WILDER RANCH STATE PARK is a 4,505 acre state park on the California coast, just north of Santa Cruz. With 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian rails, plus a number of restored buildings once belonging to the Wilder family, plus tours and living history demonstrations, Wilder Ranch is a popular spot for tourists, bicyclists, and school groups.


Wilder Ranch was originally the rancho which provided for the Santa Cruz Mission. It later became a successful and innovative dairy ranch.

Wilder himself is originally from Connecticut. Born in West Hartland in 1826, the farmer's son came to California in 1853. He tried mining in Placer County, but found himself starting a chicken and dairy ranch in Marin County in 1859 on leased land, with $200 capital. He married a Mrs. Miranda Finch, while living there, and continued to expand his dairy business until 1871. They moved to Santa Cruz and formed a parnership with L. K. Baldwin, with whom they continued dairy ranching, and acquired a reputation for making the best butter. This partnership lasted until 1885, and the ranch was split into upper and lower portions, for the choice of which the men bid. Wilder acquired the lower portion, consisting of 2,330 acres, plus just over half the livestock, for $32,000.

This was an excellent move for Wilder, as this land contained the ranch house, as well as numerous springs and streams. The ranch house is a sizable and quite soundly built structure of 20 rooms, and still stands today. The property also contained (partly due to Wilder's diligence) a horse barn, a cow barn with room for over 200 head, wagon houses, a blacksmith shop, a machine shop, two granaries, a dairy house, and quarters for the ranchmen. In short, everything necessary for the complete operation of the ranch. The ranch sustained 500 head of cattle, and turned out milk, cream, and butter, primarily the latter.

What made the operation of the ranch special is that the ranch was driven by water power. Wilder build a dam across the main creek, 9,000 feet from his house, in 1896. An eight inch diameter pipe dropped 216 feet and led into a pelton wheel at the rear of the dairy house. This wheel could supposedly generate 100 horsepower, but only 20 was used. It was connected both to a Thompson-Houston dynamo, which put out 110 volts used to light all of the buildings, and to three arc lamps which provided an "artificial sunrise" intended to wake the cattle up earlier. This practice actually led some people to accuse Wilder of cruelty to animals. Wilder's son, M. D. Wilder, was the electrician, and devised ways to power the house's sewing machine, the forge, and other small devices via electric power, as well as rigging up a smaller and ostensibly quieter dynamo for nighttime use.

The pelton wheel was also attached to a shaft which ran into the dairy house and drove the cream separators, and a churn to speed milk production, as well as continuing on to drive lathes, a barley crusher, several saws, a bone grinder, a planer, an emery wheel and grindstones, a hay and feed cutter, a pumpkin grinder, a fanning mill, and last but certainly not least, a coffee mill - all running off of a 20HP water turbine.

Also providing for the ranch was a 250psi water line out of Eagle Canon, which crossed the property. In exchange for the right of way, Wilder was given use of the pipeline, which he connected to fire hoses, many of which are still in their original places on the property today.

The Wilder family actually sold the property to the Moroto Investment Company around 1969. In 1972 Motoro announced its intent to build between nine and ten thousand housing units on the property (The entire county houses about 25,000 people in 2002) but environmental groups campaigned against the plan, and in 1973 the state of California laid down US$6M to purchase the land, and make it a state park, which opened in the late 1980s.


Turning West from Highway 1 just a mile or so North of Western Drive, which leads up to the UC Santa Cruz campus, one pulls into a fairly sizable parking lot which serves Wilder Ranch State Park. Use fees are similar to other State Parks, with no fee is assessed if one does not arrive by car. Public restrooms are located in the parking lot. Once parked, a dirt road leads down to the center, where the ranch buildings are located. Tours of all of the buildings, including the ranch house, are available. Living history demonstrations are given on the third Saturday of each month. There is a visitor center (which opens each year on April 20 for Earth Day) that contains various displays demonstrating equipment and crafts of the time. The 34 miles of trails have become a popular ride for mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians alike.


While ranching has taken its toll on native species, the California Department of Parks and Recreation put a plan in to effect in 1994 to return land from agricultural fields to a semblance of its natural state. The riparian corridor around Wilder Creek is now a hundred feet wide, with its native plant species. The parks service is making a continuing effort to rid the area of interloping pest plant species such as hemlock and thistle.


Webpage: California State Parks, Wilder Ranch (http://cal-parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=549)

Webpage: Friends of Santa Cruz Parks, Wilder Ranch (http://www.scparkfriends.org/Home/Wlider/index.htm)

Raymond, Isabel H. Dairying in Santa Cruz 1896. Originally published in "Santa Cruz County, a Faithful Reproduction in Print and Photography of its Climate, Capabilities and Beauties", pp. 64-69. (http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/work/dairy.shtml)

Jones. Santa Cruz County: A Century. Sentinel, Santa Cruz 1999.
(Via Webpage: Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Coast Dairies Property: A Land Use History (http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/places/cstdy1-4.shtml)

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