State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer speaks at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer speaks at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘We are in a new era’: A year after reopening, how far has Big Basin come — and how far does it still need to go?

Big Basin Redwoods State Park has made big strides since its reopening a year ago, with more trails and campgrounds reopened to the public now than over the last two years. However, the park in its current state is ‘almost unrecognizable’ from its pre-2020 iteration, parks officials say, even after nearly three years of intensive restoration work. Now, California State Parks is beginning the process of studying what kinds of new permanent facilities will be built in the park, and where.

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary since Big Basin Redwoods State Park welcomed visitors back into the beloved, sprawling redwood forest following the devastation of the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex. However, much still needs to be done, including rebuilding the park’s trail network, restoring campgrounds and utilities, and kicking off a process to study what kind of permanent facilities should be built — and where.

The CZU fire burned more than 97% of the park and demolished practically every structure. California State Parks Big Basin Senior Project Planner Will Fourt, who began working with State Parks in Nov. 2021, said that the agency partnered with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and CalRecycle to push forward on the rigorous recovery effort. That included removing hazardous materials from sites where structures burned down, clearing roads of damaged trees and other debris, repairing culverts, roadways, and some of the trails.

“It was a significant effort over those almost two years to do all of that,” he said. “I think folks involved were surprised that we were able to get public access back that quick, even though it is a small amount of access compared to what was there before.”

The park in its current state is vastly different from its pre-2020 iteration, even after nearly three years of intensive restoration work. Just four miles of trail are now open compared to the 85 miles previously travelable. The forest is “almost unrecognizable,” said Fourt, as much of the dense redwood forest canopies were burned. That has allowed sun to shine through to parts of the park that previously did not receive such direct sunlight, and has caused new plants to grow on the forest floor of some areas.

“The first time that you go there, it will be shocking,” said Fourt. “It’s interesting to see the forest now in this state as it goes through natural processes of succession after a real disturbance, and it can really be emotional for people.”

California State Parks' Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Luckily, many of the largest and most ancient redwoods in the park survived the disaster despite losing a significant amount of their canopies, which will take years or decades to fully regrow. But some of these trees are 2,000 years old and among the tallest living organisms on earth, and that is a major silver lining. The 329-foot Mother of the Forest, the 17-foot-wide Father of the Forest, and the 255-foot Statue of Responsibility redwoods still stand tall.

“It’s hopeful, and they are resilient,” said Fourt. “They are going to survive. They’ve been through many fires before and they will be able to get through this.”

There is a lot of work still ongoing since the park’s reopening a year ago, and winter storm damage set some of that recovery work back. However, State Parks and its partners were able to continue restoring trail access, allowing more people to come into the park on a reservation basis. Rancho Del Oso, a coastal section of the state park, is now open for camping and walking, too, but the equestrian trails are yet to be fully restored. Fourt added that resource crews are still working on the remaining tree hazards, road repairs, and culvert replacements.

Fire-damaged redwoods line either side of Highway 236 towards the entrance of Big Basin.
Fire-damaged redwoods line either side of Highway 236 towards the entrance of Big Basin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The major project for the foreseeable future is the preparation and construction of new permanent facilities, including a new visitor center. In May, the nonprofit Sempervirens Fund — California’s oldest land trust — purchased Sterrenzee Ridgetop, a 16.5-acre property that connects Big Basin with the 153-acre Gateway to Big Basin that Sempervirens purchased in 2022. These properties lie in the Saddle Mountain Vista area, providing a good option to locate those permanent facilities, as the area did not burn as badly as the rest of the park and has maintained more of its original ecology.

Now, State Parks is starting a Facilities Management Plan process to assess potential sites for new structures, conduct environmental reviews, and plan visitor services like the new visitor center and transportation features. The multi-year process will hopefully pave the way for construction of permanent facilities to begin in 2025, said Fourt.

“To do something of this size is a long-term project, and some of the future facilities will be really different in some ways,” he said, adding that state agency is looking to introduce services like a park shuttle system to increase access for all and limit development within the old growth areas. “The goal is to put the health of the forest first.”

Nearly three years after the CZU Lightning Complex fires severely damaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park, officials are...

State Parks welcomes public input, and has a page on its website for lovers of Big Basin to get involved. Though the park may never be the same as it was pre-fire, this summer marks the beginning of its next iteration.

“What each part of the forest looks like, and what the facilities will be is going to change,” said Fourt. “We are in a new era, but the general experience of going to the redwoods, camping, and getting out on the trails is going to stay the same.”