Pandemic hiking rules can have unintended consequences. For example, when the one-way trails at Big Basin Redwoods added 4.5 miles, a degree of difficulty and four waterfalls to our day hike.
Big Basin Redwoods is California’s oldest state park and arguably the most popular of the dozens of parks and public open spaces that dot the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. It includes some of the state’s oldest redwoods – 50 feet around, 300 feet tall, up to 1,800 years old.
Most of the park, however, consists of second-growth redwoods mixed with other conifers, oaks, sycamores and more. The forest shades an array of ferns, giant clover and other undergrowth. Chaparral laced with blackberries and poison oak can be found in warm and sunny highlands.
We arrived at Big Basin at 8:45 a.m. on a Thursday to avoid the crowd. It worked. No line for a parking permit. Spotless restrooms. Social distancing? No problem. The hike? Timms Creek Loop – 6.5 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation gain. At least that was the plan.
The trails near the park headquarters are wide and well-loved. Roots that stud the dusty paths are polished smooth by thousands of stubbed toes each year. Downed trees and other effects of mudslides, floods, wind and natural decay create a rumpled feel. Big Basin may not have the pristine boardwalk appeal of Muir Woods National Monument to the north in Marin County, but you don’t have to make a reservation to hike here.
The pandemic-driven one-way trails work well at limiting encounters with other hikers but left MontaraManDan with the nagging feeling that we were being followed. Rambunctious squirrels, loose ibuprofen in a plastic bottle, and the rattle of the carabiners on his pack all prompted furtive backward glances.
Most hikers who overtook us we never saw again. But there was one duo – unmasked, naturally – whose path we crossed on at least a half dozen occasions. The Geek would stop to change lenses, the unmasked duo would pass. The duo would play on downed tree, we would pass … you get the idea.
Still, all was well until we reached a critical junction with Timms Creek itself and our loop back was denied. We instead found ourselves directed to walk deeper into the woods toward Berry Creek Falls. The new trail metrics were a tad alarming – 11 miles and 2,345 feet of elevation gain. But we’re sticklers for trail rules. And waterfalls are nice. So we plowed forward. Perhaps, we pondered, we should have carried a second liter of water.
What began as a standard walk in the woods began to feel special as we paralleled babbling West Waddell Creek. We turned up Berry Creek and reached the first of the waterfall’s two overlooks with a few minutes to enjoy the view before hurrying along to stay ahead of the unmasked duo.
As we pressed forward we heard the chatter of voices in the woods, as if a party of 20 had decided to hike unmasked and undistanced through Big Basin Redwoods during a pandemic. And that’s exactly what we discovered as we approached the second Berry Creek Falls overlook.
We hung back at first, nibbling our own trail snacks and sipping our limited water supply in a small clearing off the trail, hoping the group would move along. But the mosquitoes had lunch plans of their own, so we pressed ahead.
We found the group clustered along the trail, enjoying the falls as they ate their lunch. We masked up and called out, politely requesting they do the same. The group leader pushed back – they were eating – but did agree to give us 6-feet of distance, herding the crowd off the trail and onto the viewing platform. We rolled our eyes, held our breath and scampered by.
Golden Falls, Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Dawn Page/ CoastsideSlacking
As we soldiered up the steepening trail, we heard a bonus waterfall in the distance. Turns out there are one, two or three, depending on who’s counting. In ascending order, they are Golden Falls, The Cascades and Silver Falls. They are magical.
Less magical, however, is climbing the rock staircase of undetermined height adjacent to the falls. While MontaraManDan maintained a firm grip on the floppy cable that served as a banister, The Geek pirouetted off the stairs at intervals to capture the moment.
Our feeling of accomplishment at reaching the top of Silver Falls was quashed as the trail continued to ascend for another mile or so. Finally, we crested the relentless rise and walked into warm sunshine and chaparral above the treetops. The trail flattened briefly as it crossed a mountaintop sandstone outcropping before plunging back into the forest.
We’d like to say the rest of the hike was as magical as it was challenging. But mostly it was challenging. We were footsore and rationing our meager supply of water over the last several miles. MontaraManDan gnawed deeper into the apple core in his pocket to keep his blood sugar up.
But the magic returned as we sipped icy soft drinks and reflected on the day, driving out of the forest and home to The Coastside across the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains on Skyline Boulevard.
We reviewed trail highlights – the shady woods, the gurgling creeks, the rush of the waterfalls. We vowed to pack more water next hike. We reminded ourselves of our good fortune to live amid the beauty of the Pacific coast and the Santa Cruz Mountains – particularly during times like these.
We even let go of our frustration with the gaggle of hikers who, in the end, did the right thing on our behalf. All we had to do was ask. More magic!