This hike, along Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail from Waterman Gap to Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarters, is basically Day 2 of a popular 3-day through hike from Saratoga Gap to Waddell Beach on the Pacific Ocean. It is also the 7th segment of an 8-segment hike that I’m doing with a group of ice skating friends, from the edge of San Francisco Bay to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. We decided to call our adventure Edge to Edge. This section and the final one are in Santa Cruz County.
The previous segment followed the Saratoga Toll Road Trail and Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail from just below Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap and was almost all downhill. This segment included a moderate climb from Waterman Gap to China Grade Rd – the highest point of the segment – before descending into the heart of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Most of our hikes have been done as car shuttles. As we have progressed along the route, the drives and shuttles have been gradually getting longer. This time we had about 45 minutes to hang around the Waterman Gap start area and explore while our drivers staged a car at the finish and returned to the start. We explored the area and found patches of sunlight that warmed us in the cool morning temperatures. During this exploration time, I noticed that several of us had placed our hiking poles and other gear on a log next to the trail. It made an interesting pre-hike lineup.
We started at a small parking area at the junction of Mill Rd and Spring Creek Rd at Waterman Gap, where CA-9 leaves Big Basin Way, which then becomes CA-236 and continues to Park HQ. The trail actually makes two road crossings just 100 yards or so apart before following along the east side of Big Basin Way. About 0.6 mile from Waterman Gap there is a junction with a connector trail to Saratoga Toll Rd Trail. A bit farther along was our first encounter of the day with a really large redwood tree that had obviously survived a fire sometime in the past. It seems that the best way to illustrate the scale of the trees is to include a scale for reference, in this case two of my hiking companions.
Although the trail follows Big Basin Way much of the way after Waterman Gap, the traffic is relatively unnoticeable from the trail. There are several small side roads, at least two of which are noted in my GPS mapping software as Memory Lane. Evidently there are quite a few houses tucked away in the forest, as evidenced by this cluster of mailboxes.
In several places there was new growth of poison oak. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate the sometimes differing appearance: the example on the left is along Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, while the example on the right was along the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail nearly 30 miles to the northwest, just a week earlier. Beware!! This amazing and devious plant can look different depending on the surrounding vegetation.
The trail climbs fairly steadily, gaining about 700 feet in 2¼ miles. There is a variety of ferns and mosses, indicating that the environment is usually cool and moist. Usually there would be quite a few banana slugs also, but we only saw 3 all day. I suppose this is another indication of the unusually dry weather this past winter season. There were several places with a small vertical wall where the trail had been dug into the hillside, with moss growing on the vertical surface. There were also several moss-covered downed trees, like this one. The moss was particularly pretty in the sunshine.
About 3.1 miles from the trailhead there was kind of a false summit, where we stopped for a short break. The trail then descends about 200 feet before climbing back up a little more steeply. The actual high point of the trail is at the China Grade Rd crossing, about 4.8 miles from Waterman Gap. This is about 1.2 miles inside the boundary of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, though there isn’t a sign denoting the park boundary.
After crossing China Grade Rd the terrain makes a sudden change: the slope faces west, the forest changes to chaparral, there is much more sun, and the trail passes over areas of smooth, bare rock. It is one of the most sudden and dramatic changes of micro-climate I have encountered on foot. Here and there, there are views to the south and west. Here is a pretty view that shows a couple more tree-covered ridge lines with the famous marine fog bank over the Pacific Ocean.
In this area the vegetation was very different from the redwood forest through which we had been hiking. There was abundant manzanita, as well as several types of wildflower taking advantage of the warmer sun. Here is one pretty example, with delicate white flowers on relatively tall stalks.
There were several places where the trail passes across smooth, bare rock. This view was looking back across one such section.
There were several clusters of brilliant Indian paintbrush.
The trail passes briefly into forest and back out into chaparral a couple of times, with intermittent views of the ridges to the south and west. Then, between about 6.1 and 6.2 miles from Waterman Gap and between 1600 and 1500 feet elevation, the trail re-enters forest for the remainder of the hike, shortly passing the Loving Parents Woodland Grove, denoted by a sign. Soon we were back in redwood forest, with ferns and other moisture-loving plants. Not far from the junction with Hollow Tree Trail there was a striking fiddlehead fern.
Around the junction we were met by two more of our skating group, who had driven directly to the end of the hike and walked back up the trail to meet the rest of us. Shortly there was a photo opp with a particularly large redwood, and I walked over to provide the human scale. Suddenly I was being photographed by 4 of my friends simultaneously, so I quickly snapped a picture of my paparazzi!
Back in the moister environment, we found different types of mushrooms and other fungi.
The trail passes along Opal Creek most of the way from Hollow Tree Trail to Park Headquarters. We could hear it burbling along even when we couldn’t see it.
We found redwood violets and redwood sorrel as ground cover among the redwoods. Redwood sorrel is able to carry out photosynthesis at very low light levels, and in fact direct sunlight can damage the plant.
Although we had discussed walking around the Redwood Loop, a 0.6-mile trail through some of the park’s most majestic redwood trees near the Headquarters, we instead opted to go directly to the snack bar for ice cream sandwiches. After a 9½ mile hike, they were delicious!
Our next hike will take us the remaining 13 miles from Park HQ to Waddell Beach, where we plan to celebrate our trek by dipping our fingers into the ocean.