Sunday, July 11, 2010

Big Basin Coastal Loop

Coast Redwood
 The Big Basin Falls loop is an undisputed classic. Beautiful any time of year, the awesome redwoods, babbling creeks, diverse understory, and the singing waters of the 3 major falls all combine to make this a common favorite for Bay Area hikers. This fact is also made evident by the sheer number of hikers on the trails, especially during nice weather. The hike has gotten so popular that the crowds can sometimes detract from the experience. But there are other routes to the falls. One of my favorite ways to hike to Berry Creek Falls is to use a less traveled route from the coast. Lots of hikers and bikers also know about the out-and-back coastal route using Skyline to the Sea Trail. With very little elevation gain and a mostly multi-use trail, this is also a popular outdoor experience. It is possible to enjoy the falls and still have some quality quiet time along the way though. A good outdoor experience should include some time alone in nature for your party. We like to search out the less traveled routes. And yes, there is another route from the Waddell Beach trailhead that virtually no one uses. My wife and I first used this route during the winter several years ago when the water level in Waddell Creek was so high that some of the temporary footbridges along the creek were washed out. The rangers had posted signs at the trailhead warning of this condition, and of dangerous current at the crossings. But seeing this sign only caused me to imagine what the falls would look like with that volume of water flowing. Why would I want to miss that? Right? I considered the possibility of attempting to wade across, but it was way too cold for getting wet. I was unprepared for doing that, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. Plus, Sue was definitely not into any such thing. So we decided to re-route to the fall area using the McCrary Ridge horse trail in order to bypass the section of trail with the bridge out. We had a great time, and we still use this route even when the trail is open. McCrary Ridge connects with Hihn Hammond Fire Road, which in turn intersects the Howard King Trail near Mt McAbee. The King Trail descends back down the ridge all the way back to Skyline to the Sea Trail very close to the junction of Berry Creek and West Waddell Creek, where Berry Creek Fall is close by.

View from McCrary Ridge toward Waddell Beach
 I really don’t pay much heed to the sign at the McCrary Ridge trailhead which warns that the trail is “For horse use” and “Not recommended for hiking”, “Very Steep Sections”. These signs are very reminiscent of the signs up on Middle Ridge Road which state that the Berry Creek Fall hike is a “Strenuous hike”, and warn to be sure you have enough daylight to complete the hike. These signs seem to be intended for the generally public. The route has an uphill return, and I suppose the rangers are tired of having to find people who are overdue because they are really not hiking savvy, or not of a reasonable fitness level for hiking 1000+ feet of elevation gain. For a seasoned rambler, that hike is really only a good intermediate level hike. I tend to enjoy a hike that offers some challenge anyway. As for McCrary Ridge, it’s really not as bad as the signs indicate. There are some sections on the trail that are steeper than the recommended grading for hiking trails, but they are do-able. I find McCrary Ridge to be a really nice hike with beautiful scenery, lots of character, and very quiet due to the relative lack of travel.

Spindly Knobcone Pines on McCrary Ridge Trail
 The trail begins with in dense woods climbing up, sometimes steeply for short sections, but mostly gradual, under the shady forest canopy, eventually reaching the scrubby chaparral at the top of the ridge. On the way up its quiet enough to hear the bird sounds and breeze really well. You get lots of exposure when you reach the upper sections, but it’s quite interesting with its array of scrubby vegetation, and spindly, sparse, weathered, knobcone pines reaching for the sky. Plus you get wonderful views in all directions. Use your sun protection and drink plenty of liquid up here. Many sections level out, but you basically keep climbing almost the entire way to the fire road. Once you connect with Hihn Hammond Road, you turn right and do a short graded uphill to the junction of the King Trail, turning left to go briefly up, before heading down. Soon you are back into dense woods and giving back all of your elevation. This section of the Howard King Trail is the most elevation change in any one section in the whole park. From just over 400 feet up to Mt McAbee at 1730 feet. The direction we were headed has you doing this as a 1300 foot downhill; also a beautiful trail though. We found some really nice Pine Drops along the trail. Sue is usually the one to spot stuff like that. She’s good a spotting Spotted Coral Root and unusual stuff like Pine Drops.

Leopard Lilly
 We visited Berry Creel Fall, and I was impressed at how much water was flowing this late in the season. It was crowded there however, so we didn’t stay around. I had wanted to return by way of the Skyline to the Sea Trail in order to hunt for late season Tiger and Leopard Lilies. This is the third time this year I have planned hikes along areas where I expected to find the Tigers, and so far have struck out, although Dave (my brother in-law) and I found pods that had not bloomed a couple of weeks ago in a different section of the park. Searching diligently in areas where I have found them before, I was able to found several clusters of Leopard Lilies right in the habitats they like, near the creeks. Usually they are difficult to get close to for photos, but using my best skills, and some rocks and fallen logs, I got some decent shots. I then had to really pick up my pace to catch up with Sue as she continued hiking out the Skyline to the Sea Trail back to our car at the coast. On the way back I was tempted to stop at Swanton Berry Farm on highway 1 for a home made organic berry pie, but I resisted for some reason (darn it!). Instead we stopped for some favored food shopping. Sue always likes to visit the natural food stores in Santa Cruz because they have excellent quality and much better prices than in the valley. We expected heavy beach traffic driving back “over the hill”, but it wasn’t bad. Only a little bit of accordion action to watch for.

Click here to see the photos from this hike

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