Beacon of renewal: A new welcome center opens

Gateway to Big Basin Redwoods State Park rekindles connection to a beloved place

It’s a spectacular drive heading south from San Francisco on Highway 1, where under an azure sky, the furrowed Santa Cruz Mountains meet the sparkling, blue arc of the Pacific and its craggy sea stacks.

In about 60 miles, the highway leads to the coast side of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park and largest expanse of old-growth coast redwoods south of San Francisco. The park still bears the scars from the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fires, which burned more than 97% of the park and destroyed nearly all the park’s buildings, trail networks, roads, bridges, and campgrounds.

But now a new gateway to the western side of the park is reconnecting visitors to this adored place. California State Parks, Save the Redwoods League, and Waddell Creek Association opened the 684-square-foot  Rancho del Oso Welcome Center, with its 480-square-foot observation deck on Oct. 28. Here, in a valley, with views of a captivating marsh and the ocean, visitors can learn from interactive exhibits about the area’s plants, animals, human history, fire recovery, and recreational opportunities.

Here’s a look inside.

A person listens to a video on a touch screen
Visitor Rebecca Hurdis uses the Ranch del Oso Welcome Center’s touch screen to learn about wildflower viewing and other recreational activities in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. “I love that the [welcome] center has moved into this new era of art, technology and multimedia,” said Hurdis. Photos by Jennifer Charney, Save the Redwoods League
A person looks lifts the cover of an interactive exhibit to read what's underneath
A floor-to-ceiling mural depicts the plants and animals that live around Waddell Creek, which flows near the Rancho del Oso Welcome Center. An interactive exhibit shows visitors what species they’ll find here in the spring, including stealthy great blue herons and colorful columbine flowers.
Three people look at exhibits
One end of the Rancho del Oso Welcome Center focuses on climate change and how partners are reimagining the park in the wake of damage from 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fires. An interactive exhibit shows visitors the difference between extreme fires like the CZU fires and low-intensity, beneficial ground fires.
An exhibit shows hazelnuts, abalone and willow.
At Rancho del Oso Welcome Center, a human history section honors the Indigenous people who first tended these lands, showing the plants and animals they used and which their descendants continue to use. The welcome center is on the historic borderlands of the Ohlone Tribes known as the Cotoni and Quiroste. The exhibit also covers the tribes’ subjugation by colonial authority.
A sign describes how to be a community scientist. A journal and pencils are at the bottom
A community science section at Rancho del Oso Welcome Center offers a touch screen for visitors to look up wildlife and plant species they’ve spotted. A journal is on hand for documenting those species.
A person looks at a sign on a deck overlooking the ocean on a sunny day
At Rancho del Oso Welcome Center, a great place for school and community groups to learn about the area is a deck with a view of the marsh and ocean and interpretive signs about fire and wetlands.

Wonders to discover

A person walks over a bridge over a creek
At Rancho del Oso, the Marsh Trail is open to visitors from May through October with a seasonal crossing over Waddell Creek.

From the center, visitors can explore nearby trails, including the Marsh Trail, which leads past delicate ferns, lichen-draped trees, placid Waddell Creek, and thickets alive with birdsong and the ribbits of frogs. The trail is open to visitors from May through October with a seasonal creek crossing. The Hoover Trail on the south side of Waddell Creek is now restored and open for hiking year-round.

Across Highway 1 is the beautiful Waddell State Beach, a famous spot for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Also nearby is the Rancho del Oso Nature and History Center.

A campground with bear locker, tables and fire pit.
The public campground at the Rancho del Oso Horse Camp next to the new welcome center offers a place to savor the surroundings. The campground is temporarily accommodating visitors who walk or bike in until equestrian trails are restored.

For a time to savor the stars and the valley view, visitors can stay in the campground at the Rancho del Oso. Save the Redwoods League and Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks partnered to help improve the campsites and make them inviting once again for overnight visitors. The campground is temporarily accommodating visitors who walk or bike in until equestrian trails are restored. Five campsites can be reserved, and one is a shared bike-in campsite, available first-come, first-served.

Three people sit on a picnic table. Flowers are in the foreground; mountains are in the background
From left: Karen Wickers, Karen Gilhuly and Mary Hufty sit in the native plant garden that they and their fellow Woodside-Atherton Garden Club members, and members of other Garden Club chapters, planted next to the new Rancho del Oso Welcome Center.

Next to the campground, picnic tables make for a great lunch spot. A native plant garden grows more vibrant by the day. Woodside-Atherton Garden Club members planted the native plant garden after securing a $10,000 grant from The Garden Club of America. “When we worked on propagation, we worked on seeds that we collected here so we could get just exactly the right ceanothus and the right manzanita,” said Karen Gilhuly of the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club. “Plants were planted 1½ years ago. They’re taking hold. With native plants, there’s a saying, ‘Year one is sleep, year two is creep, year three, they leap!’ We’re getting to where we can see some leaping.”


From the Waddell Beach parking lot on Highway 1 approximately 18 miles north of Santa Cruz, the welcome center is reached by a quarter-mile hike up Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail Road or by vehicle for visitors with a camping reservation. It will generally be open from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. No fees or reservations are required for day use at Rancho del Oso; guests can learn more about camping and how to reserve a campsite on the California State Parks website.

A candle in the darkness

Before the CZU fire, Save the Redwoods League, California State Parks and Waddell Creek Association had planned a partnership project to revitalize Rancho del Oso and open the new welcome center in place of the ranger station. Though the former ranger station did not burn in the wildfire, it was at the end of its life expectancy.

At the welcome center’s grand opening, project partners celebrated their accomplishments at Rancho del Oso and recalled the aftermath of the CZU fires.

“I can remember that first moment when we walked back into the park and saw the smoldering redwood trees, the exploded crowns, and the infrastructure that had completely vanished,” said Sam Hodder, League president and CEO. “It was heartbreaking. So many had suffered such extreme loss. For all of us for whom Big Basin is so near and dear to our hearts, we needed healing. So all of a sudden, this project took on new meaning. It was less about an additive component to an extraordinary park, but rather a candle in the darkness to help us recover and to keep our connection to this park.”

Chris Spohrer, district superintendent for California State Parks, said, “We are thankful for support from partners like Save the Redwoods League and Waddell Creek Association who have helped renovate the welcome center to greet all future park visitors on the coastal side of Big Basin. The extensive renovations provide visitors new opportunities to learn about the changing environment and park, which is key to successful future stewardship.”

Along with a critical public grant from California State Parks, and contributions from the Waddell Creek Association, the League contributed more than $650,000 in private philanthropy and other funds to the project.

Six people smile at the doorway to a welcome center.
From left: Among those who worked on the welcome center are James Freed, exhibit designer at James Freed Designs; Clinton Stockton, fabricator for John Murray Productions; Deborah Zierten, Save the Redwoods League education and interpretation manager; Gay Kraeger, illustrator for Wildways Illustrations; Elizabeth Hammack, League consultant and former California State Parks interpretive manager; and Jenny Rigby, director of the Acorn Group.

About the author

Jennifer Charney, Senior Manager of Marketing Communications, leads the production of many Save the Redwoods League publications. She brings a lifelong love of nature to her role.

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