Big Basin is only 20 miles from San Jose, a one-hour drive along twisty mountain roads. But when you arrive at the extraordinary park headquarters area, where graceful conifers rise high above 1930s lodge-style buildings, and when you step out into the crisp cool air, it feels like being at a remote mountain resort.
All of Big Basin's old-growth redwood trails start in the basin-like valley near park headquarters. An alluvial flat that extends about a quarter mile north and a quarter mile south of park headquarters has the biggest trees and most attractive woods in the park.
Middle Ridge, rising 1000 feet above the flat, divides the park into two subtly different environments. The region to the east of the ridge is in a rain shadow. Particularly north of park headquarters where the ridge is highest, this area tends to be somewhat dry-looking for a redwood forest, though it's still remarkabaly lush by any other standard. The area is slightly less attractive because of the dense understory of tanoak trees that grows among the redwoods, reducing visibility, and because the ground is mostly bare dirt and leaf litter, giving the forest a disheveled appearance. The redwoods are not generally very large and many have been blackened by fire. The region to the west of the ridge tends to be greener and much more attractive. Sorrel and ferns cover the ground, large trees are more common, and the forest has a richer, healthier look. The park headquarters area is a dramatic exception to this pattern, with many ancient redwoods but little ground cover, suggesting that its water mainly comes from Opal Creek rather than from direct rainfall.
Big Basin is a popular park, and even in winter it can be hard to find parking on sunny weekends. On summer weekends parking in the headquarters area can fill up completely and rangers may start turning people away. Arrive before 10 am or after 5 pm to avoid the rush.
There's a $10 fee to park in the headquarters area, but you can park for free in more remote areas like Waddell Beach, Whitehouse Canyon Road, or China Grade.
Twin Redwoods, Alder, and Butano Trail Camps are closed from November 1 to April 30 each year. Currently the other camps are open all year but don't have trash service in the winter.
*** Berry Creek loop (10 miles)
Sunny, pleasant redwood uplands followed by miles of streamside redwood forest with some impressive groves. Lots of hills. The best long redwood hike south of Humboldt County.
*** Redwood Nature Trail (0.6 mile)
By far the most popular trail in Big Basin, this is a very nice loop through an alluvial flat with the park's most impressive trees.
*** Sunset–Skyline Short Loop (2.9 miles)
This loop is the best choice if you want to go for a one- or two-hour hike in Big Basin and don't mind a little climbing. It gets you away from the busy Park Headquarters area and into some nice old-growth redwood uplands.
** Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail (25.0 miles)
This 3-day hike, which features the best of Big Basin's redwoods, is the most popular backpacking route in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
** Slippery Rock (5.4 miles)
This relatively easy hike includes some decent old-growth redwood scenery, plus a walk up an algae-covered rock face.
** Hollow Tree and Meteor Trails (8 miles)
A climb through a rather dry, fire-blackened redwood forest is followed by a descent through a very nice redwood-lined ravine and then a jaunt along Opal Creek.
* Blooms Creek Loop (3 miles)
A short hike along Blooms Creek followed by a climb through rather uninteresting forest and a descent that winds around attractive redwood-lined ravines.
* Creeping Forest loop (3 miles)
A climb through a mixed redwood forest.
* Sempervirens Falls (3.4 miles)
A popular short hike, mostly alongside paved roads, to a small waterfall.
*** Westridge Trail (9.4 miles)
This one-way hike joins two of the most scenic parts of western Big Basin: the Rancho del Oso valley and Chalk Mountain. Between is a very strenuous climb to a wooded ridgetop.
** Basin Trail Loop (12 miles)
This hike circles the rim of Big Basin, where sunny chaparral with great views of redwood-clad hills alternates with cool, shady woods. You'll then descend into a canyon filled with old-growth redwoods and finish the hike with a few pleasant miles of strolling through the redwoods alongside a burbling creek.
** Buzzard's Roost (5 miles)
A 1200-foot climb to a panoramic view over Big Basin. The only redwoods are at the bottom of the hill, but they're nice. A popular hike.
From the Bay Area, the most popular way to reach the Big Basin park headquarters is to take Highway 17 from Los Gatos to Felton, then Highway 9 to Boulder Creek and Route 236 to Big Basin. An alternate route is Big Basin Way (Route 236) south from Saratoga. This way is shorter but it's also narrow and twisty, so unless highway 17 is clogged with summer beach traffic the two routes will take the same amount of time.
Parking in the park headquarters area now costs $10.00 per car. The park has a gift shop (closed in December and January) that also offers sandwiches, chili, and ice cream. The nearest grocery store, gas station, and drugstore is in Boulder Creek.
Several trail camps are available for backpackers. They can be reserved online up to 60 days in advance; same-day reservations only can be made by calling the park at 831-338-8861.
Reservations for the following campgrounds are made through the State Parks' ReserveCalifornia website.
© 2006–2017 David Baselt