Strolling through the newly reopened Big Basin Redwoods State Park
I arrived at Big Basin Redwoods State Park around 10 in the morning on July 22—two hours into the new era of this historic park that was closed to the public since the 2020 CZU Complex fires destroyed nearly all its infrastructure as it burned through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Unsure what to expect, I had taken the drive up Highway 236 (Big Basin Way) from Boulder Creek slowly. Would there be traffic? Crowds?
As it was, I drove right by the park without seeing it.
It was mostly the light that confused me. Somewhere deep in my mind was the image of the park headquarters as it used to be: the shadowy redwood forest interior, historic buildings, the crowded bustle of people, cars, campers, and motorcycles. Even though I was fully aware that the buildings were gone and that the forest had burned, the brightness of the area convinced me that the park was further down the road.
The bright sunlight at the site of the headquarters is, of course, one of the many effects of the fire. Although most of the coast redwoods are still standing, nearly all have lost significant portions of their leaves and branches, and that’s letting a lot more sunlight down to the forest floor. Occasional patches of light have turned to occasional patches of shadow. This has resulted in much more vegetation on the forest floor as native plants and shrubs are exploding in the sunlight (Note to self: Come back in March or April to see the wildflowers—it’ll be spectacular).
As I mentioned earlier, all the historic headquarters buildings are gone. All that’s there to remind you of them are the stone steps and a display describing how things used to be. I like that the park acknowledges what was lost here, and I noticed a fair number of people lingering in this area remembering things as they were.
Park staffers greet you at a temporary kiosk at the end of a new curved sidewalk from the road. There you’ll find maps and reference materials. Nearby you’ll find portable bathroom facilities. Many staffers and volunteers were hanging out at the kiosk, answering questions and sharing stories. Lots of smiling faces, obviously excited to be sharing the park with the public.
Right here, I want to commend the park’s staff for all the work they’ve done to open the park. League staffers were among the first to visit this site after the fire, and it was a mess of downed trees, damaged infrastructure, and unsafe roads and paths. While the newly opened area might seem spare to some, it actually represents a ton of work in a short amount of time.
As for the park itself, access now is limited to two trails—the Redwood Loop Trail and the Dool Trail—as well as 18 miles of fire roads.
Because the park isn’t set up to safely handle crowds like it used to, access to Big Basin is granted through a new reservation system for the 45 parking spaces available daily. Most spaces will be available up to 60 days in advance, while a limited number of reservations will be released three days before the visit date.
I walked the Redwood Loop Trail twice, once in each direction, and I largely had it to myself. I’ll let the photos tell most of the story, other than to acknowledge what many have already said: This is clearly a changed forest. Fire has altered this ecosystem profoundly from what most of us remember, and it will be many years before it recaptures that memory. I don’t think I saw a single redwood that wasn’t blackened by fire.
That said, there are signs of regrowth everywhere one looks. Even in the most damaged trees, you’ll see some of that epicormic growth sprouting green from the charred bark. New sprouts, some of them far taller than I am, are exploding from beneath nearly every trunk. It’s hard to imagine that the fire swept through here just as recently as late 2020. This is clearly a forest that is aching impatiently to get back to its former self. And watching it accomplish this task is more than reason enough to visit now and in the coming seasons.
Reimagining Big Basin
This limited opening is, of course, just the first small step in the future of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. California State Parks has already done a great deal of work laying plans for the park’s next phase, and anyone interested in contributing to that process should visit the Reimagining Big Basin webpage to learn more about the draft vision and opportunities for input.