Explore New Growth and Trails at Big Basin Redwoods

The CZU Fire brought about a transformation that’s a wonder to behold, and Big Basin is open to visitors. Here’s how to get there and what you’ll find.

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By Bridget Lyons

June 25, 2024—When most of us think about the Santa Cruz Mountains, we think about our amazing coastal redwood trees. And, when we‘ve wanted to see the biggest and oldest of these giants, we’ve often headed up to Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

There’s a good reason for this: The 18,000-acre property hosts the largest contiguous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Within this stand are trees between 1,000 and 1,800 years old. For me, walking amongst living creatures who were saplings during the early Middle Ages is both mind-blowing and inspiring—and I know I’m not alone in this experience.

Big Basin and its ancient evergreen denizens underwent a radical transformation in August of 2020, however, as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire tore through the park, burning 97 percent of its terrain in the process. All of the park buildings—both historic and recently constructed—were destroyed, and the ecology was changed overnight. California’s oldest state park shut down and stayed closed for almost two years.

On July 22, 2022, the park reopened with limited access. Thanks to a partnership between California State Parks and Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, a reservation system was instituted to manage visitation, and 45 vehicles per day were permitted to enter the park, allowing their passengers to wander the classic .6-mile Redwood Loop trail and an additional 18 miles of fire roads. I was one of those people back in September of 2022, and I found myself staring upward with my mouth agape, struck dumb by what I saw.

I had expected to see towering black tree trunks, and, of course, I did. But I had not expected to see so much bright green growth emerging from those black tree trunks. Redwood trees are uniquely adapted to live with fire. Strategies referred to as “basal sprouting” (buds yielding new growth from the base of the tree) and “epicormic sprouting” (buds yielding new growth from the sides of the tree) enable them to quickly recover, so long as the fire doesn’t burn too hot.

On the ground, basal sprouting looks like a bushy green ring around the bottom of a tree’s trunk, and epicormic sprouting looks, well, rather like a Dr. Seuss illustration—like green fuzz around a tree in the style of the pipe cleaners I once used in kindergarten art projects. These adaptations make recovering redwoods look completely different from their unaffected siblings.

In addition to observing redwood regeneration in action during that visit, I also spent some time checking out the new undergrowth. Fire directly affects vegetation, of course, but it also alters the landscape by clearing the canopy and allowing much more sunlight to hit the ground. As a result, an entirely different assortment of plants can be found growing in a recently-burned forest.

When I visited, horseweed (Erigeron Canadensis), a frothy-looking white-flowered plant, carpeted the floor of the forest, but yerba santa, lilacs and huckleberries were also prominent. I spent a few hours that day walking and taking pictures of this new world, and I remember driving home with an entirely new vision of the regenerative power of fire.

I wasn’t the only person who jumped on the Big Basin reopening bandwagon. On May 26, 2024, the park celebrated its 100,000th visitor since its July 2022 reopening. That visitor, a woman named Irene from Los Gatos, was able to enjoy more trails and amenities than I had, thanks to ongoing work by park employees and the collaborative planning efforts of California State Parks and Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.

In addition to the Redwood Loop, hikers can now access the Dool Trail, the Meteor Trail, and sections of the Sunset, Skyline to the Sea and Creeping Forest trails (see the park’s official map for details). There’s a new temporary visitor center housed in a shipping container (there’s still no electricity or running water in the park), and interpretive hikes are often conducted on weekends and holidays.

Parking, too, has been expanded. In addition to the reservation lot that I used, there’s now a first-come, first-served lot with a limited number of spaces. And, there’s room for an additional 27 vehicles at Saddle Mountain, 2.8 miles from the park entrance. Shuttle service from this lot to the main gate began Memorial Day weekend 2024, and it runs continuously between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

“This system is working well,” said Debra Martwick, Senior Visitor Services Aide at the park. “We’ve only had to turn away a handful of people.”

Martwick and her colleagues keep close track of these numbers because a principal goal is to ensure that visitation to Big Basin (and 33 other state parks in Santa Cruz County and coastal San Mateo County) is sustainable. Before the fires, Big Basin was experiencing extremely high visitor numbers—over 1 million people per year, on average. The existing infrastructure wasn’t sufficient to support the amount of people hiking, biking and riding horses on the park’s 100-plus miles of trail. The devastation caused by the CZU fires enabled land managers to reevaluate the future of this important resource, and a multi-year process of public input called “Reimagining Big Basin,” was begun.

“We had the opportunity to go back to a blank slate and look at what was most sustainable for the forest and its wildlife,” said Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, “then slowly increase access. This summer is another chapter in that increasing access.”

One of the pilot programs instituted last year was the METRO bus route that transports visitors from Boulder Creek to the park entrance. This year, it’s a full-fledged program which began running in March. The Metro allows visitors to directly access the park from the Scotts Valley Transit Center, offering yet another way for people to access this rejuvenating landscape.

And that’s ultimately what Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks is working for.

“So many locals think that the park looks like a wasteland, a moonscape, since the fires. And that’s just not the case. The colors are brilliant,” Martwick told me, as she enthusiastically described the wildflowers currently in bloom.

Western azaleas are making the air fragrant, and the ceanothus has created literal tunnels of lilac—which are apparently being visited by hosts of tortoiseshell butterflies.

“There’s always something to see,” Hawley emphasized. “If you’ve gone to the park before, go again. And if not, take a trip up there.”

If you do, you will get to experience an amazing ecosystem being reborn before your eyes. Remember to obtain a parking reservation online at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park website before you go to guarantee access. The fee is $6/car plus a $2 reservation fee, and the proceeds go directly towards helping Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks continue to increase access and ensure sustainable visitation. While you can gamble on the first-come, first-served parking spots, they cost $10 and may not be available.

Of course, you can get to the park by bus or bike as well. However you get there, you’re guaranteed to be inspired by the resilience of this remarkable ecosystem and the efforts that have gone into helping us experience it.

For parking reservations, transportation information, a full list of open trails, a park map, and more, go to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park website.

Bridget Lyons is a writer and editor living in Santa Cruz. To learn more about her work and explorations, visit