California’s Other Redwood Country, Especially Big Basin
Author’s Note: This article “California’s Other Redwood Country, Especially Big Basin” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Most people think of California’s “redwood country” as stretching north from San Francisco along Highway 101. However, there is another, equally appealing redwood country to the south, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was here, moreover, that the idea of saving the redwoods began with a California State Redwood Park. The park known today as Big Basin was California’s first redwood park.
The Santa Cruz Mountains redwood area provides the lover of nature with a diverse, forested, hiking-and-camping terrain, and includes one of the state’s least-used parks, Forest of Nisene Marks, now recovered from logging scars to a lush, second-growth forest.
A back road through the area, Highway 9 down the San Lorenzo River, takes you through the arts and crafts center of Boulder Creek and several small villages with a Scots flair, such as Ben Lomond, to another major park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Adjacent to Henry Cowell chugs one of the few remaining historic railroad experiences available to the public, the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge steam trains.
Once you begin to enjoy the trails of the Santa Cruz Mountains, an organization worth knowing about is the Santa Cruz Mountains Trails Association. Through them you can meet fellow hikers and participate in the extensive volunteer work that helps maintain the trails. Over 100,000 volunteer hours have been contributed by this organization to maintaining trails since their first Trail Day in 1969. Trail Day is usually in April. For information, contact Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Association, P.O. Box 1141, Los Altos, CA 94022; 650/968-2412.
A group with a special interest in advancing the appreciation of natural history in the region is the Mountain Parks Foundation, 525 N. Big Trees Park Rd., Felton, CA 95018; 831/335-3174. This group enhances interpretive activities in the parks by sponsoring campfire programs, training volunteers who lead nature walks, arranging for the publication of nature literature, and maintaining the self-guided trails.
BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK: FIRST OF THE STATE PARKS
This was the first state park and is, in many ways, the most significant of all the California state parks. The park was created in 1902 as a result of public outcry 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. The park lies on ocean-facing slopes about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. You can reach it via Highway 236. Phone 831/338-8860.
LEGACY OF ANDREW HILL: PERMISSION TO PHOTOGRAPH
Though no one man can be credited with founding the California State Park System, certainly one pioneer deserves special mention. That is Andrew P. Hill, photographer, painter, conservationist, propagandist.
An ugly incident at Felton in 1900 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 and screamed at him, “This is MY property. These are MY trees. No one can photograph them unless I say so.”
As Hill waited at the depot for the train ride back to San Jose, fuming, suddenly an idea 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.”
Hill was tireless in this pursuit. He organized a meeting with David Starr Jordan of Stanford and representatives of other colleges and organizations, including the Sierra Club. Together they agreed to focus on the Big Basin rather than Felton area because property in Big Basin could be purchased more cheaply. The group formed a committee that went to survey Big Basin. Around a campfire one night on Sempervirens Creek they passed the hat, collecting 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 the site, called Slippery Rock, opposite Sempervirens Falls, and read the marker that 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. This marked the beginning of the California State Park System.”
Around 1900, few people were attuned to the redwood trees as a finite resource, and Congress was not then interested in saving California redwoods. The Big Basin area was being logged rapidly, with the Big Basin Lumber Company shipping out 150 rail cars of lumber daily from its Boulder Creek Mill.
Partly because of a persuasive speech by the University of Santa Clara’s Father Robert E. McKenna, the state legislature appropriated $250,000. With this money the first 3,800 acres were secured under the name California Redwood Park, which opened to campers in 1904. In 1927 the name was changed to Big Basin.
Over the years additional tracts of land have been acquired, and the process continues today. In 1916 Congress transferred 4,000 acres of federal land to the park. Through efforts of the Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club, another 3,400 acres were acquired in 1967. Leading this movement is a group called The Sempervirens Fund, Drawer BE, Los Altos, CA 94023, 650/968-4509). Today the park encompasses 18,000 acres of diverse terrain, with acquisition of the Waddell Creek lands provided by the Hoover family. At park headquarters the Sempervirens Room tells of this ongoing work and how interested members of the public can join the effort.
The white man was a greater appreciator of the Big Basin redwoods than were the earlier Indians. To the Native Americans the dark quiet of the redwoods was less hospitable than the open meadows and oak woodlands, where their food of acorns, deer, berries, and seeds was more profuse. Indian trails crossed Big Basin as part of annual migration patterns from the Santa Clara Valley to the coast for fishing.
The Portola expedition passed along the coast here in 1769, camping at the Waddell Creek watershed. Portola and his men were sick at the time, but recuperated quickly, so they called the area La Salud, “the health.” They saw redwoods here, but the first reported comment by Europeans on redwoods occurred a few days earlier near the Pajaro River to the south.
Logging began in earnest in the 1860s. William Waddell, after whom the creek is named, built a substantial lumber mill and a wharf along the seacoast. Waddell’s operations ceased when he was mauled by a grizzly bear about 1875 and died.
Several small timber claims were filed in the next decade in what was then called Big Gulch. These settlers lived by stripping tan oak bark, which was used in the leather-curing industry, and by splitting straight-grained redwood into roofing shakes to be sold in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Typical of these small homesteads was the Tom Maddock cabin, now recalled by an inscription carved into a log at the homestead site, two miles north of park headquarters on the Opal Creek Trail. The Maddock family had a 100-acre homestead with orchards from 1882 to 1902.
FROM PARK HEADQUARTERS: BEST OF THE TRAILS
When you arrive, stop at park headquarters and pick up a map. At park headquarters an exceptional museum, called Nature Lodge, celebrates the park’s history, flora, and fauna. The museum offers excellent displays of stuffed birds, snakes, and mammals seen at the park. Campfire naturalist talks and nature hikes take place daily in summer. Camping is by reservation (800/444-7275), except for several backpacking camps, which are reserved direct by calling the park. Campgrounds are situated in the redwood trees.
The finest redwoods stand along the Redwood Nature Trail near park headquarters. This self-guided trail has the noblest specimens of redwoods in the region. You make the acquaintance of the massive Santa Clara Tree and the Chimney Tree, whose entire core has been hollowed out by fire. Growth continues in the Chimney Tree because the cambium layer next to the bark was not damaged.
Redwoods have a capacity to inspire wonder, partly because of their age. At park headquarters stands a cross section of one tree that has been ring-dated as 2,200 years old. At the time of the Romans this was still a young tree. But the tree may in fact be countless eons older because most redwoods sprout clonally from the roots of their parent tree rather than from seeds. The same tree may continue to live in this way for thousands upon thousands of years.
The other main plants around the headquarters and campgrounds are tan oak, Douglas fir, huckleberry, and western azalea. Huckleberries produce large amounts of food for mammals and birds in August. Azaleas perfume the air with their white blossoms in June.
At higher elevations and more open terrain the vegetation becomes increasingly diverse, with much oak and madrone. The book, PLANTS OF BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK, available at headquarters, has excellent photos and brief descriptions of plants found throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.
My recommendation for the choicest hiking among Big Basin’s 60 miles of trails is the stretch from Berry Creek Falls to Silver Falls, which shows profuse wildflowers and lovely waterfalls in spring. Allow a half day from headquarters for a loop trip to this area. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail (discussed in detail in the Castle Rock Park write-up) threads through Big Basin to the ocean, allowing you to walk from the spine of the mountains to the sea. The trail ends at the most recent addition to Big Basin, the historic Rancho del Oso on Lower Waddell Creek.
CASTLE ROCK STATE PARK: BACKPACKER RENDEZVOUS
High on the Santa Cruz mountain ridges above Big Basin rests Castle Rock State Park, a special park for the hiker, backpacker, and rock climber. Castle Rock’s parking lot, on Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) about 2.5 miles south of the junction with Highway 9, is also a start of the Skyline to the Sea Trail, one of the most inspiring hikes in the region. The official start of the trail is at the road junction.
Rock climbers like to scale the large sandstone rock near the parking lot. This eminently climbable rock gave the area its name. All sorts of rock scrambling and climbing can be practiced here and throughout the park.
From the parking lot a 2.8-mile hike leads to the campground. You can hike in and out easily on a day trip if not staying overnight. Take the Skyline to the Sea Trail in and the Ridge Trail out, making a pleasant loop. You can also hike into the camp and continue, walking all the way to the sea.
The hike to the campground is one of the loveliest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. You pass several plant communities and witness compelling vistas of the mountains in all their wildness. First you pass through a Douglas fir forest along a cool, moist stream, dark and peaceful, with some large madrone, tan oak, and bay trees. This jaunt ends with a view of Castle Rock Falls, which slip over sandstone with a sheer drop of over a hundred feet. However appealing, this scene is only a prelude of vistas to come.
Next you walk through a chaparral plant community, with its drier vegetation, exposed to the sun. “Chaparral” comes from the Spanish, chaparra, for small scrub oaks. Much manzanita, ceanothus, and chamise can be seen here. Red-tailed hawks wheel about in the sky, catching the thermal updraft of cliffs below you, looking for meals of mice and rabbits. In the spring there are wildflowers, such as Indian paintbrush. Panoramas of the mountains open up on the left as you hike along. You also pass many large sandstone outcroppings, including some carved by nature into caves, suitable shelter in a storm.
Finally you pass into an oak woodland plant community, where the trails are thick with leaf duff, soft to the feet. A range of oak species clusters here, including live, canyon, and black oaks. Buckeye trees make occasional appearances and some madrone thrive on these slopes.
Castle Rock Park would qualify as a wilderness, except that some old access roads pass across it. Hiking through here may provide many private pleasures. I recall a day when, as I rested on the Ridge Trail, the plaintive yipping of coyotes enveloped me. The pack sang not more than 100 yards away, giving me a half-hour concert.
Though the elevations here are not those of the Sierra Nevada, nevertheless the 2,645- to 3,215-foot heights may affect your breathing pattern. Allow a little easier walk than usual because of the slightly thinner air at this altitude. With so much to see, hiking should be considered an enjoyable and educational stroll rather than a marathon endurance test.
If you want to see lovely red-barked madrone in all their beauty, there is no finer place than the Ridge Trail. Actually, this growth has now become somewhat too thick, dominating the countryside, because fires here have been controlled for the last 50 years. A healthy burn will someday clean out this forest floor.
Once you reach the campground, you begin to perceive that this is an extraordinary camp. First, it is only accessible to hikers or backpackers, which thins the crowd considerably. But the camp itself is luxurious, with picnic tables, fire pits, and toilets. Excellent water is available from a tap that reaches into a spring. Though downed wood can’t be gathered, bagged firewood can be bought. The camp fee itself is modest, but pack in extra money for firewood and a map of the area if you don’t already have one. There is also a pay phone here to alert the outside world of your progress, an unusual amenity in the wilderness.
At Castle Rock campground the fine self-guided nature trail, the Danny Hanavan Trail, acquaints you with the flora.
SKYLINE TO THE SEA TRAIL: THE LONG WALK
The map needed for Castle Rock Park alone is the map for the first part of the Skyline to the Sea Trail. The entire trail comes in two maps, with the second covering Big Basin. You can send ahead for the two-part maps with a stamped self-addressed envelope to the ranger at Castle Rock State Park, 15000 Skyline Blvd., Los Gatos, CA 95030. Phone 831/867-2952 for the current price and for camp reservations.
For a full-blown walk of 30 miles from the Castle Rock skyline to the sea at Waddell Beach, allow four days and three overnights. This gives you some time to look at nature as well as make the walk.
The next stop after the Castle Rock trail camp is Saratoga Gap, the junction of Highways 9 and 35. Saratoga Gap has a parking area that can be a starting or stopping point if you have two cars as shuttles. From Saratoga Gap you can walk toward Big Basin along a trail that closely parallels the highway, but the more scenic route is Toll Road Trail, which takes you away from the highway. These trails eventually join up eight miles later. You must backtrack a mile along the trail by the highway to the camp at Waterman Gap if you take the Toll Road Trail.
The trail from Castle Rock to Big Basin will be improved eventually to eliminate one stretch through a subdivision. Call ahead to register for the next camp along the trail, near Waterman Gap, by contacting Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 831/338-8860.
From Waterman Gap the next leg of the trail takes you to China Grade in Big Basin, where vast views of the forests and ridges of Big Basin unfold. From China Grade you can glimpse the ocean that will wet your toes if you make the full walk through the Waddell Creek basin to the sea.
Much credit for the existence of the 30-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail must go to the Sempervirens Fund, an organization vital today and well worth supporting. An impressive turnout of 2,500 volunteers came together in one day to help build the trail. Now there is a network of more than 80 miles of trails between and within Castle Rock and Big Basin parks. Contributions of money and labor to build trails can be granted to the Sempervirens Fund.
ROARING CAMP AND BIG TREES NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD: VISIONS OF STEAM
The prospect of a ride on an authentic steam-powered train, with the locomotive belching steam and sounding whistles, tends to excite explorers of all ages. Such a ride is possible near Felton on the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the last steam-powered passenger trains still operating. The entrance is off Graham Hill Road just south of Mt. Hermon Road, 831/335-4484. You can also enter from the nearby parking lot of Henry Cowell State Park. If you plan to visit the train and Henry Cowell Park, go directly to the park and walk to the train.
The tracks twist around a six-mile loop through redwood groves. Other tracks can take you on the train all the way into Santa Cruz.
Back in the 1880s lumberjacks and pioneers used the same train to make their livelihoods, hauling out lumber and shingles. During the 75-minute trip you climb some of the steepest grades ever built for a railroad. Unfortunately, vandals burned the extraordinary corkscrew trestle that enabled the train to gain altitude rapidly. An ingenious system of rail switchbacks now allows the train to traverse the steep grades.
At Bear Mountain, during the trip, you can get off the train for a picnic or a hike in the redwoods and then 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 the 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 Steam Train Party, on Saturday nights in summer, with singing and dancing under the stars.
At Roaring Camp you can see a short covered bridge and visit a reconstructed 1880s General Store selling items from western garb to a complete line of books for the rail buff. Legend asserts that the name Roaring Camp had its origin in the Mexican impression of the American settlers here. The Americans, who had a fondness for whiskey, created quite a roaring time.
The railroad is rich in legend and history. Riding it today can help you approximate the time when passengers from the East Bay, boarding in Newark, could ride down the East Bay shore, cross the Santa Clara Valley, then train over the mountains, to resort pleasures here in the redwoods or beach attractions at Santa Cruz. These Picnic Trains or Suntan Specials are now gone forever, but the present Roaring Camp Railroad arouses considerable nostalgia.
Five locomotives constitute the rail company’s main holdings, ranging from the Kahuku, a 12-ton Baldwin locomotive from 1890, to the Dixiana, a 42-ton Shay locomotive from 1912.
HENRY COWELL REDWOODS STATE PARK: A WALK IN THE FOREST PRIMEVAL
Henry Cowell is another of the majestic redwood parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A stately grove of the giant trees includes many first growth specimens with clusters of oxalis flowers around their bases. Fifteen miles of hiking trails await the traveler.
The main entrance to Henry Cowell Park is just south of Felton on State Route 9. This entrance puts you close to the Redwood Grove with its first-growth trees. The campground is on the east side of the park, accessible from Graham Hill Road. One hundred thirteen roomy campsites lie partly in a unique forest of ponderosa pine, which usually thrives in drier environments. The camp boasts an amenity rare among state parks, hot showers.
Redwood Grove, with its 29 numbered interpretive stations along an 8/10-mile loop trail, offers one of the outstanding nature walks on the peninsula. The walk begins near an attractive small Visitor Center devoted to nature exhibits and literature. Sword fern, oxalis, and ginger plants cover the forest floor. The first-growth redwoods are majestic and are named mainly after presidents and other dignitaries. The tallest here is 51 feet in circumference and 285 feet high, even though a strong wind broke off another 75-foot top section. Small specimens of the inland giant redwood and the so-called dawn redwood have been planted at the end of the trail. Though these young trees are overpowered in the battle for light by the indigenous Sequoia sempervirens, you can look closely at the leaves to note family similarities and differences among the three.
The dawn redwood is a tree with a special modern story. Fossil remains in California indicated that there had been three species of redwoods in earlier eons. Besides the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, and the inland giant redwood, Sequoia gigantea, there was a third tree, which scientists named Metasequoia or dawn redwood. This tree was thought to be extinct, but in 1944 botanists cataloguing plants in China discovered dawn redwoods there. Many have been planted in California from seed or shoots brought from China since the late 1940s.
The San Lorenzo River passes through Redwood Grove. In winter there is a spawning run of salmon and steelhead.
Henry Cowell Park was formed in 1953 when Samuel Cowell donated 1,600 acres of land to the state in memory of his father, Henry Cowell. That donation included the superlative stand of first growth redwoods. The county later added another 120 acres.
In 1976 a new 2,335-acre section of Henry Cowell Park opened on Ben Lomond Mountain. This is the Fall Creek unit of the park, west of Felton off Felton-Empire Road. The area was a busy limestone quarry from 1870 to 1925. Hiking trails open the Fall Creek unit to travelers.
FOREST OF NISENE MARKS STATE PARK: THE UNDEVELOPED LANDSCAPE
Marked “undeveloped” on some maps, this 10,200-acre park offers a secluded hiking and backpacking experience, encompassing the complete drainage of Aptos and Hinckley creeks. The generous Marks family of Monterey bought this property and deeded it to the state in 1963 with the proviso that it be named after their mother, Nisene Marks.
You can reach the park from Aptos Creek in Aptos, just off Soquel Drive. The park land was clear-cut of redwoods 1893-1925 by the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, but by now attractive, second-growth forests have arisen. Production of lumber was sufficient for Southern Pacific to lay a broad-gauge spur track here in 1884. The top of the park is a ridge at 2,600 feet, south of Loma Prieta, which is one of the higher peninsula mountains, at 3,791 feet. You can walk about 30 miles of trails in Forest of Nisene Marks Park, including one along the railroad track leading back to Hoffman’s Historic Site, the original frenetic logging site. Buildings at Hoffman’s are now being reclaimed by forest.
Reservations for backpackers to stay at the West Ridge Trail Camp can be made with rangers at Henry Cowell Park near Felton (831/335-4598 or 800/444-7275).
Nisene Marks Park has a special historical significance because near here, at Corralitos, the Portola expedition made European man’s first recorded contact with redwood trees. The party was walking north past the Pajaro Valley in 1769 on their quest for what mapmakers had indicated was an excellent bay.
“The scouts came back from exploring what had seemed to be pine trees,” wrote diarist Crespi, “which they were not; but very straight, very thick trees of no small height, with a very slight short leaf; some said they were savins (cedars), but in my opinion they are not, the wood is red, and they are not junipers; they may be savins, who knows, but if so, they are not like any others we have seen elsewhere.”
IF YOU GO: CALIFORNIA’S “OTHER” REDWOOD COUNTRY
*Big Basin State Park. The major park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Offers an excellent walk in mammoth redwoods, an able Interpretive Center, many miles of hiking trails, and camping. Contact them at Big Basin State Park, off Highway 236; phone 831/338-8860. Campsites must be reserved (800/444-7275).
*Hiking Companions. Meet them through the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Association (P.O. Box 1141, Los Altos, CA 94022; 650/968-2412).
*Natural History Publications. Writings about the region’s flora and fauna can be bought in local bookstores and at Big Basin Park. The publisher of these volumes is the Santa Cruz Mountain Parks Foundation, 525 N. Big Trees Park Rd., Felton, CA 95018; 831/335-3174.
*Sempervirens Fund. The group active in acquiring land for the parks in the region is the Sempervirens Fund (Drawer BE, Los Altos, CA 94023; 650/968-4509).
*Castle Rock State Park. Located at the top of the mountain ridge, Castle Rock is a good backpacker and day hiker park. The headquarters is Castle Rock State Park, 15000 Skyline Blvd.; 650/867-2952. Castle Rock is the start of the Skyline to the Sea Trail, which meanders from the spine of the mountain to Waddell Beach on the Pacific.
*Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad. This authenic steam train on Graham Hill Road at Felton (831/335-4484) offers intriguing train rides through the redwood trees. Formerly a lumber camp, the name arose from Mexicans observing that the American loggers had a liquorous, roaring good time. Train ride in the redwoods circles around Bear Mountain. A Santa Cruz Beach train has been put in operation, shuttling from Felton to the Santa Cruz beach and back.
*Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is adjacent to the Roaring Camp Railroad. Henry Cowell, like Big Basin, offers an excellent interpretive walk through a redwood grove. Park entrances is at Star Route 9, 831/335-4598. Hiking is excellent in the main park and at the relatively new Fall Creek unit of the park. Campsites need to be reserved (800/444-7275).
*Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Least developed of the parks in the Santa Cruz mountains is Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, Aptos Creek Road in Aptos, 831/763-7063. Good for hiking, backpacking, and picnics.