Big Basin is back, and redwoods deliver a tonic for our times

Green shoots sprout from a charred, fallen tree at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The beloved state park in the Santa Cruz Mountains was radically reshaped by the 2020 CZU Complex fire, beginning its gradual reopening only in recent weeks. In the shoots of green amid the charred trees, Wallace Baine sees a hopeful message about how nature and humanity alike can sprout anew after trauma.

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There’s a black husk of a redwood tree, as big as a school bus, lying horizontally along the Redwood Loop at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. You could not draw up a more convincing image of a dead tree.

What’s remarkable, though, about this fallen giant isn’t its size or its charred exterior. There are hundreds of similar trees, both living and dead, in every direction. What’s remarkable emerges only when you look closer.

There, nestled in a little knothole on the tree’s top-facing side, stand two or three delicate little shoots, looking like something you’d pluck out of your garden to throw in your salad as a garnish.

Californians regularly spend their leisure time among Sequoia sempervirens, aka the coast redwood, for any number of reasons. But at this moment, in this specific spot, those tender green tendrils represent exactly what we want right now from these magnificent trees: a compelling metaphor for resilience and triumph in the face of tragedy. And they are delivering.

A week or so ago, Big Basin Redwoods State Park opened to the public for the first time since the catastrophic CZU fires in the summer of 2020 burned up to 97% of the park. That number is worth lingering over; 97% represents about 18,000 acres of land, much of it forested with old-growth redwoods. Big Basin is now allowing a limited number of cars to visit the park every day by reservation, administered by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks (those limits do not apply to visitors who arrive by bus or bicycle; they need no reservation).

Obviously, the landscape at Big Basin today looks radically different than it did pre-CZU. In the heart of the park, the cool shade of the canopy that characterized the Redwood Loop Trail has given way to more open skies and new vistas and a much-changed sunshine-to-shade profile. More painfully, the park’s iconic buildings, its lodge and visitors center and nearly every human-made structure in the park, have utterly vanished, consumed in the fire down to the last stick.

An interpretive panel touts the hardy redwoods that are Big Basin's namesake.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Less obvious, though, is that the landscape at Big Basin also looks quite different from what CZU left behind. The rehabilitation of the park’s central visitor core involved many California State Parks employees and volunteers who mobilized to clean up debris, clear fallen trees, save surviving ones and design and build new, albeit temporary, infrastructure. New split-rail fencing along the trails was milled on the site from downed trees. A shipping container now serves as a makeshift interpretive center.

The redwoods themselves are working to transform the area as well. Charred trees, largely stripped of their branches, many of them appearing to be dead, are covered with telltale signs of rejuvenation, green shoots. I see one tree, maybe 100 feet tall or more, that is coated with green, as if it’s wearing a tree sweater.

Bonny Hawley is the executive director of the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, a nonprofit support organization of the state parks in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. She’s also my guide on this visit to Big Basin during its first week of public visits. Bonny was among those who visited the park shortly after the fires.

“Remember that day when the whole sky was orange?” she says. “It was that day. It was already surreal. Everything was sepia, or black or brown with orange in the sky. And it was utter devastation. And some of these trees were still smoldering a year ago.”

An interpretive panel marks the spot where Big Basin's visitor center used to sit.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The stone steps to the visitors center now lead nowhere, but they’ll remain here as a kind of memorial to what used to be. Nearby is the stone chimney for the Big Basin Lodge, the oldest building in the park at the time of the fire, originally built in 1915. It’s also now gone, as is the park’s nature museum. Among the only surviving structures were a few metal stands for park signage. There is no electricity, potable water, or cellphone service in the park.

This summer, Big Basin has opened about 18 miles of trails and fire roads for day-use hikers. Overnight use is not yet permitted, and much of the Big Basin backcountry and the fabled Skyline to the Sea Trail remain closed. The park will open gradually, in stages, over the course of the coming months and years.

When infrastructure is rebuilt, it will be in a different area of the park, farther down Highway 236 toward Boulder Creek. For all the trauma and destruction of the CZU fires, it has certainly put a punctuation on a particular era in the park’s history, and allows park officials and others to reimagine what a new model of visitation might look like. Parks exist for public enjoyment, but the traffic and the crowds and the cars exert mighty pressures on the park’s natural resources. At least in terms of human interactions with the natural world, there is such a thing as loving something to death.

Reminders of Big Basin's recent past tower alongside a new pathway.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

By happenstance, we run into Traci Bliss, a historian who recently published a book on Big Basin’s history titled “Big Basin Redwood Forest: California’s Oldest State Park.” She tells me the wild story of the book’s publication, how it was originally set to be released in October 2020.

“I was just doing the final edits when the fires happened,” she says. “So I called the publisher and said, ‘Look, this book is dead in the water. Nobody is going to read about Big Basin with historic black-and-white photos when we have a forest that’s burning.’”

Bliss got an extension to include material about the fire and its direct aftermath in the book. But what I find to be one of the most intriguing, even haunting, parts of the book is a chapter on what Big Basin was like weeks before the fire, a story of overtaxed parks employees trying to keep the hordes of pandemic-stressed visitors from exploding in frustration over long waits and limited parking.

The world of cars lined up for miles and swarms of people around the visitors center is certainly a lost world, maybe forever. On the trail, sun-blasted where it used to be shaded, the trees stand like mourners at a funeral, but around their trunks and from their branches is a riot of new growth everywhere. The redwoods suffered a trauma in 2020, but since then they have experienced a respite from the strains of human attention. Their gift to us now is to remind us that if they can survive trauma, we can, too.

“I find it inspiring,” says Bonny Hawley as we stroll the Redwood Loop, “especially in these times we’re living in when resilience and hope are exactly what we’re desperately in need of. You can find it here.”

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