Big Basin

There’s a green empire just 90 minutes drive down the peninsula from San Francisco, in the Santa Cruz mountains. Big Basin is a retreat into the archaic woods. Earlier this month my brother Preston and I went for an overnight trip there.


The canopy of trees closes over you, and a blanket of quiet. Redwoods have an extensive, interconnected, but very shallow root system, mostly within 8 feet of the surface. On parts of the trail where you can see the earth cleaved by gravity or the hand of man, the vein-like tangle of tendrils blooms out underneath the redwood tree, a weird underground echo of the mass-heavy, water holding trunk that rises so far above the surface. The thin roots writhe through the dark yet sandy soil.


Since we’re in the middle of a protracted drought season, many of the streams that run through Big Basin were nearly dried up. After Preston and I had hiked most of the day and were nearing the Lane Trail Camp, 5 miles in or so, we came across upper Opal Creek where Hollow tree Trail crossed it only to find it dry. We were planning on getting water there, and were almost out. We hiked down the hill a good mile or so before we found some life in it. Lower Opal Creek, (pictured) which follows the Skyline to the Sea Trail for a good stretch near the park headquarters, had water, but I’m sure it’s very low compared to what it usually is, and parts of it were an eerie florid green, like a powdery dye had been flushed through it.


Up Hollow Tree a wooden tepee-like structure seems to deserve some kind of ceremonial use, placed as it is in a quiet ravine where the only sound is the leaves decaying. Near to it, there are the tremendous ruins of a shingle mill – giant boilers and ironworks sleeping half-submerged. There is no indication how the shingles were removed from Big Basin, no tracks or roads nearby, just a hillside trail. Rows of crumbling black pillars indicate where a building used to be.


After we reached the trail camp, we found a large clearing and had some bourbon and played chess. Mist came in from the Pacific, but it wasn’t too cold for sleeping comfortably outside.

Trail camps are just $10 a night, are a few hours hike in, and have camp toilets and places to stow your garbage. I would not recommend car camping here – Big Basin is too mobbed with visitors near the park headquarters, though most don’t appear to hike in very far.

Visit for more information, or to book a night at a trail camp.

For information about preserving the redwoods, visit

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