BIG BASIN REDWOODS ST. PARK: Biking the Skyline-to-Sea Trail Along Waddell Creek to the Immaculate Waterfalls in Pristine Old Growth Forest
Beginning at Rancho del Oso, the sea level outpost of Big Basin Redwoods State Park - a parcel of historic land situated about fifteen miles north of Santa Cruz, on Highway 1, across from the Pacific Ocean -- you can hike ‘n bike sixteen miles round trip and enjoy a super-fun, not overly strenuous outing to a series of three (depending on how you count 'em, four) renowned plungers known as Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, Golden Falls and Golden Cascade. The sister falls are found in one of California's last great vestiges of preserved old growth redwood and fir forests, adding a touch of the magnificent and a whiff of the sublime to the adventure.
Being a mostly flat out 'n back with only about 400 ft. of total elevation gain, it’s a breeze getting there, tallying a little over six miles to the point where bikes are not allowed. Throw in an additional three or four miles (round-trip) of hoofing it up steep trails to view the water show, and you've got yourself a memorable day hike / bike ride for the ages. Knocking out the relatively “nondescript” miles on the first part on a leisurely mountain bike ride makes perfect sense, because although there is beauty and intrigue along the way on the "boring" fire road - it's actually the western terminus of the thirty mile long Skyline-to-Sea Trail - the real pay-off comes seven miles in when you get to a series of successively prettier waterfalls plunging over raggedly cliff faces and cascades streaming down colorful, smoothly slanted bedrock, courtesy of the abundant flow of the West Fork of Berry Creek, winding its way down the rugged mountain high up from some unimaginably difficult to reach, no doubt occult source.
Some observers – notably Chron outdoor writer Tom Stienstra and indefatigable waterfalls chaser and photographer par excellence Leon Turnbull - deem these falls, and Berry Creek Falls in particular, to be their personal favorite or hands-down the best found on the central coast / Bay Area. The majority of hikers - many surprisingly unprepared looking - reach the falls area via the main entrance at Big Basin headquarters off Highway 236, trekking up to twelve or more hard round trip miles, up and down varied and steep terrain, with the added bonus of taking in the biggest residents of the park - the 2000+ year old, 300+ ft. tall Father and Mother of the Forest giant sequoias. Many others, though, us included, prefer to avoid the huge crowds at the Visitor Center and nearby trailheads, and opt instead to mountain bike in. This is Big Basin, after all, maybe California’s most popular State Park, so it’s no small wonder that the place is swamped today, let alone it being Memorial Day weekend. Notwithstanding, it’s still not quite Yosemite-like, where crowds are packed in like drupelets; here, owing to the falls' multi-tiered layering, the hoi polloi hiking hordes are dispersed enough so as to make you feel not too, too cramped. But I speak too soon, for out of nowhere, seemingly, at the prettiest spot in the park, a group of fifteen admirers, along with several other smaller parties, suddenly show up, plop down for lunch, and engage in unmitigated chatter and constant laughter. . .nothing wrong with noisy merriment and an amusement park mentality, I suppose, unless you're seeking quite the opposite: isolation, tranquility, serenity and quietude, which is what this cathedral of a place deserves and demands. Or at least speaking in hushed tones. I often wonder. . .is it lack of respect that compels people to palaver away, or just giddy human nature, when in groups, to engage the muscles of the tongue instead of the heartstrings of silence and meditative reverie? Oh, well, it is a holiday weekend, I keep reminding myself, so what can I expect? To have the place all to myself, like my very own private confessional? I do find a sacred nook here and a spiritual cranny there to offer up some crude form of prayer and good tidings for the suffering earth and its suffering creatures.
Somebody, though, needs to confess to the possible murder of the place’s namesake – one Tilford George Berry – an eremite who lived a Spartan life at the base of the lower falls back in the 1870s. He sold a parcel of his land to one Jacob Eberhardt before leaving for business out of Boulder Creek, having left his rifle for safekeeping with a friend, one Jake Perkins. Several weeks later, Berry returned, disheveled and wild-eyed, grabbed his rifle, and stumbled off into the woods, never to be seen again until twenty-five years later when a “well known Boulder Creek physician” found his rifle in the brush leaning up against his sun-burnished skeleton, with a clean bullet hole to the head. The mystery of who killed ol’ Tilford George Berry - or was it suicide over some unrequited business or lovelorn interest? – might never be solved, but perhaps his ghost haunts the premises to this day.
At the beach, the wind is blowing maniacally, perfect for the expert kite and wind surfers frolicking across white tipped waves like colorful kinetic statues. We watch them maneuver on the great blue expanse of ocean, and then set off on our bikes. Once we're cruising down the trail, inland less than a quarter mile, we are sheltered by a wind break of trees and the day transforms in a matter of seconds from sand in your eyes blustery to still, beautiful and summery. The first stretch takes us through lovely marsh lands framed by big country hills – a tranquil and pleasant scene to behold. Sweet flowing Waddell Creek – West Waddell Creek, actually, which drains the several creeks in this twenty-four square mile vicinity of the Santa Cruz Mountains - gurgles alongside the trail, keeping us merry company the whole way in. Everything feels right, good, natural, free of stress, and a lackadaisical sentiment pervades our hearts. The creek - anonymous and understated in its demurring passage through the thickets and copses, and oft hidden by thick brush and obscured by rampant foliage – is easily ignored by many making this trek, in a single-minded pursuit of the main attraction, but we view the matinee marquee as a double feature.
As is our wont to do, we stop often to look and listen in silent appreciation, tune into the breathing pulsations and living energy of the thriving ecosystem. Moving slowly and deliberately through nature, no quicker than a banana slug it seems, we are intent on looking at the familiar things in a new light, through different eyes and with a renewed perspective, so that the miraculous bursts to life in the smallest and most insignificant of details, so that the commonplace is no longer such a common place, so that the mundane transcends, the predictable transforms, and the prosaic transmutes. Witness: a shiny acorn ensconced in a tiny cupola, riddled with pinholes, becomes a miniature work of sculptural art; silky lacings of spider web strands become filaments in an intricate woven pattern of fractal magic; tiny flowering weeds standing out in bold relief against a patch of red dirt like an arrangement of ikebana artistry; a barely noticeable side freshet induces pangs of the heart and a welled up sentiment of the spirit that moves in all things; a postage stamp size moth camouflaged like a maculation of lichen on a fallen log; elegant water striders dancing on the mirror of still water – all of this, at the edge of the miraculous, as Henry Miller wrote, we sense and glean the indissoluble connection of all things in life.
The creek chuggles along, purring and humming, vibrant with scintillating life forms, wending a shady what's around the next bend trajectory through robust stands of red alder and bigleaf maple, its sensitive stream banks adorned with lovely five-fingered fronds of fern, masses of willow and wavy stalks of horsetail, one of earth's most ancient plants. Naturally, it takes us double-time to get to the falls, because every fifty feet we're dropping our bikes to stop for a closer look, to seek a more intimate communion, eager to discover something new by looking at “the same old thing” in different light. On the verge of capturing an ephemeral moment of poignant composition, my camera battery suddenly zonks out, dammit, but luckily I’ve brought along my handy Flip camcorder – so all these photos are translated from video stills, hence their odd, muted quality. Oh, well, at least there is some visual reminder, but hopefully the anvil of my hammered words will burn the true lasting images in your mind’s eye.
Ah, what joyous relief – free from anxiety or hurry or commitment - to simply revel in the simple, underappreciated majesty of a back woods creek forming the basis of a healthy riparian corridor underpinning a robust ecosystem supporting a variety of amphibians and lizards, birds and mammals, plants and wildflowers, and, of course, the great Redwood and Douglas Fir trees. It’s in these old-growth dendro-giants where one of ornithology's great mysteries was solved - not until 1974 - when the nesting grounds - rather, the nesting branches - of the Marbled Murrelet was discovered to exist high in the canopy branches of the tall, old trees. Amazingly – maybe only from our perspective - this shore bird uses Waddell Creek as a prime flyway to seek out nesting sites in Coastal Redwoods and Douglas Firs as far as fifty miles inland. The Marbled Murrelet, although not endangered (yet) has long been on the decline in the Pacific Northwest owing to indiscriminate logging, and so is considered a "flagship species" to watch in the forest preservation movement. I would suspect the bird is doing just fine in these protected parts. . .but didn’t see a-one.
The ride is fun and invigorating, but not so challenging, with only a few rises and one hairpin, slippery, muddy section – nothing to get worked up over - and barely noticeable elevation gain over six miles to attain about 200 ft. in elevation where the bike trail ends. So, continuing along in our pococurante approach - no hurry, what’s the rush – we’re supremely enjoying the fresh air, the pretty forest, the soul-calming water flowing alongside. How many people, rushing to get to the falls, are missing what’s all around them, hidden in plain view? Although we're nowhere near the star attractions, we come across several arboreal specimens that blow our minds along Waddell Creek and farther up on Berry Creek Falls trail, where princely Douglas Firs and kingly Redwoods grow together in stately soaring harmony.
At trail's end, we dismount, lock up our bikes at the rack, and set off on Berry Creek Falls Trail, eager to see the main act after the sideshow “skits”. We first have to ford Berry Creek to access the foot trail - an easy hop over boulders and a small wooden bridge. The creek is churning and roiling here, dashing over boulders and logs, gathering additional momentum from several forks joining it. After about a mile of semi-serious uphill trudging, we hear the sound of plashing plinking water, getting louder and louder, until it becomes a relative roar - the plummeting force of Berry Creek Falls, tumbling over a mountainside cleft to a pool about 70 ft. below. It is a dazzling sight, and only a hint of what's to come. From my last visit here six long (short) years ago, we had run out of time and had to turn around, but now we’re relishing the anticipation of seeing / comparing Berry Creek Falls with its sister falls higher up the trail. But first, despite more than several people soaking it up at the viewing platform, we detour down to the redwood hewn observation deck to take it all in, revel in this bountiful waterburst, hear it with eyes wide shut, and let the symphony of gushing spray pound and soothe our soul. Berry Creek is in semi-full force – a wide curtain of white water endlessly dropping. I observe its nuanced flow, the quirks of geology making up its rock face, giving it dimension and texture and character. Many tend to assign to Berry Creek a five-star rating over its “lesser” sister falls, when, in fact, I think the “lesser” falls have greater charm and magical ambience, owing to – to – to nothing more than my own bias and prejudices and aesthetic preferences.
Silver Falls - if it's possible – really is prettier than Berry Creek Falls! A winding stairstep, with a cable running up its length to keep you anchored to the narrow path of trail, leads up to the brink of the 60 ft. glistening – Silver - plunger. But first we detour down to the base of the falls and find a place with a take-it-all-in view to repose and eat lunch. If there are dozens and dozens of people passing by on the trail opposite our vantage point, we'd never know it except for an occasional laugh, cough or muffled cry of delight or shout-out to a hiking companion.
Here, in a wilderness setting, the magnetic appeal of the falls induces a sheer inexpressible awe and joy at Mother Nature’s ephemeral creation of powerful, magical flowing water. (Where doesn't it?) Introspectively, musing in silent wonder, lost in contemplative reverie, we could easily pass the rest of the day here and not move another inch, or say another word, just kicked back in admiration at the primal scene unfolding before our eyes, of this silver curtain of water pouring over the broad lip of a cliff face in a subdued roar announcing its ever present drama, drowning out all other sounds of the forest - a steady droning of crashing symphonic aqua melodies. Although ample spring rains have replenished the watershed, the discharge, while impressive, is only considered moderate, nothing like snow melt creating outrageous roaring gushers you’d find at Yosemite or the Snoqualmie. But after a rainstorm, my oh my, imagine the transformation! But there I go again - imagining what might be instead of appreciating what actually is. (Not true, else all I write here is false blathering.)
Finally, we tear ourselves away from our little patch in the sun, filtered through a high canopy of spreading redwood branches, and leave our rusticated perch at the base of the log-jammed falls, and scamper across the creek and begin the climb up the staircase trail to reach the upper brink, where it's possible to reach out and touch the water - galvanizing in full force on the verge of a gravity-defying free-fall – letting it flow over your outstretched arm, feeling its clean, crisp, cold, pure quality. Peering over and down, the view is dizzying as a ton of water plunges and evaporates to mist and spray, creating an overpowering surging natural force out of such a seemingly small discharge from the creek’s narrow contours feeding the falls.
We clamber up and over the rock ledge and an amazing sight greets us – a carved out depression in the rock slide, comprising the bottom portion of what's known collectively as Golden Falls / Golden Cascade. A crystalline pool, mostly shaded, forms at the base of a drop-off shelf, with another one above that, leading down from a slickrock sandstone bed of shooting water. It’s totally incongruous – resembling a scene out of some Southwest vision of water on orange desert rock, but transplanted to a redwood forest. Higher up, another, wider orange colored cascade completes the series of falls - and despite earlier sentiments about judging which of these three sisters is the most attractive, there's something exotic and unusual about the Golden Cascade that immediately makes it my favorite – maybe it’s because I’m looking at something brand new, never before seen or imagined in this part of the Bay Area. How'd I ever miss this one for so long? Although lacking Berry Creek Falls’ and Silver Falls ' free falling length and tour de force spectacle of water plunging over cliff walls – qualities that make them the favorite of waterfall chasers and lovers – for Gambolin’ Man, Golden Cascade exerts another kind of power, imbues a simpler watery charm, has an approachability and immediacy enabling you to get up close and personally immerse yourself in the lush growth of dazzling green ferns and moss framing and contrasting the scene of bubbly white water running over the orange rock – stained by brown algae growing on the sandstone bedrock – all in all, an immensely satisfying be all end all destination for the day - creating an aesthetic visual sensation of incongruous forest beauty.
Plenty of people are gathered at the base of the 30 ft. upper tier cascade, eating lunch, setting up their photographic equipment, sitting and watching and admiring, as all nature lovers do everywhere. Selfishly, I just wish they'd vanish so I could enjoy and have it all to myself, this perpetual encore and never-ending curtain call of such a memorable sight. Eventually, only a group of Asians remain, about nine in all, seated all together, tightly packed in a row on a log bench as though comprising a single organism. I chalk it up as an interesting lesson in proxemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and of how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors.”
For our part, the day's getting on, so we take one long final look at the tropically reminiscent tableau, sigh, with a tinge of remorse somehow at having to leave it behind, and bid it adieu, until our next visit, whenever that might be. As with destinations of singular natural beauty, or places with iconic monumental wonder that tend to attract people in globs and blobs, such as Yosemite or Muir Woods, I unfortunately don't get to Big Basin very often (four times in thirty years). . .and so I'm feeling as though I’ve come from Indiana to see it and might never get another chance.
On the way down the cables at Silver Falls, two guys are blocking the way, setting up for some photography. I squeeze past one fellow, and announce my presence to the second guy – and, small world, it turns out we know each other! Marcelo is from Brazil, but has lived in the U.S. for many years, and teaches open source operating systems courses at UC Berkeley Extension. I didn’t know it, but he’s an avid outdoors adventurer, nature lover, photographer, yogini, and who knows what other secrets, passions and talents the man harbors. He’s elated (and very surprised, as I am) to see me, and we hug and high five as he pulls out his wallet and shows me his just-issued permanent Green Card – which, he reminds me with pride and gratitude, I happened to be instrumental in helping him get, the “turning point” in the convoluted process. I had forgotten, but I guess I did, at his behest, write him a letter with some key points of consideration that swayed Homeland Security to grant him permanent residency status. I guess you really never know how your selfless actions influence people in life. . .until you know. Tudo bem, rapaz!
It’s been a full day of taking in the big and the ancient – towering redwood and fir trees; confronting the striking and spectacular - 200 ft. worth of amazing waterfalls and cascades; engrossed in the sweet and gentle – gurgling creeks winding their way to the sea; and endless marveling at the mundane, contemplating the commonplace, and observing the overlooked; a full day of observing things on a grand scale; a full day absorbed in the intimate details of the small and unnoticed. If you aren’t quick or observant enough to stop, look and listen, such things can pass you by, never to be seen or enjoyed, in what at-first-glance appear to be of a puny sphere of being, but ultimately they resonate with a deeply profound spiritual significance. So let’s rejoice in the slimy yellow banana slug inching its way across the colorful mosaic of earth, doing a vital ecological job of cleaning up the forest floor and breaking down detritus; let's hear it for the animatronic newt methodically mobilizing toward the safety of a fallen branch carrying a snail in its mouth; let's cheer the six inch long skink, motionless and nearly invisible under an overhang of creek bank were it not for its metallic blue tail shimmering in the sun; let's give thanks for the slithering garter snake disappearing quickly into the brush; let's praise the nameless little birds flitting to and fro from branches; let's humbly bow down to the rotting log supporting a world unseen; let's give it up for all manner of tiny, quiet creatures who are as much a part of this great forest ecosystem as the venerable trees and sacred rushing waters and the people who come here to enjoy it all and cleanse the lens of their soul, the mirror of their heart, even if they don't realize this is the sole purpose of their visit. Let's sound our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.