This loop is the best way to get a sense of what Big Basin looks like in a 1 to 2-hour hike. Starting among the big lowland redwoods near Park Headquarters, the route climbs the densely-wooded Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail and dips into fine upland groves on the far side of Middle Ridge. While the upland groves don't have the huge trees of the lowlands, they do have a distinct old-growth look that's very attractive. Crossing Middle Ridge again, the trail descends to Opal Creek, passing impressive lowland redwoods before returning to Park Headquarters. The interesting topography, the contrast between upland and lowland, and the lushness of the forest make for an interesting and enjoyable hike.
Starting at the trailhead across from Park Headquarters, enter the forest and cross Opal Creek on a large footbridge. Turn left on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, heading toward Waddell Beach. On your left, behind a fence, is the strikingly large Santa Clara Tree. This monster tree was once one of the park's prime attractions, but since its top broke off it now sits largely unnoticed.
The well-worn trail begins to climb at a nice, even grade. There are lots of redwoods here, but there aren't any really big trees and, as is often the case in the southern redwoods, the trees are obscured by a dense understory of huckleberry. There are, however, some nice views of redwoods in the distance rising into the blue sky like rocket plumes.
The trail crests at Middle Ridge, then begins to descend. The trail is cut into a steep hillside. At first there aren't any redwoods, but soon you'll start seeing mid-sized redwoods on the steep slope to your left. The forest is subtly different on this side of the ridge, probably because it gets more rainfall. There are noticably more redwoods here and fewer trees of other species, and the redwoods are more uniformly large. The huckleberry and tanoak understory is also not as dense, so the redwoods are more clearly visible.
The trail descends to the junction with the Sunset-Skyline connector trail. The junction is located in a particularly nice redwood grove, dense with arrow-straight trunks. If you were to continue down the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, the redwoods would get progressively bigger as you descended into the Waddell Creek canyon, eventually rivaling the redwoods around Park Headquarters in size. However, since this is a short hike, turn right on the Sunset-Skyline connector and begin the climb back to Middle Ridge.
The short connector trail soon ends at the Sunset Trail. Turn right. The trail briefly climbs through an area devoid of redwoods before curving around a dark, redwood-filled hollow. The trail then climbs through the particularly nice Walter W. Boardman grove, one of the highlights of the hike, before reaching Middle Ridge.
Crossing to the east side of Middle Ridge, the trail initially descends through some more scenic redwood upland. However, as the trail descends the huckleberry becomes much denser and the landscape becomes a little less scenic. Turn right on the Dool Trail, then right again at the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.
The trail runs along Opal Creek, past many exceptional redwoods. Ignore the first bridge to park headquarters and continue along the creek. This way is longer but it's a lot more scenic than walking through the parking lot. Turn left at the second bridge.
Immediately after crossing Opal Creek, you can turn right to finish the hike with a stroll around the Redwood Loop. The hike to Middle Ridge makes it easier to see the lowland redwoods in context: these large trees aren't just an isolated attraction but part of a redwood forest that stretches over ridges and through canyons, changing from big trees to small and back to big, from dry to lush, and from open to dense.
© 2010, 2013, 2017 David Baselt