By Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Ian Stout •
The Great Redwood Empire is seen by many as the crown jewel of coastal California’s many natural wonders. Stretching north from the Silver Peak Wilderness, at the extreme southern end of Monterey County, to Oregon Redwood Park, just over the state line at Brookings, the redwood empire spans a north-south range of close to 470 miles, and occupies an east-west range of as much as 50 coastal miles at its widest point.
Enter Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest (est. 1902), and the redwood-seeker’s Bay Area alternative to Muir Woods. Nestled deep in the coastal valleys of northern Santa Cruz County, Big Basin offers a far more expansive area of old growth coast redwoods than its counterpart to the north. The park sees huge numbers of visitors throughout the year, but it’s size allows visitors the opportunity to get deeper into the redwoods and feel more enveloped by these massive trees than they might at Muir Woods.
While there are miles of excellent trails in and around Big Basin Redwoods State Park, one hike in particular stands out as the signature redwood walk of the region, if not the entire Redwood Empire—the Berry Creek Falls Loop.
ELEVATION GAIN: 1,800 ft.
APPROX. TIME: 5 to 7 hours
ESSENTIALS: The Berry Creek Falls Loop is a good little butt kicker of a day. Be sure to carry 1/2 gallon of water per adult. If carrying a water purification system, there are numerous spots to pull from. Also, don’t forget your layers as you’ll be hiking in a mix of redwood canopy, varied hardwoods, and a bit of exposed terrain as well. Temps will fluxuate!
- Food: 1 meal, 1 snack or 2 hearty snacks per adult
- Water: 2 liters
- Clothing: 1 mid layer, warm hat, and if needed, a waterproof shell
- Sturdy footware
BEST SEASON TO VISIT: early spring into early summer, as the falls can dry up in mid-summer on light-precipitation years.
Big Basin Headquarters: (37.172521,-122.22244)
Berry Creek Falls: (37.170153,-122.265007)
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Here’s How it’s Done
A full-day’s hike of approximately 11-12 miles (depending on side trips and precise trail configurations), the Berry Creek Falls Loop promises (and delivers) its visitors what could be quite justifiably argued as the quintessential coastal redwoods hiking experience—complete with multiple picturesque waterfalls, countless old growth redwood groves, and miles of well maintained, well graded trails that provide the hiker with ample opportunity to really stretch out and get into the sublime rhythm of a properly humbling, rewarding, and soul-enriching stroll among giants.
Plan for a drive of about two hours from San Francisco (approximately 65 miles), or one hour from San Jose (approximately 35 miles). Make your way to the Big Basin Redwoods Headquarters Visitors Center (along CA Hwy 236, ten miles northwest of Boulder Creek, CA), pay your $10 day use fee, park in the adjacent lot, and tighten them bootlaces.
There are a handful of ways to execute the Berry Creek Falls Loop, but the simplest, and most optimal, is as follows:
The Sunset Trail
From the Big Basin Headquarters, find the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail (just west of the parking lot, behind the campfire amphitheater). Cross the Opal Creek Footbridge, turn right onto the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail, and head north for 0.3 miles to the junction with the Dool Trail. Turn left onto the Dool Trail, and take another left onto the Sunset Trail just 0.1 miles later. From here you will follow the Sunset Trail all the way out to the Berry Creek Falls Trail (5 miles). From the junction with the Dool Trail, the Sunset Trail will climb gently-to-moderately for about a third of a mile to its junction with the Middle Ridge Fire Road. Crossing the Middle Ridge Fire Road, the Sunset Trail then meanders generally westward for 2.5 miles to its junction with the Timms Creek Trail, along the way gently cresting two forested ridges, and rolling and contouring along the northern edge of the upper Timms Creek and West Waddell Creek drainages. As the trail contours around the upper slopes of the aforementioned creek drainages, the hiker is offered nonstop views down into lush, vibrant basins, up out of which reach hundreds of lofty redwoods, scattered across a number of small groves.
At roughly mile 3.5, the junction with the Timms Creek Trail is reached. Continue westward on the Sunset Trail for another 1.8 miles to the junction with the Berry Creek Falls Trail (but if you want to mix it up a bit, see the alternate Timms Creek route option, detailed below). Along this stretch, the trail, heavily forested for most of its run, will rise and fall moderately, but will generally keep to the contour, save for where it climbs and crests the ridge separating the West Waddell Creek drainage from the Berry Creek drainage, then descends into the forest to cross the upper Berry Creek drainage, near its headwaters, before once again climbing a couple hundred feet to gain the ridge separating Berry Creek from West Berry Creek. From the ridge, the Sunset Trail will leave the forest for a stretch of a half a mile or so, offering direct sun to the hiker for pretty much the only time on this loop, as well as views down into the Berry Creek watershed area. Re-entering the thick forest canopy a short distance later, the Sunset Trail will meet the Anderson Landing Fire Road; and, a hundred yards later or so, the top of the Berry Creek Falls Trail, where the Sunset Trail ends. Turn left and begin descending the falls trail (NOTE: If you go right at this junction, a short walk of a quarter mile or so will take you up to Sunset Camp, one of the few backcountry campgrounds in the park).
Once on the Berry Creek Falls Trail, you will descend over the course of 1.1 miles to the junction with the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail, just downstream of the lower falls.
Just below the junction with the Sunset Trail, you will find yourself at the top of the Golden Cascade, uppermost of the three principal waterfalls featured on this hike. The trail will descend via twisting switchbacks along the east bank of West Berry Creek, to gain the foot of the Golden Cascade. This waterfall (actually more of a series of successive cascades) is marked by the flow of iron-rich water over a smooth, orange-colored rock face, reminiscent of an amusement park waterslide.
Below the Golden Cascade, the trail will plunge steeply down the brink of Silver Falls- a descent made infinitely less perilous by the iron railings which have been drilled into the rock above the falls, without which the park might very well have to deal with numerous visitor deaths per year, due to careless and/or over-confident stepping on the slippery upper reaches of the falls. Respect the railing—it’s your friend. Reaching the bottom of Silver Falls, a short spur trail will take the hiker right up to the collecting pool at the foot of the falling watercourse. A calamitous-looking pile of fallen trees, haphazardly crisscrossing one another like the broken timbers of a collapsed wharf, here punctuates the bottom of Silver Falls.
Below Silver Falls, the trail gently parallels the east bank of West Berry Creek for about a half a mile, threading its way through a narrow canyon of lush exploding green mosses and leaves, until at last, at the spot where a wooden footbridge crosses its stream, West Berry Creek ends, donating its waters to those of Berry Creek proper, which, entering in from the left, continues down-canyon towards the most dramatic of the three waterfalls on this stretch, Berry Creek Falls.
Now tracing the west bank of Berry Creek, the trail soon reaches a fenced overlook above the precipitous lip of the 70-foot Berry Creek Falls, beyond which the trail switchbacks down to a wooden viewing platform at the foot of the falls. From this platform, the hiker is compelled to rest for a space, taking in the sublime beauty of the bright green redwood canyon, the nearly-straight-vertical drop-off of Berry Creek falls, and all of the rainbows, mosses, and therapeutic sounds that come with this entourage of scenic inspiration. Collecting in a sandy basin at the foot of the falls, the waters then seep, coffee-filter-style, through the sandy bottom, issuing forth again into the creek-bed below, and then continuing on to their confluence with West Waddell Creek, a short distance downstream from here.
The Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail
Just above the confluence of Berry Creek with West Waddell Creek, the Berry Creek Falls Trail ends, at its junction with the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail. West of here, the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail roughly parallels the stream of West Waddell Creek, and eventually Waddell Creek proper, on its 8-mile run to the foaming breakers of the Pacific Ocean, just south of the San Mateo County line.
However, the Berry Creek Falls loop-hiker’s return route requires a left turn at this junction, onto the eastbound Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail, for the 4-mile return to Big Basin Headquarters. Crossing Berry Creek and climbing up and over a low ridge, the trail then gently drops down to meet the northern banks of West Waddell Creek, crossing it shortly on a pair of wooden plank bridges. From here the trail traces along the south bank of West Waddell Creek, generally keeping to a high line, some 30 or 40 feet above the stream.
At 1.1 miles from the Skyline-To-The-Sea/Berry Creek Falls Trail junction, the lower end with the Timms Creek Trail is reached. The shortest route back to headquarters from here continues along the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail, which east of here parallels the south bank of Kelly Creek for a mile or so, before slowly climbing up and out of the Kelly Creek drainage via a slow, steady ascent up to the crest of Middle Ridge, through a series of astonishingly lush and serene groves of towering coast redwoods and rich fern canyons.
From the crest of Middle Ridge, where the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail crosses the Middle Ridge Fire Road, the former descends gently over 0.8 miles through more groves of fallen goliaths and burned-out-redwood shells, until it touches down at the footbridge across Opal Creek, across which you walked to begin your hike.
Alternate Trail Option
The Berry Creek Falls Loop can be amended slightly to include the lush and scenic Timms Creek Trail, which connects the Sunset and Skyline-To-The-Sea Trails, approximately 2/3 of the way between headquarters and Berry Creek Falls. Between the Skyline-To-The-Sea and Sunset Trails, the Timms Creek Trail climbs approximately 400 feet over 0.9 miles, paralleling for its first 0.6 miles the gurgling, cascading Timms Creek, and the upper West Waddell Creek. Taking this detour can add anywhere from a half to a full mile to your day’s mileage, depending on your overall route. There are two other possible alternate trails connecting the Sunset and Skyline-to-The-Sea Trails: the 0.1 mile connector trail, just west of Middle Ridge, and the Middle Ridge Fire Road itself, which rolls for 0.4 miles in between the two main trails.
Deek’s Words of Wisdom
Bring plenty of water and snacks (if not a full-on lunch) on this hike, as it tends to be an ass-kicker. If you have a water pump, water bag, or other purification device, bring it along with you, and lighten your water load; but first confirm with a ranger at headquarters that the creeks along the hiking route are flowing.