This very popular hike features a series of impressive waterfalls in a narrow, redwood-filled gorge, followed by a four-mile climb through a lush, steep-sided canyon lined with big redwoods. Almost the entire loop is in pristine old-growth redwood forest, with remarkably little encroachment from roads and other development. The otherworldly scenery is like nothing else in the Bay Area.
The 10-mile loop starts at park headquarters and descends by way of the Sunset Trail to Berry Creek Falls. After the falls, there’s a long and scenic ascent on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail back to park headquarters. The total elevation gain is about 1800 feet. Taking the loop in this counter-clockwise direction spreads the climbing more evenly throughout the hike and saves the best scenery for last. The hike takes about five to six hours.
The loop is enjoyable year-round, although the first few miles has some muddy patches in winter. The falls run all year, although they’re at their thundering best in winter. If it’s been raining a lot, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail might be closed due to a landslide or fallen tree, or a bridge near Berry Creek Falls may be out. Although it looks like Silver Falls could completely cover the trail, I’ve never seen this happen even during heavy rainfall.
Berry Creek Falls is by far the most popular destination in Big Basin, and it’s become much more popular over the past few years. On nice summer weekends, you might pass a group of hikers every two or three minutes, while on rainy winter weekends, you might see ten or fifteen groups during the entire hike. The Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is the busiest part of the loop; most visitors hike the shorter out-and-back rather than the complete loop.
The hike starts at park headquarters. After a pleasant stroll along Opal Creek, the trail climbs 300 vertical feet through a dense sea of huckleberry to Middle Ridge. The air usually gets 10 or 20 degrees warmer as you climb out of the basin, and it will probably stay warm for the rest of the hike.
After crossing the Middle Ridge fire road, the well-worn Sunset Trail winds through a series of exceptionally attractive old-growth redwood groves. These upland groves are separated by patches of tanoak forest, adding some variety to this part of the hike. While the redwoods aren’t quite as big as they are in the valleys, the forest has a bright, cheerful feeling that the valleys lack, making this one of the most enjoyable parts of the hike.
A controlled burn in 2008 killed most of the huckleberry and tanoak understory on the west side of Middle Ridge. Although you might not notice the difference if you’re not looking for it, this area is still noticably more open than the unburned parts of the forest further down the trail. Large numbers of rapidly-growing redwood seedlings appeared after the fire, mostly around the bases of larger trees, while almost no seedlings can be seen in other areas. After about a mile the burned area ends, and the scenery becomes less interesting as the trail tunnels through dense tanoak understory.
After crossing a large bridge across West Waddell Creek, the trail begins a 500 foot climb. Near the start of the climb is the intersection with the Timms Creek Trail.
(The Timms Creek Trail makes a nice alternate route. It descends into a valley with a good-sized creek; near the south end of the trail the valley widens and there’s a small but exceptionally nice redwood grove with an unmarked bench. The trail ends in a jumble of fallen trees; at this point, look to your left for a log across the creek to the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail).
To hike the full Berry Creek loop, skip the Timms Creek Trail and continue along the Sunset Trail, which climbs to a ridge. Although this isn’t the biggest climb of the hike, it’s the most difficult. After cresting the ridge the redwoods become more impressive again.
The trail descends to a small creek which is actually the upper part of Berry Creek. After a short climb the trail breaks out of the woods into a chaparral-filled clearing. At one point there’s a nice view of the valley where Berry Creek Falls is located — the only view that you get on this hike. It’s a nice contrast with all the woodland scenecy. This final stretch of the Sunset Trail has some signs of logging, although it still has a lot of large old-growth trees.
The Berry Creek Falls Trail begins soon after the clearing. This magical trail is the real payoff of the hike. The trail descends in a series of steps past two big waterfalls and into a lush emerald glen encrusted with ferns and redwood sorrel. It then follows a little brook through a narrow ravine spanned by fallen trees. As the ravine deepens, bigger redwoods appear and the groundcover gets even more lush. Finally, the trail descends past Berry Creek Falls to a viewing platform where there’s usually a small crowd of people. Even though none of the redwoods in this area are huge, it’s still some of the best scenery in all of Big Basin.
After the platform, turn left onto a bridge and onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail. Most people just hike out-and-back to Berry Creek Falls on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, so this trail is a lot busier than the Sunset Trail. The trail climbs over a small hill, then crosses West Waddell Creek on a crude plank bridge. This bridge is sometimes washed out, but conveniently, there’s a big redwood across the creek just ten yards downstream.
For the next few miles the trail passes through the deepest, darkest redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Waddell Creek canyon is noticably more lush than any other part of the hike, with a plush groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel, and it has some impressive big-tree scenery. The biggest redwoods are in a few groves between Berry Creek Falls and the Timms Creek Trail, but the forest is very scenic and mostly old-growth redwoods all the way back to park headquarters. The redwoods are initially obscured by a dense understory of huckleberry and tanoak (which makes photography difficult), but near the top the woods become very open.
Shortly after its intersection with the Timms Creek Trail, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail splits. To the right is the main trail; to the left is the Alternate Trail, a short side trail that’s been closed since early 2014 due to a bridge failure. (The Alternate Trail, which is actually the older trail, was little-used even when it was open, since it took about 10 minutes longer and involved a bit more climbing. However, it was also more scenic, since it would through a creek valley with some large redwoods and two attractive arched bridges.)
The trail crosses Waddell Creek and climbs out of the canyon, circling a ravine that has an especially open and pure grove of mid-sized redwoods. The air usually warms up as you leave the canyon. Although the woods aren’t as lush, they’re brighter and more open, and the late-afternoon sunlight streams in through the foliage to illuminate the redwoods. If you’re not exhausted by all the climbing, this can be an especially enjoyable part of the hike.
The best part of the hike, though, is when you reach Middle Ridge, because then it’s an easy downhill walk back to park headquarters.
© 2005, 2006, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017 David Baselt