This enjoyable loop takes you from the visitor's center to the northern limit of Big Basin's old growth redwoods. The loop features trails through two redwood-filled ravines — the Hollow Tree Trail and the exceptional Meteor Trail, which is currently the site of Big Basin's tallest redwood. Almost the entire route is in remarkably dense old-growth redwood and tanoak forest, the foliage looking like immense, solid walls of greenery. The entire route is free of traffic noise, and much of it follows rushing creeks.
For a shorter but similar 5-mile loop, try combining the Meteor and Dool Trails. This alternate route includes Ocean View Summit (which is actually more of a small bump) and is one of the more popular hikes in the park.
The best direction to hike this loop is counter-clockwise, which puts the best scenery near the end. The climbing is also a little easier in this direction.
Start by hiking north on North Escape Road, which runs along Opal Creek. For the first mile, the road passes through some fine old-growth forest, somewhat spoiled by numerous old picnic areas that are now only used for overflow parking. After crossing an auto bridge, the narrow road runs through a second stretch of impressive old-growth redwoods. Although it's paved, much of the road is covered with redwood needles and is actually more pleasant and scenic than the parallel Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, offering better views of both the redwoods and the creek.
The trail and road remain close together until they reach a hexagonal kiosk (with interpretive displays) next to another auto bridge. Immediately after the bridge, turn left onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which runs along burbling Opal Creek for a mile before reaching the intersection with the Hollow Tree Trail (for a great detour, continue straight on the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail for another quarter-mile. At the second footbridge is a small but scenic cluster of good-sized redwoods sheltered in a narrow ravine).
The Hollow Tree Trail climbs gently at first, then more steeply, though a large ravine. At first the tanoak is so dense that you can't really see many redwoods, but as the trail climbs the woods become strikingly open. The redwoods are unusually sparse, and the spaces between them are mostly filled with tanoak. There are none of the usual dense huckleberry shrubs; in fact there's no groundcover at all, just fallen light-brown tanoak leaves. A few pretty good-sized redwoods keep the scenery interesting, but most of the redwoods are small to mid-sized. Most of the trees along the upper half of the trail have been blackened by a forest fire, and there are a few short stretches where the redwoods have been logged. It's an unusually arid look for an old growth redwood grove, but it's pretty scenic in its own way.
It's not clear which tree, if any, is the hollow tree of the trail's name, but several large trees alongside the trail have been hollowed out by fire.
The creek disappears and the old-growth redwoods give way to logged forest just before the intersection with the Lane-Sunset Rim Trail. Go left, staying on the Hollow Tree Trail, to climb up to Middle Ridge Fire Road. Although it isn't overgrown, the trail can be very faint in this area.
Reaching the fire road, the trail briefly breaks out of the forest into warm sunshine, and there are some views of the surrounding hills. It's a nice break from the woods. Middle Ridge Fire Road then descends steeply through old-growth redwoods, offering a few views over the Opal Creek watershed.
The Meteor Trail continues this steep descent, plunging into a dark, narrow, lushly-wooded ravine. This trail is the best part of the hike and is by far the most scenic of the many trails on the eastern slope of Middle Ridge. The redwoods are larger and more densely-packed than on the Hollow Tree Trail, and the ground is covered with a thick mat of very dark brown decaying redwood needles.
Like the Hollow Tree Trail, the redwood trunks along the upper half of the Meteor Trail have been blackened by a forest fire. The understory of huckleberry and tanoak isn't quite as dense as it is lower down, so the impressive collection of old-growth redwoods isn't hidden from view. Redwood sorrel and ferns line the creek channel. The forest becomes more ordinary-looking near the bottom of the trail; the redwoods seem smaller and a dense understory clogs the views.
For variety, take the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail instead of North Escape Road on the way back to park headquarters. The trail, which can get muddy in winter, passes the now-empty site of a 19th-century homestead. There are few big trees in this area, but it's unclear if that's a result of logging since no stumps are visible.
© 2005, 2011, 2014, 2017 David Baselt