Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hike // Berry Creek Falls Loop, Big Basin Redwoods SP

berry creek falls

If I had to pick a single favorite hike in the bay area it would probably be The Berry Creek Falls Loop. It has beautiful old growth redwood forests, enchanting rivers and creeks, and of course powerful waterfalls. When I say this hike has it all, it isn't hyperbole. The entire loop roams the depths of the state's oldest state park for 12.1 miles and offers plenty of variations in terrain from fern-lined gullies, stair ascents of rock cliffs, and sandstone covered hills. The hike will take up most of your day and isn't the easiest, but every inch of this hike is worth it.

Hike Summary
Difficulty Strenuous
Distance 12.1 Miles
Popularity Very Popular
Peak Season Winter, Spring
Fees $10 Parking Fee

The hike begins at the parking lot and immediately offers towering old growth redwoods; ancients that have stood since the reign of Julius Caesar. After just a short walk over Opal Creek the trail intersects the Skyline-To-The-Sea trail. The sign indicates Berry Creek is to the left, however this hike could easily be done in reverse by going to the right and connecting with the Sunset Trail. Beylah and I found the trail so wet initially that it had literally become a small creek though the area is quite dry in the summer and fall months.

After about .2 miles the trail starts uphill until about the 1 mile mark where it crosses the broad Middle Ridge Road. On the other side there is a small sign warning that the Berry Creek Falls hike is strenuous and will take about 6 hours to complete.

big basin second growth

The straight trunks of second growth redwood forest.

In truth the hiking itself is pretty moderate with only a few tough climbs, it is however fairly long. A strong hiker can probably expect to complete the loop in about 5 hours. Beylah and I clocked in at about 6 1/2 hours including lunch and lots of stops for exploration and photography along the way.

On the other side of Middle Ridge the trail drops down; except for a couple small bumps in the trail its all downhill until the falls. The trail weaves down into a small gully through tall redwood stands passing a connector to the sunset trail (skyline-to-the-sea continues to the left of this fork). Eventually the sound of babbling brooks breaks the calm of the forest as the trail drops along to follow Kelly Creek.

kelly creek

Small waterfall along Kelly Creek.

The trail basically keeps to the bank of Kelly Creek for the next 1 1/2 to 2 miles. The trail is intersected frequently by small runoff steams all of which can either be jumped easily or have bridges to cross them. This is also prime banana slug country, we spotted three which is the absolute minimum number I've noticed along this leg of the trail. Eventually Kelly Creek spills into West Wadell Creek right at the Timms Creek Trail intersection.

timms creek

A small waterfall just after the Timms Creek Trail fork.

Bridge over West Wadell Creek.

West Wadell is a much more powerful watercourse which creates a number of beautiful waterfalls and constant whitewater as it travels along the side of the trail. The terrain becomes slightly more rugged as it weaves through a tighter canyon. The trail cuts through and around fallen redwoods, up some slight hills, down a stepped descent, and eventually over a small two-part bridge to the other side of the creek.

After the bridge it is only about 10 minutes to the hikes namesake, Berry Creek Falls. Except in late fall the falls are almost always roaring and on a winter day develop gusting winds as a torrent of water spills over the lip of the falls. There is a small bench as the falls first come in to view but better views are available a short distance up the trail from a viewing platform near the fall's base. After the bench follow the sound of the falls away from the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail and up Berry Creek Falls trail which is a right at the trail junction.

Past the falls the trail climbs up the hill and along West Berry Creek to three more waterfalls. After looping through the forest again along the bank of the creek the first comes into view along with a large climbing segment right along the cliffs to the top of the falls. About 100 steps cut their way up the side of the cliff right to the lip of the falls, within reach of the torrent as it spills over the side. The near the top are very wet for obvious reasons and care, as well as a good grip to the railing should be maintained going up or down. For me personally this is the highlight of the hike, you just can't get any closer to the falls without being flushed down to the bottom.

silver falls

The top of Silver Falls.

Immediately from the top of Silver Falls, the lower falls of the Golden Cascade come in to view. These are less powerful, smaller falls that roll down a steep rock face rather than drop like the previous two falls. The orange-yellow rock shows through the falls giving them their golden color to which they owe their name. Because there is less of a spray from these cascades they make wonderful places to have lunch. Small pebble shoals with plenty of logs to sit on right at the bottom of the falls make for the best spots to stop for a bite.

golden cascade

My favorite waterfall on the hike; Upper Golden Cascade.

After the falls the trail ducks up a short uphill segment again towards Sunset Camp, a great backpack camp, with some bathrooms if the sound of all that running water inspires the need to use them. There is a brief opportunity to continue straight along the creek however this is a dead-end trail and waste of time. Continue up-hill and to the right at the false, unsigned trail. Further up the hill a real trail fork will offer a chance to visit the Sunset Camp and its bathrooms however in this instance continue straight through along the flat terrain which has now become the Sunset Trail. The terrain also changes from forest to the famous Santa Cruz mountains sand hills. Sandstone and gravel caps at the top of many of the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Several bends open up to sweeping views of the redwood forest below while in the sand hill area. The hiking around here gets tough though, the sandstone is tough to get traction on and Beylah twister her ankle climbing over some boulders so caution should be exercised (she was fine for the rest of the hike but found a golf-ball sized bump after the hike).

The sand hills eventually give way to the redwood forest again. The next 5 miles become a bit of a grind as the trail dips up and down over the east fork of Berry Creek, the north fork of Wadell Creek and many other unnamed creeks.

After the final creek crossing, the trail traverses one last major hill and then skims along its shoulder up to a cross-trail which returns to skyline-to-the-sea. It is slightly faster to stay on Sunset Trail, as it crosses middle ridge road again, and back in to the headquarters area.

tims creek bridge

Tims Creek Bridge

As the sounds of campers and cars breaks the calmness of the forest the Sunset Trail ends along opal creek, joining skyline-to-the-sea and returning towards the parking lot after a couple right turns back in the old growth redwoods.

Hike Video


  1. "Walking is the first meditation, the exact balance between spirit and humility." -Gary Snyder

  2. Looks very inviting.

    The overlook image at the top is one of my favorite photos in this blog post.


  3. Thanks for your blog - visiting the bay area from Texas this weekend and decided to try this hike. Really enjoyed it and give it two thumbs up. Saw several banana slugs (wow), wonderful trees, and the main falls are very beautiful. I hiked in early in the morning and would advise this...only saw one person on the way in but probably 100 on the way out.