Big Basin Redwoods and Berry Creek Falls

Redwood forests tingle the senses like nothing else in nature.

The shady stillness interrupted only by bands of shimmering sunlight. The plush carpet of duff underneath your feet. The softening echo of a distant bird chirping through the breeze.

Unlike their Sequoia cousins, these redwoods prefer the moist climate of California's rugged coastline. There's no better place to experience that soothing power than Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home of the largest continuous stand of ancient redwoods south of San Francisco.

Tucked in the Santa Cruz mountains, about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Fresno, Big Basin features approximately 18,000 acres of redwood forest with a touch of oak, chaparral and riparian habitats.

Celebrating its 100th birthday this year, California's oldest state park offers 80 miles of picturesque and diverse hiking trails. Sometimes, while strolling through all the lushness, it is easy to forget a major population center lies just beyond the ridge.

Of all the hikes in Big Basin, the Berry Creek Falls loop is the best way to experience every nook and cranny of the park. At 10 1/2 miles, the loop is long (most people require 4-6 hours) but not overly strenuous.

Water can be found throughout the first half of the hike but must be filtered or treated. So start out with plenty. And be sure to bring a flashlight because darkness comes early in a dense forest.

Starting at the park headquarters, take the Skyline to the Sea Trail into the heart of Big Basin. After ascending a short ridge, the trail drops into a lush redwood forest and alongside two creeks.

At 4.7 miles the trail winds around a corner, and Berry Creek Falls abruptly comes into view. Framed by ferns and other forest conifers, the 70-foot waterfall is named for an 1870s hermit named Tilford George Berry who built a cabin at its base. (Twenty-five years after he last was seen, Berry's skeleton was discovered nearby - with his trusty rifle leaning against it and a single bullet through its skull.)

A platform near the falls offers the perfect place for lunch - and to ponder the fate of poor Berry.

Climbing out of the canyon, the trail then passes a series of three cascades: Golden Falls, Cascade Falls and Silver Falls. Combined with Berry Creek Falls, together they drop more than 200 feet.

Soon we reach the junction of the Sunset Trail, where the scenery abruptly changes. Gone are the lush forests, replaced for the moment by a sunny ridge of manzanita. Views into the trees below and faraway ridges are stunning.

It isn't long before the trail returns to the redwood canopy for the journey home. But don't be in a hurry to get there. Let your eyes wander, and be thankful early conservationists saved these magnificent trees from the lumberjack's ax.

Big Basin is far too vast to be seen in one day. So take advantage of the park's 146 campsites and make a weekend of it.

After all, there's nothing like a redwood forest.

Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on June 20, 2002