On August 16, 2020, a huge thunderstorm blitzed through Northern California. The massive system blasted nearly 11,000 lightning bolts, starting the “CZU Lightning Complex” fires that eventually chewed through 86,000 acres of land in two counties. Included in that total, nearly all of California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home of thousands of ancient redwood trees. The park has been closed for nearly two years, but come July 15, visitors can come and see just how resilient nature can be.
“The changes to Big Basin are profound, but the forest is starting to recover and it’s amazing to witness,” said California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent Chris Spohrer. “We want to share the recovery process with visitors, including telling the story of what happened, the status today and the plans for reimagining the park. We’re excited to be able to welcome visitors back on a limited basis as we near the two-year anniversary of the fire.”
“Profound” is a decided understatement about the changes the CZU fire has made at Big Basin. Originally opened in 1902, one can only imagine the changes made there to accommodate visitors. In 2020, Big Basin sported six different campgrounds with 146 campsites and 36 cabins. To check in, visitors would make a trip up the steps to the rustic park headquarters building. Today, only the steps and a chimney remain of the headquarters building. The campgrounds are but a memory.
As is often said after a disaster, “things” can be rebuilt. Lives are what matters. While little has been said about the parks fauna, much can be said about the flora. The central focus of the park is indeed the redwood forest. While the man-made structures of the park virtually exploded in the fast-moving fire, the redwoods proved far more resilient. While huge stands of Douglas fir trees perished, estimates are that a ratio of 9 out of 10 of the park’s redwood trees have survived the blaze.
That includes several well-known redwoods. One, the so-called “auto tree,” a popular “selfie-shot” in the early 20th century, is still there, standing tall. Two others, dubbed “Mother and Father of the Forest,” still hold their honored positions on Old Growth Loop. The loop is probably the most popular short walking trail in the park.
Recovery from the CZU fire has been happening in phases—for both parks and people. In the 20 months since the fire, most of the fire-scarred old-growth redwoods have been preserved through specialized hazard tree removal work. The Big Basin Volunteer Trail Crew, Trails Center volunteers, California Conservation Corps, and park volunteers have repaired trails in the park prior to the reopening.
If you visited Big Basin before the fire, be prepared for a “shock treatment” visit. While the redwoods remain, much of the rest of what you’ve known has dramatically changed. You probably won’t live long enough to see the park like it used to be. What will the future hold?
California State Parks has been engaging stakeholders and the public to “reimagine the future of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.” The process for reestablishing the park includes immediate recovery efforts, reimagining efforts to renew the vision for the park’s future, and long-term planning and implementation projects. You can read the draft Reimagining Big Basin Vision Summary here.
Part of “reimagining” the park will be to see it. Come July 15, Highway 236 will be reopened, allowing vehicle traffic to pass through the park. If you want to “stop and gawk” or to walk any of the reopened trails, you’ll need to have a reservation. The reservation system opened July 1. More about that below.
See it yourself?
“Managing parks for a healthy future for environmental systems as well as humanity could not be more important at this moment in history,” said California State Parks Director Armando Quintero. “We welcome all Californians and visitors from around the world as we enter the next era for this iconic and much beloved state park.”
If you decide to make a reservation that will allow you to explore the Redwood Loop and access about 18 miles of fire roads near the historic park core, be prepared. “Services are limited,” says the official announcement. The fire wiped out all of the park’s utility infrastructure. No electricity, power, water, or sewer systems—they’re all still a part of some distant future. And certainly, no place to overnight in your RV.
Future of camping at Big Basin
Just what does the future hold for camping? In the long term, the Big Basin vision statement sees new campgrounds and cabins, but outside of the old growth core of the park. Campgrounds will be built along Lodge Road, and at Little Basin. Two campgrounds that will NOT be rebuilt are Sempervirens and Blooms Creek.
Want to come and see for yourself? Here’s how the Big Basin Day-Use Reservation System works. Reservations are available online at Big Basin Redwoods State Park or by phone (831) 338-8867. Most spaces will be available up to 60 days in advance. A limited number of reservations will be released three days before the visit date. Initially, 45 spots are being offered daily. Preregistration is required. No day-of, drive-up entry will be available. Entry is $6, plus a $2 reservation fee, and will provide day-long access to the park. State Parks day-use passes and other park entry programs will be honored.