Berry Creek, Silver, and Golden Falls
Total Distance: 10.4–12.0 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 5–6 hours
Elevation Change: 1,900 feet
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 as California's first state park. It was well loved a century ago and is equally loved today. Featuring an incredible diversity of terrain, some of the Bay Area's loveliest waterfalls, a freshwater marsh at the ocean's edge, 1,500-year-old redwood trees, and 80 miles of well-built trails, the park leaves little to be desired.
Given its many natural wonders and proximity to San Jose, it's not surprising that Big Basin is heavily visited. But on weekdays in winter and early spring (or early in the morning on weekends) precious solitude can still be found among the redwoods and the waterfalls. Time your trip carefully and don't be afraid to visit on a gray or rainy day. Nothing is more vibrant than a redwood forest in a light rain.
This 12-mile loop is the park's premier hike, beginning at park headquarters and passing three waterfalls: Berry Creek, Silver, and Golden. Although you can also access these falls by following the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail from Highway 1 near Davenport, that route is shared with mountain bikers and equestrians. The path described here is luscious single-track for nearly its entire length and open only to hikers. If you get tired along the way, the trail length can be reduced by a couple of miles by skipping the loop return and instead just hiking out and back.
Begin at the large parking lot by park headquarters. Take the connector trail from the west side of the lot, Redwood Nature Trail, past the campfire circle. After crossing Opal Creek, you'll turn left on Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.
From its start, the trail meanders among virgin redwoods, some larger than 12 feet in diameter. After climbing 250 feet to gain a ridge in the first mile, the path angles to the right across Middle Ridge Fire Road, then drops down the other side. After a pleasant descent through more huge redwoods, Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail parallels Kelly Creek and then West Waddell Creek. While you hike, keep an eye out for huge yellow banana slugs slowly crossing the trail and, in the wet season, California newts that always seem to be right under your boots.
At 4.2 miles, just before Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail meets up with Berry Creek Falls Trail, you are rewarded with your first glimpse of Berry Creek Falls through the redwood branches. It's enough to make you quicken your pace. Turn right on Berry Creek Falls Trail and in moments you'll be standing on the overlook platform in front of this breathtaking, 65-foot-tall cataract. Berry Creek Falls tumbles gracefully over a fern-lined, black cliff framed by redwoods.
Many hikers go no farther than this spot. A picnic lunch on the wooden platform and a turnaround here makes a nine-mile round-trip. But since you've come this far, it would be a pity not to hike the rest of the loop. The next two waterfalls are surprisingly different and the remaining scenery is far from anticlimactic.
Follow the trail up the left side of Berry Creek Falls, gaining an interesting perspective looking down over its lip. You'll leave Berry Creek and join West Berry Creek, a narrower and more channeled stream. Another 20 minutes of gentle climbing brings you to the base of Silver Falls. The 70-foot freefall spills over sandstone and limestone tinted in hues of tan, gold, and orange. In summer, you can walk right up to Silver Falls' flow and stick your head under the water. Several redwoods have fallen around the waterfall's base, making good viewing benches.
You'll spot more orange sandstone glowing underneath white water as you climb the wooden steps alongside Silver Falls. The path takes you to the brink of the falls, where it ascends rocky sandstone steps. Steel cables are in place along the trail. During periods of high water, it's wise to keep your hands on the cables.
In short order, you arrive at the lower tumble of Golden Falls cascade, a long drop of slippery orange sandstone. In contrast to Berry Creek and Silver Falls, Golden Falls is nearly horizontal, like a water slide for sea otters. The color of the rock is so striking, and the shape of this waterfall so unusual, that it's hard to believe you're less than a mile from the classic cataract at Berry Creek Falls. Completely different geologic forces seem to have been at work here.
Some hikers make Golden Falls Cascade their turnaround point for a 10.4-mile out-and-back trip. Backpackers can continue for an easy 0.25 mile to Sunset Trail Camp, a coveted overnight spot near West Berry Creek. Hikers opting for the 12-mile loop continue to the trail camp turnoff, then bear right on Sunset Trail. The path soon enters a vastly different—and drier—world, filled with knobcone pines, chinquapin, live oak, and madrone. A brief stretch on an exposed sandstone ridge may prompt you to put on your sunglasses for the first time all day.
Soon enough you head back into the forest canopy. Tan oaks and young redwoods border the steeply descending trail. After crossing West Waddell Creek, Sunset Trail climbs again, touring grassland slopes and mixed forests. Spring wildflowers are often plentiful in this area.
When the trail meets up with Middle Ridge Fire Road, cross it and descend again. Turn right on Dool Trail, then right again on Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. A left turn puts you back on Redwood Nature Trail to finish out the loop back at the parking lot. When it's all over, you'll be able to count this as one of the finest days you've ever spent.
For a shorter excursion in Big Basin Redwoods, take the Pine Mountain Trail from Blooms Creek Campground and head uphill to Buzzard's Roost, elevation 2,150 feet. The "roost" is a tall knob of rock on top of a large slab of sandstone that offers a great view of the park's surrounding peaks and ridges. From the campground, start by following Blooms Creek Trail southwest for a short distance, then turn left on Pine Mountain Trail. The trail switchbacks up a moderate grade. With the increasing elevation, the trailside vegetation changes to drought-tolerant chaparral plants and knobcone pines. At the top is the rocky summit where views extend in almost every direction except to the west—because Pine Mountain is in the way. Bring a park map to identify all the landmarks and a picnic to enjoy in this sunny, view-filled spot. The 4.6-mile round-trip includes a 1,100-foot elevation gain.
From the junction of Highways 35 and 9 at Saratoga Gap, drive six miles west on Highway 9 to Highway 236. Turn west on Highway 236 and drive 8.4 winding miles to Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarters. Park in the lot across from park headquarters, then begin hiking from the west side of the lot on a signed connector trail to the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.
Information and Contact
A $10 day-use fee is charged per vehicle. Dogs and bikes are not allowed. A park map is available for $1 at the entrance station. A more detailed trail map is available for $8 at the park store or from www.mountainparks.org. For more information, contact Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006, 831/338-8860, www.bigbasin.org or www.parks.ca.gov.
From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication