The journey down to Big Basin is an adventure in itself. A mindless blast down 680 to Santa Clara, carefully skirting San Jose to avoid this weekend’s Grand Prix. and down the Lawrence Expressway. Which as it turns out is poorly named: oh, it’s wide and has a 50mph speed limit, but it also has traffic lights on every block, all of which seemed to turn red as I approached. Down Saratoga Avenue and through Saratoga, which has a completely different and much more natural feel to it than Silicon Valley’s concrete and apartment blocks. And off the end of Saratoga Avenue onto Big Basin Way, for miles and miles of winding mountain road.
The Highway 9 stretch of Big Basin Way is rolling, wide, and fast, although with a few 20mph hairpins to rein you in now and then. But after the turn onto Highway 236, the road gets twistier and narrower. A lot narrower. The middle dividing line peters out; visibility around corners narrows; and there’s not enough room for cars to pass without one or both of the pulling partly off the road. It’s a fun drive, but a tough one, and it’s something of a relief when I arrive at the park.
I’m here to hike the loop out to the Berry Creek Falls; an 11-mile hike unanimously described as strenuous. The Big Basin website, and most hiking books, suggest either hiking out and back on the Skyline To The Sea trail, or hiking the loop clockwise, going out on the Skyline To The Sea trail and back on the Sunset trail. But I’m following the advice Jane Huber gives in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco: go the other way around.
It turns out that this is excellent advice. It means you take the steepest part of the hike, on the Sunset Trail, as a descent early in the hike rather than an ascent late in the hike. It means you descend the falls, taking the most spectacular fall last. It means you do over half the distance before reaching the falls, giving you a shorter uphill slog back to base. And most importantly, it means you’re going against, not with, most of the other hikers. If you start reasonably early in the morning, as I did, you get the whole of the Sunset trail to yourself. The Skyline To The Sea trail gets busy in the afternoon, but going against the traffic means you still get large stretches of it to yourself without having to dawdle behind, or race ahead of, other groups to get some solitude.
And solitude is what the redwoods are all about. The forest is incredibly quiet and peaceful. The trees here are old, original-growth redwoods, anywhere from a thousand to two thousand years old, and they look it: huge, wide trunks, often hollowed and blackened by fire damage at the base. The park is maintained with a very light touch: trees which fall directly across the trail are cleared, but otherwise trees are left to rot where they fall, providing nutrients for new growth.
The Sunset trail starts with a reminder of what’s to come. A warning sign tells hikers: “BERRY CREEK FALLS: 6 HOUR ROUND TRIP. STRENUOUS HIKE.” But Sunset is misleading: it’s mostly downhill, though redwood forest. It’s cool in the morning, and very quiet. I see my first banana slug: long, fat, yellow, clinging to the trunk of a redwood. Just before the falls, the trail breaks out briefly into open sandy chaparral: a surprising contrast.
I stop for a sandwich at the first of the falls, Golden Falls, named after the slope of golden sandstone the creek falls down, and continue down the falls, meeting the first of many hikers going the other way. At Silver Falls, the trail descends alongside the fall, with a wire rope guiderail. And finally, I reach Berry Creek Falls, the most impressive of all: a 60-foot sheer fall into a deep pool below. A wooden viewing platform provides a view, and a place to stop and rest.
The Skyline To The Sea trail heads back towards the start, and after a few minutes there’s a bench with a final view of the falls. I sit and eat the rest of my lunch. And just as Jane Huber describes, I’m joined by a pair of Steller’s jays hoping for crumbs: bright blue bodies, black backs and heads with a plume of feathers.
The hike back is a long, sweaty slog uphill. It’s not a terribly steep slope, but it just keeps going, mile after mile: this is what the “STRENUOUS HIKE” sign was warning about. But the end gets closer and closer; after I cross Middle Ridge Road, I’m rewarded with a final downhill mile. I finally arrive back five hours after starting, dog-tired, but happy.
Is it worth it? Yes, definitely. The forest is wonderful. The falls are beautiful. But be prepared: it’s tough going. Take plenty of water, and drink it; take a map (don’t trust the trail posts alone, they’re loose and sometimes jokers turn them around); and my lesson from this hike, take insect repellent, as the forest is full of little gnats which are attracted to your sweat when you stop to rest.