Turning Water into Milk: Wilder Ranch’s Innovative History

Wilder Ranch State Park

There are few places in California that make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time.

Wilder Ranch is one of them.

Situated on 7,000 acres just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, Wilder Ranch State Park features over 34 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.

The land remains largely untouched, reminding you of the Santa Cruz that once was, with trails and paths that wind through shady redwood forests and coastal terraces and valleys.

Breathtaking views of coastal bluffs, tidepools, and sea caves, as well as the preserved dairy ranch and living history demonstrations make Wilder Ranch a popular spot for the entire family.

Sustainable History

The historic site was once home to five generations of the Wilder family, and was once the main rancho supplying the Santa Cruz Mission.  In 1871, D.D. Wilder built the original farm and changed the entire way dairy farms in the area operated by replacing his steam wheel, used to power the separators when making butter, with the Pelton Water Wheel.

The Pelton Water Wheel extracts energy more efficiently than other water wheel models. Instead of relying on the weight of the water to turn the wheel like traditional models, the Pelton Water Wheel uses the impulse of moving water.  This allows for a very efficient turbine that could run at low flow rates.

By 1890, the forge and early generators were also powered by water. This innovative use of the water wheel revolutionized the industry and the local economy. Wilder Ranch was the only ranch in the area in the 1890’s that had electricity, and was a beacon for miles.

Nowadays, the park features historical tours and living history demonstrations to help visitors learn about the history of the dairy ranch and of the area. Much of the original farm equipment has been preserved, including the original Victorian farmhouse and the Pelton Water Wheels. The wheels, hooked up to a series of pulleys and belts, power the original grindstone, saw mill, coffee grinder, and drill bit.

Park docents dress in period garb, and give demonstrations on weaving, blacksmithing, baking, and crafting. The picnic area is located near chickens, horses, and cows, furthering the impression of Victorian era farm life.

Untouched Beauty

Wilder Ranch BeachBut Wilder Ranch State Park is far more than just a historical site.

The 34 miles of trails on the land are popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders alike. The 15 or so trails wind from sea level to 1,200 feet gradually, giving you access to dramatic views of the Pacific, beautiful open meadows, shaded redwood forests, and secluded valleys.

The breeze coming off the ocean keeps the trails cool, and the variety of trails and difficulty guarantees that anyone can find a hike that suits their ability. The trails can be a bit confusing at times due to multi-junctions and paths that aren’t marked on the maps, but even if you get lost, the trails loops around.

Major wetlands restoration projects as well have brought back some of the original plants and wildlife in the area, providing abundant natural beauty for you to enjoy.

A small taste of Santa Cruz’s early history, Wilder Ranch is a great place to bring the entire family to explore the ranch and the coastal trails, and draw from history to learn about environmental sustainability and alternate sources of energy.

About Elizabeth Coleman

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney-turned-writer born and raised in the Santa Cruz mountains. Her mom reads her blog, www.realitygumbo.com.