California has the distinction of preserving some of the world's most unusual trees and forests. The arid White Mountains in eastern California feature the world's oldest trees, the bristlecone pines, including the Methuselah Tree, believed to be the world's oldest living thing at over 4,700 years in age. The world's largest trees, the giant sequoias, a type of redwood are found in scattered groves on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, most notably at Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks. The coast redwoods, the world's tallest trees, are found in scattered groves close to the coast from central California to southern Oregon. One such locale is the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains about 23 miles north of the city of Santa Cruz. Created in 1902, it is California's first state park.
The park features over 80 miles of very unspoiled trails in a majestic forest with good opportunities for hiking, backpacking, and car camping. There are also rustic tent cabins available at a very reasonable fee.
Casual visitors will walk the very easy half-mile Redwood Trail across from the visitor center, which features the park's most magnificent redwood grove. The most ambitious backpackers would consider the 38-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea trail which starts at Castle Rock State Park, then runs through Big Basin to the ocean. There are numerous hikes in-between, including a number of easy loops in the two to four hour range which gives you a nice sample of the forest. Redwoods dominate the landscape but groves of giants are scattered through the forest. Other trees include Douglas fir, tan oak, and madrone. Shrubs like azalea, huckleberry, and ferns are common near the streams. There are numerous lush running streams and a few small waterfalls.
The Redwood Trail features the park's finest grove of giant redwoods. Pictured left, is the spectacular Father of the Forest. (The sign indicates the tree is 250 feet high, 16 feet - 10 inches in diameter at the breast, and 66 feet - 9 inches in circumference at the ground). This coast redwood is estimated to be 2,000 years old. It was much photographed during the early years in the campaign to save the redwoods by creating the park. The Mother of the Forest is the park's tallest redwood at 329 feet. Like many of the giant trees, its base was hollowed out by forest fires. Redwoods have very strong resistance to fire; the bizarre Chimney Tree is completely hollow from base to top but continues to live and grow. The Santa Clara Tree, at 17 feet in diameter is the park's widest tree.
While redwoods are not an uncommon tree, giant redwoods and sequoias are extremely rare. It takes a thousand or more years for these trees to reach their immense size. They therefore must live in an ancient, "old growth" forest. Most of the forests in the United States have long since been harvested for timber and then re-planted. There are only a few pockets of original forest remaining which pre-date the European settlement of the country. The natural ecosystems of old-growth forests allow the trees to thrive and attain great size. It includes trees of many sizes and ages, including large downed trees (see photo) which return nutrients to the soil as they decay. By contrast, in a managed forest dead material may be cleared out to minimize fuel for a forest fire. At Big Basin, all features of the forest are protected and left in a natural state.
While Big Basin is only about 60 miles from San Jose and the southern end of the Bay Area, it is surprisingly remote and unspoiled. The access roads (CA-236 and CA-9) are winding, heavily wooded and slow going. Route-9 from Santa Cruz passes through several small resort towns, Felton, Ben Lomond, and Boulder Creek where services and lodging (such as cottages) are available. Reservations are recommended for the park's tent cabins (800-874-TENT) and campgrounds (800-444-PARK). For more information, visit the Big Basin Redwoods State Park website.
Photo, left: Pretty Sempervirens Falls is down to a trickle at summer's end.