Search for the Ghost Airfield of Butano State Park

The airstrip

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.

Prepping for the Hike to Butano Air Field

Butano State Park trail map

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 the Trailhead

Butano Creek Trail

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.

Bridges over 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.

Banana Slugs

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!”.

Yet another banana slug

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.

Counting banana slugs

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.

Steep trail

Butano Air Field

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?”

Eroded trail

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.

Butano State Park Backpack Camp

Backpack camp restrooms

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.

Back in the redwood forest

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!

Giant tree stump

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.

Harley’s Goat Farm

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!

Practical details:

  • Hike length: roughly 10 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,600 feet
  • Time: 5 to 7 hours
  • Water: none along the trail, bring your own
  • Restrooms: at the backpack camp
  • Harley’s Goat Farm: my girls’ favorite goat farm ever http://www.harleyfarms.com/
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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

3 Responses to “Search for the Ghost Airfield of Butano State Park”

  1. March 12, 2013 at 8:49 am, Jeff said:

    I have been to the airstrip a few times myself, camping at the primitive campground. Also at the last very sharp bend before arriving at the airstrip from Cloverdale there is suppose to be a geocache. But I never found it.

    The reason for the post here is I have been trying to find out why there is an airstrip there? What is its history? When was it used? But everytime I ask.com I cannot seem to find any answers. Just colorful stories of it not having abandoned airfield remnants.

    Jeff

    Reply

  2. March 24, 2018 at 2:10 am, Alan said:

    I started by checking the 1955 historical topography map for Butano and found it annotated “Landing Field.” https://prd-tnm.s3.amazonaws.com/StagedProducts/Maps/HistoricalTopo/PDF/CA/24000/CA_Franklin%20Point_290659_1955_24000_geo.pdf

    Amazingly, the 1991 and 1998 historical topography maps STILL listed it as a “Landing Field.” https://prd-tnm.s3.amazonaws.com/StagedProducts/Maps/HistoricalTopo/PDF/CA/2400/CA_Franklin%20Point_290654_1991_24000_geo.pdf and https://prd-tnm.s3.amazonaws.com/StagedProducts/Maps/HistoricalTopo/PDF/CA/24000/CA_Franklin%20Point_101462_1998_24000_geo.pdf

    I have two suspects for consideration:

    1) The Military Did It

    During World War II a number of emergency airstrips were built in connection with training activities in the San Francisco Bay Area. These were often ‘ad hoc’ and were called “Auxiliary Landing Fields”. This was for the Army Air Corps. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_World_War_II_Army_Airfields

    This theory is advanced by State Parks as follows:

    “A large dirt landing strip is located along a ridgeline above Little Butano Creek. The history of this feature is unclear, though it was in place by 1955 at the latest. It was allegedly one of three emergency landing fields associated with a squadron of P-40 fighters based in Half Moon Bay during the opening months of World War II. The landing strip has not been used for many years and its significance appears to be limited according to previous evaluations.” — http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/21299/files/butano%20prelim%20gp%20exist%20cond%20thru%20issues.pdf Page 2-52

    Also see https://www.smdailyjournal.com/news/local/san-mateo-coast-during-world-war-ii/article_996e1088-1222-5f3f-8302-00be16653a1c.html for context in the time period.

    Nearby Half Moon Bay Airport was built by the California State Highway Department for the U.S. Army in 1942 as an auxiliary airfield for Salinas Army Air Base. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half_Moon_Bay_Airport and its parent https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salinas_Municipal_Airport (scroll to History)

    Some abandoned airfields in California are listed at http://www.airfields-freeman.com/CA/, but this field is not among them. Perhaps it should be.

    I also dug through extensive lists of military airfields in World War II in California and did not find Butano listed: https://web.archive.org/web/20160330050711/http://airfieldsdatabase.com/ww2/WW2%20R26c1%20AL-CA.htm

    If it was military, it would have been used as an emergency landing site by either Salinas AAF or NAS Moffett Field, which shared use of several auxiliary airfields. However, it seems both too short and too isolated for this purpose.

    I could also find no mention of the other two auxiliary fields noted by State Parks.

    2) The Timber Industry Did It

    Homer “Bud” McCrary, an owner of Santa Cruz Lumber (now Big Creek Lumber) which logged the area starting in 1952, is noted as having had his own private plane in 1955. Whether he or his company built or used this particular strip is unknown. (http://www.sanmateorcd.org/pesc-butanoassess.pdf 3-32 and 3-33.) Certainly his company had both the road access and the means, and what better way for the owner to ‘drop in’ on the work in progress?

    Big Creek Lumber presently owns and operates Las Trancas Airport adjacent to its Davenport mill, a private airstrip. https://www.airnav.com/airport/17CL

    The owner is presently listed as HOMER T. MC CRARY, the same man and a legend in the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

    See also http://www.big-creek.com/about-big-creek/history/ for more about this fascinating company.

    Non Suspects:

    A) Board of Forestry / CDF / CalFire

    In 1922 the California State Board of Forestry (predecessor to today’s CalFire) built its first official fire lookout at Mt. Bielawski in the Santa Cruz mountains. A CCC camp was considered for the Butano area by San Mateo County but rejected after World War II broke out. However CDF did not use aircraft until 1954. Given these facts it is unlikely that either the Board of Forestry or CDF built this airstrip.

    In modern usage it would be useful primarily as a helispot.

    B) California State Parks

    The state park was created in 1961 and I could find no record of the airstrip being built as part of the state park improvements. It is also awkwardly placed for any imaginable needs.

    Reply

    • March 24, 2018 at 1:37 pm, Laure Latham said:

      Alan, this is amazing! I had no idea about the military history of Half Moon Bay. This is fascinating. For what it’s worth, it’s not usable as a landing field anymore as it has badly suffered from the weather, but it’s still a very cool slice of Bay Area history.

      Reply

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