The California coastal redwood tree, tall and massive, first preserved at Big Basin

Big Basin State Park: Where California’s Coastal Redwoods Were First Saved

By Lee Foster

(Author’s Note: Big Basin Redwoods State Park is where the movement to save California’s coastal redwoods began. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)

In Brief

Where did the movement to save coastal redwoods begin? The answer is Big Basin Redwoods State Park. And you need to add in the outcry of Andrew Hill. Big Basin was the first California state park. It is, in many ways, the most significant of all the state’s parks.

The park was created in 1902 as a result of public distaste over the impending doom of virgin redwoods in this area. Much credit must go to Andrew Hill, a San Jose photographer, who spurred the movement.

Aside from the historic story of saving redwoods, another pleasure in the area is to ride on an authentic steam-powered train. See a locomotive belching steam and sounding whistles. It’s available near Felton on the Roaring Camp Railroads narrow-gauge train. The attraction is one of the last steam-powered passenger trains still operating.

The Historic Story

Though no one man can be credited with founding the conservation movement in California, certainly one pioneer deserves special mention. That is Andrew P. Hill, photographer, painter, conservationist, and propagandist.

An ugly incident at Felton in 1899 kindled Hill’s rage. On assignment from a British publication, Hill went to the Felton area to photograph redwood trees. He felt the best specimens could be found there. But an irate landowner threw Hill off his land. He screamed at Hill, “This is MY property. These are MY trees. No one can photograph them unless I say so.”

As Hill waited, fuming, at the depot for the train ride back to San Jose, an idea suddenly occurred to him.

“The thought flashed through my mind that these trees, because of their size and antiquity, were among the natural wonders of the world,” he later wrote. “They should be saved for posterity. Thus was born my idea of saving the redwoods.”

The California coastal redwood tree, tall and massive, first preserved at Big Basin
The California coastal redwood tree, tall and massive, first preserved at Big Basin

Saving Big Basin

Hill was tireless in this pursuit. He organized a meeting with David Starr Jordan of Stanford University. He included representatives of other colleges and organizations, including the Sierra Club. Together they agreed to focus on Big Basin because it had not yet been logged.

The group formed a committee that went to survey Big Basin. One night around a campfire on Sempervirens Creek, they passed the hat. They collected the first $32 of the millions that would eventually be needed to save sizable chunks of redwood real estate.

At Big Basin you can hike or drive to their meeting site, called Slippery Rock. It’s opposite Sempervirens Falls. A marker there recalls this historic camp:

“The first state park. A group of conservationists led by Andrew P. Hill camped at the base of Slippery Rock on May 18, 1900, and formed the Sempervirens Club to preserve the redwoods of Big Basin. Their efforts resulted in deeding 3,800 acres of primeval forests to the state of California on September 20, 1902.”

You can combine the historic story of saving redwoods with a ride on an authentic steam train. Back in the 1880s, lumberjacks and pioneers used this train to haul out lumber and shingles.

Roaring Camp Railroad

Near Felton, you can board the Roaring Camp narrow-gauge railroad. It is one of the last steam-powered trains. The tracks twist around a 3.25-mile loop through redwood groves. During the 1.25-hour-long trip you switchback up some of the steepest grades ever built for a railroad.

At Roaring Camp you can see a covered bridge and visit a reconstructed 1880s General Store that sells items from western garb to a complete line of books for the rail buff.

During the trip, at Bear Mountain, you can get off the train. You might stop for a picnic or a hike in the redwoods. You can catch a later train back to depot headquarters. The conductor gives a competent commentary on the flora of the region during the stop and as the train moves. At a pause in a “cathedral” of redwoods, he describes how new redwood trees sprout in a circle around the deceased mother tree.

Near the boarding platform, you can see a steam-powered sawmill. In the spirit of the setting, meals of chuck-wagon barbecued beef are served. Local musicians sing ballads of the lumbering West and other themes of country-and-western music.

Another popular ride is the Moonlight Train Dinner June-October. The event features barbecue chicken and steak, and singing and dancing under the stars.

Locomotives

Four steam locomotives constitute the rail company’s main holdings. For example, the Kahuku is a 12-ton Baldwin locomotive from 1890. It once hauled sugarcane on Hawaiian plantations. The Dixiana is a 42-ton Shay locomotive from 1912. It has been named a National Mechanical Engineering Historical Landmark. The other trains are the Tuolumne and Sononora.

The railroad also owns several diesel locomotives. Not all of the rolling stock may be available to ride due to restoration and maintenance schedules.

Getting There

Big Basin lies on ocean-facing slopes 23 miles northwest of Santa Cruz. You can reach it via Highway 236.

The entrance to Roaring Camp is off Graham Hill Road just south of Mt. Hermon Road. You can also enter from the nearby parking lot of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

If you plan to visit the train and Henry Cowell Park, go directly to the park and walk to the train. Big Basin and the train/Henry Cowell park are about 35 minutes apart on windy roads.

Be Sure to See

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the historic park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Roaring Camp Railroads is the authentic rail experience to savor.

Best Time of Year

Summertime is especially delightful here when the cool of the redwoods contrasts with the heat of exposed areas. Also in summer (on selected days), Roaring Camp stages Civil War battles and mock train robberies.


Booking.com

Lodging

For a cozy B&B, try the Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel St.; 831/427-2437, https://www.babblingbrookinn.com/). Eight rooms are fashioned around the theme of an Impressionist painter.

Dining

Bittersweet Bistro has raised the dining standards of Santa Cruz. The restaurant is in the adjacent town of Aptos at 787 Rio Del Mar Blvd. (831/662-9799; http://bittersweetbistro.com). Try the beef Stroganoff or the linguini and clams.

For Further Information

Contact Big Basin Redwoods State Park, off Highway 236, nine miles northwest of Boulder Creek. Details: 831/338-8860 (recorded info); 831/338-8861 (park headquarters); http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=540.

Roaring Camp Railroads is at 5401 Graham Hill Road in Felton. The exit #3 from Highway 17 is at Mt. Hermon Road in Scotts Valley. Contact: 831/335-4484; https://www.roaringcamp.com/.

Big Basin and Roaring Camp are in the Santa Cruz region. Contact Visit Santa Cruz County (800/833-3494; https://www.santacruz.org/).