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A Look at Big Basin

By Larry Tierney

Like many Department of Parks and Recreation employees, I spent part of my 35-year career up at Big Basin. It was my first State Parks job. I’m currently on the Board of Directors of the park’s cooperating association, Mountain Parks Foundation and have had the opportunity to tour the park on several occasions with the most recent being a one-on-one visit with the current Mountain Sector Park Maintenance Chief, Juan Villarino. Juan was one of the many employees who lost a residence here, and it was enlightening to get his perspective while driving around on a wet and drippy day.

Juan and I met up at Saddle Mountain and I hopped in his truck. This is the summit of South Highway 236 where a large gate has been installed to keep the public out. Structures here survived the inferno, but the road into Little Basin can’t be used. My understanding is that the Little Basin area burned over and not much is left. We headed in towards the HQ area, passing the site of the Gatehouse. The park’s wastewater treatment plant is unscathed; whether it will ever be used again will be decided in the coming years.

From there we headed out to the day use area, with a stop at the Lodge parking lot to check out the portable milling operation. The plan is to use the milled lumber to rebuild structures throughout the park, starting with the park’s trail system; bridge stringers, retaining walls, handrails, and steps were destroyed. 

Debris has been cleaned up, and logs from felled hazard trees have been laid alongside roads, campsites, and day use areas. There are over 100 depressions in the ground where buildings used to be, which have now filled up with rainwater. The costs of bringing these sites back up to grade was not covered by FEMA and park staff is working on obtaining a contract to fix the problem.

Last bridge on North Escape Road over Opal Creek | Photo by Larry Tierney

We next drove out North Escape Road. The last bridge over Opal Creek had been destroyed. The steel I-beams were left, sagging from the heat, revealing the old redwood log stringers that were part of the original bridge. 

We headed back to the HQ area to check out the work being done on the Redwood Loop Trail. The good news is that the Mother and Father of the Forest are still standing. It is easy to get turned around as the trail disappears under fallen trees along the highway. The Big Basin Volunteer Trail Crew has been working under the direction of Chris Pereira, Santa Cruz District Roads and Trails Supervisor to clear the trail. I’m told that CalTrans wants Highway 236 open sometime in June, allowing traffic to flow through the park. The Redwood Loop Trail would be opened to visitors. How that will be managed has yet to be decided. There has been discussion about the Saddle Mountain area serving as a staging area for visitors. 

Big Basin’s reservoir | Photo by Larry Tierney

Recent rains have filled the Park’s reservoir to overflowing, making Sempervirens Falls quite a spectacle. The little dinghy that staff used to row to the creek inlet was half submerged by the spillway. The water plant looked untouched.

We drove past Sky Meadow Residence yard. One residence (#9?) stands untouched on the right-hand side and due to its historical significance might remain. The road to the maintenance shops and Upper Residence yard is undermined as Union Creek is cutting into it at the intersection of Lodge Road. Only the above ground fuel tanks remain. The residence above the shop was the first one to burn as the fire came down from above. It was chilling to see this shop yard as I had spent so much time up there early in my career and had lived in the shop residence for a while.

Final stop was the Sky Meadow Group Camp. The ramada is gone, but the two newer concrete vault toilets remained. It is still hard to believe that State Parks lost so much in the blink of an eye. How the park evolves from here, only time will tell.

Larry Tierney, is a member of the board of directors of Mountain Parks Foundation and is a retired State Parks Maintenance Chief.

Featured photo: The road to the maintenance shops and upper residence yard by Larry Tierney

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the California State Park Rangers Association “Wave” newsletter, Winter 2022 by Larry Tierney. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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