Fresh Tracks: Big Basin's Waterfall Loop is wonderous, sometimes wet

07/05/2012 12:00 AM

08/21/2012 9:38 PM

BOULDER CREEK – Some trails are simply so gorgeous, such a continual source of sensory overload, that you almost hanker for a boring, scruffy section, if only to ground you in reality and remind you to watch your step.

The popular Waterfall Loop at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains is like that.

Distracted – engrossed is more like it – by the sights, you risk slamming a shoulder into an overhanging branch, or tripping over exposed roots and tumbling down a ravine, or slipping on a water-slick granite step and cracking open your cranium like a coconut.

And there's a lot to ogle here in California's oldest state park, established in 1902:

Three – count 'em, three – waterfalls in a half-mile stretch conveniently located near the halfway point of this 11-mile loop.

Massive redwoods, not first-growth but pretty darn close, competing with Douglas firs that are hulking in their own right.

Too many bridge crossings over gurgling streams embedded with rounded granite boulders to count.

Wildflowers you'd have to be a botanist to identify but can't help enjoying; it's a technicolor marvel that might even match what was inside Timothy Leary's acid-soaked brain.

The sounds as much as the sight of birds, including the rattle and caw of woodpeckers whose handiwork is carved into trunks, the discrete before-dawn hoot of owls, and the sing-song of something resembling a blue jay.

Big Basin is so expansive a park, 18,000 acres and change, that if you have the fitness and the inclination you can trek all the way from the Saratoga Gap to the ocean at Waddell Beach.

But the most popular path is the Waterfall Loop. It's a somewhat vertically challenging course that hits all the park's natural highlights – the star attraction being the troika of shimmering waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls and Golden Falls.

The only buzz kill about the trek is that, often, the weather doesn't cooperate. Fog can greatly obscure the views. But then, in some respects, the fog adds its own beauty as it creeps between redwood branches.

On the late-spring morning in question, however, the sky was clear and the temperature cool with the promise of considerable warming.

Perfect conditions, in other words.

Parking at the lot across from the ranger's office, just off Highway 236 about seven miles west of Boulder Creek, you cannot miss the trailhead. A large sign, nearly billboard-size, reads "Redwood Trail." Nearly all trails in the park lead from this sign.

When you reach the T-junction barely one-tenth of a mile along, you face a big decision. Because it's a loop, either way will lead to the falls. Most guidebooks, for reasons unexplained, recommend turning right and taking the Sunset Trail. So, naturally, you take a left and start on the Skyline to Sea Trail.

That decision turned out to be a blessing and curse. The first mile is uphill on switchbacks, footing difficult because of fallen tree limbs, exposed roots and rocks. The blessing? You are plunged immediately into the big trees. Not all are redwoods; some firs are nearly as big.

It's mostly the firs that are occasionally strewn along the path, although the ginormous trunk you had to scramble over, resulting in an awkward face plant into pine needles, had to be a redwood. More than a few trees still standing sported nearly hollowed-out trunks that looked blackened, as if someone had started a campfire inside them.

All that early climbing leads to a ridge at the one-mile mark, where the most confusing junction in an otherwise well-marked trail is located. It's a five-way stop, with a dirt fire trail called Middle Ridge Road the dominant path.

Cross that fire trail and veer right downhill until you see the arrow for the continuation of the Skyline to the Sea Trail. You know you're on the correct trail when you head downhill on a single-track trail with a steep dropoff on the left.

Much as you might want to cut loose on this downhill, remember that all it would take for a 50-foot plunge down a ravine is one errant toe-trip over a root.

The next three miles are a joy. The going is mostly downhill, but some stone and wooden stairs ease the ride. You'll still find yourself hopping over fallen tree branches, but you find that you develop a rhythm.

Along the way, you'll cross Kelly Creek and West Waddell Creek several times via short wooden bridges. About three miles into the trek, you will hit the junction for the Timms Creek Trail on the right. This is the cutoff to take if you want to cut the trek short and complete a six-mile loop.

But if you do that, you miss the star attractions – the waterfalls.

Berry Creek Falls is first on the marquee. It comes shortly after another three-way intersection. Follow the "Berry Creek Falls" sign and go uphill to the right. The climbing (temporarily) ends at an observation deck with a bench to rest. On this day, a young couple had spread out a picnic snack on the bench.

The more you keep moving forward, however slow given the rise, the closer you get to the falls. You'll pass right by it and soon be climbing to the next two falls, which aren't as big a drop-off at Berry Creek, but just as impressive.

Aided by granite steps, you ascend right up the falls. Mist from the falling water hits your face, a nice sensation at that point in a strenuous section. The steps are wet, so even experienced trailblazers will want to make use of the steel cables for stability.

The rocks at Golden and Silver falls are sandstone and limestone, giving the illusion that the water is shimmering as it falls.

Once you've scaled the falls and reached the end of the Berry Creek Trail, you turn right on the Sunset Trail, away from the water. But your climbing is not done.

Until this point, the big trees and mossy ferns have provided a cooling canopy. The next mile, however, is exposed directly to the sun. You traverse sandstone boulders bordered by chaparral, and it's hard to detect a trail per se. Just keep moving forward, and eventually the forest resumes its natural hegemony.

The last four miles are dominated by rolling hills – seemingly more uphill than down, but isn't that just like life? In any case, be sure to notice the patch of fire-charred redwoods in a clearing and note that the forest already is making a comeback.

What might seem like an endless series of climbs is made more bearable because you cross four or five wooden bridges. With three miles to go, stay on the Sunset Trail rather than making a sharp right onto the Timms Creek cutoff, which leads back to the Skyline to Sea Trail.

The closer you get to the trailhead, the more giant redwoods greet you. When the Sunset Trail ends, turn right on the Dool Trail, and it's an easy cruise back to the Redwood Trail and the parking lot.

Once you finish, you look down at your GPS watch. It shows you've covered barely 10 miles. Strange, because two guidebooks list the hike as 11 miles, and another at 12. The amount of elevation seems dead on, though – 2,150 feet of climbing.

Thank goodness for the distraction of the waterfalls, the trees, the birds and creeks. You hardly noticed the vertical challenge.

Well, sort of.


Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 to I-680, which turns into I-280 near San Jose. Take Highway 17 toward Santa Cruz. Exit at Highway 9 in Saratoga. Take Highway 9 to the junction with Highway 35 at the Saratoga Gap. Continue on Highway 9 another six miles to Highway 236. Drive 8 1/2 miles to Big Basin State Park headquarters. The address is 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek.

Featured route (10 to 11 miles)

From the parking lot, go under the Redwood Trail sign. Turn left onto the Skyline to the Sea Trail. After four miles, veer right onto the Berry Creek Falls Trail. After reaching a summit above the third falls, turn right onto the Sunset Trail. Follow the Sunset Trail for about five miles to the Dool Trail, where you will turn right and head back to the parking lot.

Shorter route (six miles)

After three miles on the Skyline to the Sea Trail, turn right onto the Timms Creek Trail. That leads to the Sunset Trail, where you will turn right and head to the Dool Trail and then the trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate (with some treacherous footing)

Toilets: At trailhead

Poison oak probability: Moderate

Will there be blood? Lots of fallen trees, so watch out

Chance of getting lost: Slim

Make a day of it: The town of Boulder Creek is about seven miles away. Locals recommend the Boulder Creek Brewery & Cafe (13040 Highway 9) or the huge hamburger patties at 9 Burger (15520 Highway 9). Other nearby towns, Ben Lomond and Davenport, have their charms.


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