Hiking in California’s Big Basin State Park

A few months ago, my 1993 VW Eurovan (Moby) began running poorly after a weekend of driving through the Sierras.  One cylinder lost compression, and the engine lost a ton of power as it began misfiring.  It had 193,000 miles on it and had been rebuilt twice in the last two years, so this was the last leg for that engine.  It had a good run for sure.

So, this began a somewhat expensive, four-month long ordeal to swap in a new engine.  J’s VW in Reno did great work for me, installing a used 2.4L diesel from a donor vehicle.  They patiently worked through numerous issues that came up, and the van is now running better than ever.  I’ve got slightly less power overall, but more torque.  But at least I’m getting 30 mpg now, that’s pretty awesome for a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a toaster.

The van was ready to rock and roll again on Friday at 3 pm, and after a couple hours of lazy packing, Danielle and I took off toward Santa Cruz, CA.  This was a bit of a bold trip for a fresh engine, but we agreed that worst case scenario, we would get stuck somewhere pretty cool along the way and just camp there before getting towed back.  Luckily, Moby drove like a champion, storming up Donner Summit at a whopping 40 mph uphill.  Downhill, I could get up to 65 or so before things sounded a little loud.  Obviously it’s going to take me a little while longer to get places until I throw a turbocharger in there.

Danielle had reserved a campsite in Little Basin State Park, about 30 minutes into the mountains northeast of Santa Cruz.  We pulled into the park entrance at about 11 at night, and the check-in building was obviously closed   It was eerily quiet, with the rain and fog adding a little mystery to the redwood forest.  There were a couple playgrounds and open areas in the front of the park.  As I pulled past the playground, one swing was just clanging around in the still air. An old fisherman in a yellow rain jacket with a hook ran out — ok ok… that last part didn’t happen.  It was a little spooky,  but it was quiet and actually very beautiful.  Surprisingly, not a single campsite was visibly occupied except ours on Friday night.

 In the morning, we ate breakfast and went for a little walk around the campground.  There were small cabins available for rental, and the communal restroom areas even had hot (and free) showers).  We got a little campsite envy in the daylight and moved to campsite 28. It was tucked in toward the back of the park near a section that was washed out and under repair.  It was surrounded by big redwoods and had a little stream running right through it.  We figured if we had the whole place to ourselves, we might as well get our favorite site.

Breakfast time!

After breakfast, we headed 10 minutes up the road to Big Basin State Park, which is apparently California’s oldest state park.  I was immediately impressed by the huge redwood trees looming over the park headquarters – they were absolutely huge.  Many of the redwoods in Big Basin are old growth and over 1,000 years old, and some of the biggest are right at the entrance.

Danielle and I checked in at the office and paid our $10 day use fee.  From there, we picked up a little map and set off on the Berry Falls Loop, which was about 10 miles long / 2,400 feet of elevation gain.  It was marked as strenuous, but I think that was more due to the length than the steepness of the trail.   We crossed over numerous creeks, and with steady rain the whole day, the waterfalls were going at full blast.  If you do this hike in the rain, bring some good waterproof boots, because you’re going to be doing some mud stomping.

Berry Creek Falls

Stairway alongside Cascade Falls


Upper section of Cascade Falls

The higher elevations of the Berry Falls Loop saw a change in foliage

Throughout the hike, we only came across half a dozen or so people.  We missed out on seeing banana slugs, but we did see a number of red salamanders and a variety of strange mushrooms.  The redwoods themselves were truly amazing.  I had to force myself to stop and look up once in a while, even with the rain, just to fully appreciate the height of these trees.   They feel old and authentic here, whereas in Yosemite, the big Sequoias have names and ranger-created personalities of their own.  This is a good forest to feel the serenity of nature, whereas in Yosemite, nature can feel a bit subdued beneath the heavy tourism.

The hike took us about 4.5 hours total with a couple of short stops for snacking.    We headed back afterward to Little Basin, where we spent one more night before heading home in the morning.  Danielle got her wish for cheddar-filled bratwurst for dinner, which is almost a cardinal sin in my family, and we were in bed by 9:00 after the hike. Although we had scoffed at the “strenuous” warning signs at the trailhead, neither of us had hiked in several months, and we were spent.

Moby the mighty VW van carried us safely back to Reno the next day, and the contrast between the morning’s rainy redwood forest and the evening’s snowy winter wonderland was remarkable.  I wish we still handed out merit badges for doing cool things, because I definitely earned a manly merit badge for putting on chains for my first time over I-80.  That merit badge would go great right now to go with my chest hair and flannel shirt.