The Basin Trail
Loop hike including Middle Ridge Fire Road and the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail
Length 12 miles Climbing 1860 ft
The Basin Trail loop is one of the best all-day hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Circling the rim of Big Basin's basin, the hike passes through a nice variety of different woodlands, some scenic, some a little dull, plus some sunny coastal scrub. There are redwoods along almost the entire route, although the redwoods are sparse at the higher elevations and aren't as impressive as those on the Berry Creek Loop. The highlights of the hike are a series of superb views over the basin and an especially nice descent into a redwood-filled canyon.
The woodlands are at their best in the winter and spring and can get a bit dry-looking by the end of summer. This is an ideal loop for a fine sunny day; avoid it when it's overcast, since the woods can get dismal and uninteresting. The trail is lightly used but is usually in great condition.
Start at park headquarters. Cross Opal Creek on the bridge across from the museum and snack shop to reach the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Turn right. After an all-too-short walk under the superb old-growth redwood lowlands along Opal Creek, turn left onto the Dool Trail. Continue straight at the next few intersections as the Dool Trail climbs through redwood forest. As the trail climbs, the redwoods get progressively smaller.
The trail ends at Middle Ridge Fire Road. Turn right and continue climbing. The trail breaks out into a sunny clearing covered with sparse chaparral and a few pine trees. Look for a path to your right that leads a few yards to Ocean View Summit, a low rise with partially-obscured views of the verdent redwood-carpeted hills and, perhaps, a glimpse of the ocean in the distance.
After the summit, the fire road resumes climbing and soon enters a dense redwood grove. The redwoods here appear to be old growth, although in this upland environment there aren't any really big trees. Most of the trees are blackened and there's no groundcover, just dead leaves from the abundant tanoak trees.
The fire road undulates over several rises, climbing and falling but mostly climbing, sometimes steeply. Pass the Meteor Trail intersection and turn right at the Hollow Tree/Lane Trail Camp intersection.
The connector trail starts off as a barely-visible track worn into the leaf litter. Further along, the trail is cut into a steep hillside, making it easier to follow.
Turn left at the first intersection. It's easy to miss the correct trail: the intersection is marked with a signpost, but unfortunately none of the arrows points to the Basin Trail, which is a nearly invisible track to the left. The trail climbs steeply past the Johansen Shingle Mill, which has been reduced to a collection of rusted-up equipment in a dismal, logged forest. The trail then levels off and winds around ravines for quite a long time.
The forest, which is rather dry-looking, mostly consists of tanoak with no groundcover at all, just brown leaf litter. Surprisingly, though, there are occasional large and fire-blackened redwoods in this area. At one point, if you look carefully through the canopy, you can see two redwoods towering high above the other trees. Further along, you'll pass by the base of these redwoods, which turn out to be a huge double-trunked tree. The trail also passes through a small grove of old redwoods in a small depression, dry and fire-blackened.
At the Lane Trail Camp, turn right onto the Basin Trail and descend through the woods. The redwoods here are much smaller. The trail climbs a bit before emerging into sunny chaparral. There's a brief glimpse, partially screened by pine trees, down the entire length of the Opal Creek valley. The trail curves right at a rock outcropping, then reaches a second, larger outcropping with a panoramic view of redwood-carpeted ridges cascading off into the blue distance. Amazingly, you're only halfway into the hike at this point, although the rest of the hike is almost all downhill.
The trail continues through tall chapparral and mixed woods with a few tree-screened glimpses of rolling hills. This part of the trail can get a bit overgrown; there's also a little poison oak to watch out for. Entering a refreshingly cool and shady redwood grove, the trail climbs slightly and crests a low ridge, then descends through chaparral to an intersection with the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Turn right and continue descending, passing several fine views. Throughout this stretch of the hike, cars and motorcycles can occasionally be heard on China Grade Road, which runs just above the Basin Trail, and Route 237, which is not visible but is only a few hundred yards below the trail.
The trail levels out and passes through sparse chaparral, crossing several rock outcroppings and running along a surprisingly sharp ridge before beginning a steep descent into a redwood-filled canyon. The dark old-growth redwood grove, with its huge trees rising high on the hillsides above the burbling creek, is the finest in the upper Opal Creek area and makes a striking contrast with the bright, sunny chaparral and panoramic views from just a few minutes ago. The grove has a really dense understory of tanoak but mostly lacks groundcover.
The trail climbs over a low ridge and crosses another creek before joining the Hollow Tree Trail. The redwoods get smaller after the initial descent, but it's still an extraordinary forest. As you walk along the creek you're enveloped by remarkably rich green foliage that rises high above you. Late on a summer day the woods are lit up by the golden late-afternoon sunshine, making this stretch extra scenic.
The trail ends at the paved North Escape Road. Turn right and cross an auto bridge. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail resumes to your right, but it's easier and more scenic to just stay on the road. The shady road, covered with redwood needles, alternates between old growth and second growth forest but is pleasant throughout. After the intersection with the Sequoia Trail, the woods improve and the road passes some now-closed campgrounds and day use areas. The redwoods get progressively more impressive as you approach the Visitor Center, culminating in the roadside Stanford Group.
© 2006, 2009, 2012 David Baselt