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Go Hug a Tree.
And celebrate the glory that is the California State parks system.
Michelle Hamilton | Photo: David Reitdorf, Jeff Olshan, Elizabeth Weinberg | August 16, 2012
Good news: The state parks apocalypse has been averted. Over the past year, public-land advocates have collected enough money to keep these California treasures—many of which were slated for the budget-crunch ax—open. (Amen.) The region’s granddaddy is Big Basin, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and August is the best time to go (average temperature: 75 degrees). This is soul-changing wilderness, only 70 miles from San Francisco: spectacular views, 50-foot waterfalls, and unbelievably massive redwoods. Take different routes there and back—Skyline down, 280 up—to hit the area’s two bustling mountain towns for a stop at an old timers’ diner and one badass bar. If Big Basin is sold out, which often happens on summer weekends, two jewels recently saved from closure, Castle Rock and Portola (see next page), are great alternatives.
Breakfast in the Redwoods
After a few hairpin turns on Highway 9, a sunbaked carving of a screaming bear welcomes you to Boulder Creek, gateway to Big Basin and a three-block mountain
town where you’re as likely to bump into a Google employee as an off-the-grid long beard. Pull up a stool at the Old Mountain Inn, where owner Barbara Mistor has been serving up old-fashioned breakfasts for 31 years. Try the Logger (potatoes, sausage, ham, eggs) or the hotcakes with kiwi.
Hike Among Giants
More than 80 miles of trail wind through Big Basin, but it’s not hard to pinpoint the best: Berry Creek Falls. Start with the .6-mile Redwood Trail, home to the widest and tallest redwoods in the park. Then, follow Berry Creek Trail to three glorious waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Cascade. The round-trip hike is 11 miles and includes 1,800 feet of climbing, so it’s definitely a workout, but a manageable one. Pack a picnic and lunch with the scrub jays on a sandy riverbank.
Play by the Fire
You can light your own campfire and stare into the starry night—or join 150 happy strangers in front of a roaring bonfire, where the hearty souls of our state park
system tell stories and bring the marshmallows. Part summer camp, part theater, the Evening Campfire draws everyone out of their tents: millennials dragged by their parents, senior citizens from across the country, families with kids, and foreigners who heard that Big Basin was better than Muir Woods (it is ten times bigger).
Climb to Sweet Views
To soak in the best views, hike Pine Mountain to Buzzards Roost, a rocky peak of endless mountain vistas. Or hoof up Middle Ridge Road for a glimpse of the ocean.
From Middle Ridge, descend Meteor Trail for a creekside walk among huckleberries and ferns (keep an eye out for giant salamanders).
Splash in a River
Big Basin has the redwoods, but Henry Cowell State Park—30 minutes south in Felton—has the San Lorenzo River. Rushing with cold but not frigid water, it’s the
perfect antidote to a sweat-drenching hike on a hot summer day. Everyone else has the same idea, but you can find pockets of near solitude. The six-foot-deep Big Rock Hole is the most popular swimming spot, with Garden of Eden a close second for its long, wide beach. Scout along the River Trail, as well as on Rincon Fire Road, and you’ll find empty (or at least less crowded) sandy banks and wading spots.
Sip a Cold One
Across from the entrance to Henry Cowell is Monty’s Log Cabin, a dive bar so suited to the weekend’s last hurrah, it’s as if the gods had placed it there. The garage-size roadside saloon has been around since 1936. With deer heads on the walls and nononsense gals behind the bar, it feels like a mini-version of SoMa’s Hotel Utah minus the live music (there’s a touch screen jukebox instead). Pool table and darts in the back, fire pit on the patio, and dogs welcome. Red Hook, $3.
Where to Pitch Your Tent
Big Basin’s four campgrounds sell out most weekends in the summer, but you can reserve ahead by site number. Creekside sites at Bloom’s Creek (close to the park headquarters, a general store, and trailheads) are prime choices. At Huckleberry, #63 is a money spot overlooking Sempervirens Creek, with an impressive waterfall
nearby. For real solitude, aim for #97 in Wastahi (walk-in only), dubbed the Honeymoon Suite by park rangers.
WHEN BIG BASIN FILLS UP, TRY...
An abundance of tafoni, big rock formations resembling honeycombs, makes Castle Rock a magnet for rock climbers. (To give it a try: castlerock
climbingschool.com.) And the stunning Saratoga Gap-Ridge Trail loop—one of the region’s best hikes—has put it on the map as a perfect day trip destination. The six mile route winds through gnarled black oak forest and opens onto two miles’ worth of near-continuous views of redwood-covered mountains. Be aware that the park’s campground is accessible only by foot or bike and is the trailhead for the Skyline-to-Sea trail, a 32-mile trek from Castle Rock to windy Waddell Beach on
Connected by trail to Big Basin, this lesser-known remote park is a solitude seeker’s delight. Hikers here sometimes meet only in the parking lot. Coyote Ridge (a steep climb) and Peter’s Creek trails provide the essential overview of this small, pretty park set in a deep canyon, with swaths of redwood and high ridges covered in fir and oak. Want more? Do the half-mile easy walk on the Old Tree trail.
California State Parks: parks.ca.gov, State park camping reservations: $35, reserveamerica.com
Henry Cowell swimming holes: Trailhead parking on Hwy. 9. For Garden of Eden, use Ox Fire Road lot (about one and a half miles south of park entrance); for Big Rock Hole, the Rincon lot (about three miles south of entrance). Both swimming holes are accessible by hiking two to four miles one way from the park’s campground or visitors’ center.
Old Mountain Inn: 13132 Hwy. 9, Boulder Creek, 831-338-2211
Monty’s Log Cabin: 5755 Hwy. 9, Felton, 831-335-9969