Big Basin Redwoods State Park

The Origin of Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Anyone looking for an introduction to coast redwoods should start at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The establishment of Big Basin marked the beginning of conservation efforts in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And Big Basin is a beautiful place—coastal redwoods, riparian canyons and sun-kissed chaparral span over the park’s 18,000-acres.

The park’s diversity of habitat is partially due to ranging elevation, from sea level to up to 2,000 feet. Knob cone pine, Douglas-fir, red alder, madrone, chinquapin and buckeye are some of the plants that grow here. Big Basin also holds the largest stand of coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Some trees are estimated to be 1,000 to 2,000 years old.

Many creatures inhabit these parts, too. Foxes, coyotes and bobcats live inconspicuously within the forest. Newts and frogs make their home in damp litter. The park is also a good place for bird-watching; California quail, brown creepers, woodpeckers and owls are among the birds sighted.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Photo credit to Mike Kahn.

Coastal redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Photo credit to Mike Kahn.

Indigenous people lived in the area at least 10,000 years before European contact. The Cotoni and Quiroste, two groups of native Ohlone people, depended on this land, which provided toyon berries, huckleberries, various birds, and steelhead trout for food.

Big Basin first entered European history when Gaspar De Portola’s expedition passed through the area. Less than a century later, during the gold rush, the forest was logged in order to support local development.

Luckily, by the 1850s, some Californians began to see the importance of conservation. Newspaper editor Ralph S. Smith advocated for the creation of a redwood state park, not only for tourism, but also for the sake of science. In 1900, Andrew P. Hill, a local photographer, founded the Sempervirens Club, now Sempervirens Fund. The group advocated for the passage of a bill that would establish Big Basin as a state park. They were successful only two years later.

A banana slug crawls over the forest floor. Photo credit to Mike Kahn.

A banana slug crawls over the forest floor. Photo credit to Mike Kahn.


When You Visit

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, with nearly 80 miles of roads and trails, offers many opportunities to find sweeping views of the Pacific. Best yet, the weather is mild for three seasons of the year. Although winters are cold, shade from the forest offers respite from summertime heat. Fall is generally mild, and emerging wildflowers and rushing waterfalls make spring a particularly gorgeous time to explore Big Basin.

Mountain biking is allowed along fire roads. Visitors also have the option to ride (or camp with) their horse along certain trails. The park has 146 family campsites, four group camping sites, tent cabins, and some trail-side backpacking and equestrian camp sites. Exhibits and historic photographs are on display in the Nature Lodge.

For anyone interested in the natural or cultural history of Big Basin, the park offers guided hikes.

For an easy hike accessible by stroller and wheelchair, try the Redwood Loop Trail. It’s a gentle tour through an ancient redwood grove. Visitors will also see Opal Creek.

Or take the 4-mile Sequoia Trail to visit Sempervirens Falls, a 20-foot waterfall. A lovely spray of water hits the lower pool a foot or so away from the fall’s rocky side, producing a deep, gurgling roar. Ferns and moss coat the nearby rocks.

And for the seasoned backpacker, there is the 31-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Created by Sempervirens Fund and opened to the public in 1976, this trail starts in Castle Rock State Park, crosses through Big Basin, and ends at Waddell Beach. It’s the quintessential item for any backpacker’s bucket list.

Helpful Links

Big Basin Redwoods State Park Website
Reserve America (for camping reservations)