With our big pairs of hiking boots and loud voices, we felt like we intruded on the damp and green morning of a primal forest. Hush, the trees told us, we’re still not up. Still, it was glorious to have the place to ourselves and our energy levels were high which is a good thing since getting to the airfield meant a bad-ass 1,600-foot ascent.
We took a left on Ox Mill trail and started a long series of switchbacks punctuated by “Hey, another banana slug” and “Two banana slugs!”.
Here’s the reason of our banana slug obsession. To make the hike more “interactive” for our girls, we organized a banana slug contest – whoever counted the most banana slugs would get to pick one food of choice at the store of Harley’s Goat Farm. And that, for little girls who love fresh goat cheese or rosemary-infused olive oil, is a big treat. So we kept walking and counting the slimy creatures.
Before long we reached Jackson Flats Trail, a dirt road I dare any ATV to ride on. It’s been completely disfigured by rains and soil erosion but on the upside, we came out of tree cover and enjoyed open views on the ridges across from us and the ocean. The walking was steep but we didn’t mind and broke into small groups, the girls walking with Diane who was being amazing with them.
When we turned onto Butano Fire Road, we still had another 400 feet of elevation gain and 2 miles of trail ahead of us but the prospect of lunchtime at the airfield kept our spirits up. The fact is, we were getting hungry. After another hour at the detour of the road, we found it. We all went “Oooooh,” as in “Oooooh, is that it?”
The truth is, the Ghost Airfield of Butano State Park is just a narrow gravel strip lined with dwarf Douglas trees. It’s not magical or romantic or anything decaying like the Marin Headlands’ Hill 88 but to its credit, the air strip drops sharply off the side of the mountain. That is quite dramatic.
As we settled down for lunch, I tried to imagine a small airplane taking off and gathering just enough speed to lift up at the end of the quarter-mile of an airstrip above the mountains. I would have been a wreck of a pilot if it had been me but as it were, I was just unwrapping turkey sandwiches and daydreaming. Mountain cyclists stopped nearby – I couldn’t fathom doing on wheels what we’d done on foot.
My girls happily explored the area though I told them to watch out for poison oak – the area’s poison oak heaven. After a good break, it was time to go down the mountain. Well, go down after another hill since the airstrip isn’t quite the culminating point of the hike. We walked by a backpack camp (where the restrooms proved to be very convenient) and went down Olmo Fire Road on a road so steep we had to run down parts of it.
My girls had whipped out the candy and munched their way through gummies and other chemical sweets. By the time we turned onto Doe Ridge Trail we were back under tree cover. An oak and laurel forest gave way to a coastal redwood forest where we stumbled upon the most gigantic tree stump I’ve ever seen – we climbed on top of course!
Rather than go down via the campground, we decided to walk to the bridge over Little Butano Creek and walk back on the other side along Butano Creek Trail. Just for kicks. Just because it was a lovely walk with small bridges to cross, more banana slugs to spot and the clear waters of the creek gurgling at our feet. When we reached the car, my youngest had counted 575 banana slugs while my oldest had somewhat lost count after 450.
Given the hike, they both deserved a special treat and we took them to Harley’s Goat Farm where they each got to pick a well-deserved treat. The perfect farm ending to a beautiful redwood walk. Long live abandoned airfields!